NEW YORK — He spent his youth surfing on the beaches of Leblon, Rio’s most affluent neighborhood. He also had a certain talent for tennis, having been crowned national champion five times, participated in Wimbledon and two Davis Cups. This could have been the accomplishment of a lifetime — but for Jorge Lemann, it was a tragedy. These competitions proved to him he would never be among the world's top 10 players. So he left his racket in his locker and focused on business.
The career change was successful. And this time, nobody doubts that he's among the very best. Lemann might be unknown to most people, but in billionaire circles he's the subject of much devotion. "He's the best," says Bill Ackman, a Wall Street investor who rarely compliments anyone. To Warren Buffett, who tries to do as much business with Lemann as he can, “Jorge Lemann is a great master."
Still, his notoriety is nowhere close to that of his peers. Despite being among the world's 30 richest people, he's the most secretive billionaire on the planet. Neither he nor his close friends or associates agreed to an interview.
At 75, he maintains a contempt for journalists and urges those who work with him never to mention his name in public. The brands he owns do the talking for him: From Budweiser to the fast-food chain Burger King, not to mention Heinz and the Maxwell House coffee brand, Lemann dominates entire sections of the American food industry. His investment firm 3G is quietly becoming one of the most powerful conglomerates in America. And tennis is still a part of his life: Rumor has it that Swiss champion Roger Federer is one of 3G's main shareholders.
But back to the 1960s. That's when Jorge Lemann abandoned the tennis courts for Harvard. "My tennis level played an important part in my application being accepted," the billionaire recently told the 2013 graduating class. The young man didn't necessarily dazzle by his seriousness. After a year, he was almost expelled for setting off fireworks on campus. "The school suggested I take a sabbatical to grow up a bit." But instead of prolonging his education, Lemann decided to do the exact opposite: He took on a maximum number of classes so he could graduate in two years instead of three.
He waved goodbye to Cambridge and returned to Boston. There, the young man happily returned to his surfing days but still couldn’t figure out what to do with his life. After an internship at Crédit Suisse, he worked as a journalist for a few months — the height of irony for a man who then went on to spend the rest of his life running away from the press. A decade later he found his niche.
At 31, he bought Garantia, a shabby brokerage firm in downtown Rio. Instead of poaching senior bankers from competitors, he recruited poor young Brazilians with an unquenchable thirst for success. He called them the PSD, "Poor and Smart with a deep Desire to get rich." In just 10 years, he built a top-notch bank with annual profits of more than $1 billion. Or to put it in the words of the country's press, Brazil’s Goldman Sachs.
"The three musketeers"
Lemann indeed cloned the Wall Street organization. He would reward the best workers by imposing fixed wages lower than average and bonuses that could reach several times the annual salary. He opened the capital to those he reckoned deserved it more. Among those were Carlos Sicupira and Marcel Telles, two young men who became like brothers to Lemann and who co-founded 3G Capital with him 40 years later, in 2004. The name is a tribute to the friendship that binds the three of them together, and to Garantia.
The “three musketeers” were in their early 30s and eager to emulate what was working best around the world. "They're not geniuses — they're sponges," says businessman Claudio Galeazzi, who rubbed shoulders with them a lot in the 1980s. "They have no shame in copying the best management models. They improve them by bringing in their own touch," he adds.
The three men thus wrote to the world leading CEOs to understand the secrets of their success. Walmart founder Sam Walton welcomed them to his Arkansas headquarters. He told them about his hatred of wasteful spending. The young Brazilians had just found their mentor, the one who inspired their thirst for savings. "Costs are like nails. You need to constantly trim them," Carlos Sicupira often says.
Their other role model was General Electric founder Jack Welsh. The three amigos borrowed his famous 20-70-10 principle, which consists of promoting the 20% to the top, keeping the 70% in the center and laying off the worst 10%.
In the mid-1990s, Lemann reached a peak. That’s when he began questioning every expense, without considering those of previous years. This method, called zero-based budgeting, is the most radical way to reduce costs.
"This can lead to getting rid of entire services, which had only been maintained because they had always existed," explains Bain Consulting's Paul Cichocki. In just a few years, half of employees for the Brahma beer brand that he bought lost their jobs. Lemann's ruthlessness became so legendary that it prompted Margaret Thatcher to visit him in 1994.
Not a perfect record
Lemann also took too many risks. He threw himself headlong in the purchase of Brazilian bonds, without seeing that a panic movement was about to hit developing countries in 1997. Interest rates skyrocketed, making Garantia lose hundreds of millions of dollars. The following year, Lemann was forced to sell his bank to Crédit Suisse for $675 million, a fraction of what it had been worth a few months before.
The former tennis player, still unaccustomed to the taste of defeat, was in the doldrums. A personal tragedy added to his professional woes. One morning in March 1999, a group of men tried to take his three children hostage while they were being driven to school. The kidnappers fired 20 gunshots but only one managed to break the car’s reinforced windows, wounding the driver. The children were unharmed, and their father sent them directly to school, regardless of what had just happened. He himself attended all planned meetings that same day. The event is remembered as the one and only time he arrived late to work. Still, it deeply affected him. A few weeks later, he left Brazil and moved his family to Switzerland, where his grandparents on his father’s side — to whom he owes his last name — came from.
He still lives there and is the second-richest man in Switzerland. But Lemann is not the sort of person to place his hoard in Geneva's banks. His wealth was reinvested in New York, where he created his investment firm 3G in 2004. And it's from Manhattan that he hopes to form one of the most powerful conglomerates in America.
The last decade has already set the pace. In 2008, Lemann used his position in the beer industry to purchase the Budweiser brand, and with it the Anheuser-Busch empire. Two years later, he got his hands on Burger King. Then came Heinz in a partnership with Warren Buffett, which, on top of his fortune, gave him a sort of moral endorsement among employees and investors.
Last month, the pair bought Kraft Foods, thus adding more iconic products to their list of assets, such as Maxwell coffee, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and others. From condiments and burgers to beers and sausages, Lemann now dominates American food brands.
But unlike his friend Warren Buffett, who admits to eating "like a 6-year-old," Lemann has remained faithful to dried fruit and green salads. He had never eaten at Burger King before he bought it. "Too big," he said after eating his first burger.
His only passion is to put the companies he reckons are obese on a diet, even when they're just slightly overweight. Heinz had already been affected by Nelson Peltz's zeal, as the activist investor is also a cost-killing aficionado. But that was nothing compared to the Lemann diet program.
When Peltz took over the group, the Brazilian laid off one-quarter of the employees at the company’s headquarters and 5% of its global workforce. He closed seven factories and put an end to individual offices, forcing managers to join their workers in open spaces. Of the 12 managing directors, he kept only one. Gone are the days when leaders could stay in Carlton hotels. They're now forced to stay in more modest Holiday Inns.
The rules are no different for Burger King employees, who are allowed to make a maximum of 200 photocopies per month — not a single one more. Those who work at the headquarters remember their meeting with Bernardo Hees, then the group's CEO, who had seen all of them in his office for 15 minutes to ask them the following three questions: What have you done for the company? In what way did this improve sales? What suggestions to you have for the company?
Those who couldn't answer were fired. The 3G formula also involves working with younger and cheaper managers. Burger King's new CEO is a 33-year-old who previously worked for the investment firm. His financial director is 26.