Engineer Norberto Odebrecht — patriarch of the company that bears his name — will be 93 years old Wednesday. After working out with a personal trainer each morning, he still goes to work every day at the Odebrecht Foundation.
And he’s still available to offer a hand in shaping new generations of Odebrecht executives, including his grandson, Marcelo Bahia Odebrecht, current president and chief executive of the Odebrecht holding company.
Since taking the helm at the end of 2008, Marcelo Odebrecht, 44, said the most important lesson he has learned is to “trust people.’’ And the most valuable lesson he learned from his grandfather, he said, has been “the ethic of work.’’
The first Odebrecht arrived in Brazil in 1856. Even then, construction seemed to be in the family’s blood. Emil Odebrecht, a German engineer, settled in southern Brazil, where he did surveys, participated in road construction and had 15 children.
One grandson, Emilio, went on to form his own construction company and became a pioneer in using reinforced concrete in Brazil. But the company didn’t thrive as World War II broke out in Europe. Imported construction materials were expensive and hard to get, and Emilio decided to give up the business.
His son, Norberto, had other ideas. In 1941, he took over the company, which was located in Salvador, Bahia, at the time.
He visited the company’s creditors, promising to pay them — but saying that they needed to help him get work so he could repay them. Three years later, Norberto founded his own company, the one considered the precursor of today’s Odebrecht empire.
From the beginning, Norberto shared proceeds with job superintendents and the rest of the profits from a project were reinvested in the company. That model became one of the founding pillars of today’s Odebrecht, which — despite its size — remains a family-controlled enterprise.
“We are very decentralized,’’ said Marcelo Odebrecht during a visit to Miami. “We like to be local every place we are.’’
That means the conglomerate likes working with local partners and being involved in the communities where it has projects.
Six to seven months before a major project, Marcelo Odebrecht said, the company likes to go to a city and begin to train and qualify people if an adequate labor force isn’t available. “We like the idea of picking up young people and training them,” he said.
Odebrecht said he doesn’t get involved in decisions on the operations level and has no grand vision where the company should be in 10 years. He sees his role as somewhat akin to the Queen of England in preserving the culture and traditions of the enterprise.
“If we have enough knowledge and people understand and practice our culture, they will understand where we need to be,’’ he said. “If we have the right people, the business will come as a consequence.
“We need to grow organically. If we grow faster than we can provide new leaders, then there will be a bottleneck,’’ he said. “It’s not enough to be qualified but leaders also must be integrated into our culture.’’
Odebrecht employees are known as members, and it’s not unusual for sons and daughters of employees to work for Odebrecht companies as well.
Future executives undergo a one-year training program where they’re drilled on case studies.
“The life stories of leaders are presented. We talk with leaders from various divisions and generations,’’ says Renata Pinheiro, who went through the training program. She previously worked at Odebrecht USA but is now director of people and communication at Odebrecht Defense and Technology in Rio de Janeiro.
Norberto Odebrecht is still involved in sharing his life stories with up-and-coming Odebrecht employees.
Marcelo Odebrecht took the reins at Constructora Norberto Odebrecht, the construction company, in 2002 and then six years later was promoted to leadership of the entire Odebrecht operation — a role once held by his father Emilio, who is Odebrecht’s chairman.
But Marcelo started humbly enough, working briefly in the Miami office as a 21-year-old intern in 1991. He returned in 1994 as the project manager on the construction of a Brickell Avenue building, Fortune House, before returning to Brazil and working in the petrochemical and construction divisions.
Salvador remained the Odebrecht headquarters for many years. Then the company moved to Rio de Janeiro, and it has been headquartered in Sao Paulo since 2002.
The Odebrecht Foundation, whose goal is to develop rural communities to make them sustainable and avoid an exodus to the cities, is still located in Bahia.
It was Marcelo’s father Emilio who decided in 1979 that Odebrecht needed to go international. The first international project — a tunnel for a hydroelectric project — was in Arequipa, Peru.
Since then Odebrecht has become the largest construction company in Latin America, and also has worked extensively in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia.
“In Latin America and Africa in general there is a lot of promise, especially in infrastructure projects and anything related to agro-business,’’ said Marcelo Odebrecht.