Maria das Graças Foster, 56, has recently taken over as president of Latin America’s largest company, Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. Trained as a mechanical engineer, the new CEO was nominated for the post by another powerful Brazilian woman, President Di
SAO PAULO – The 23rd floor of Petrobras' headquartersin Rio de Janeiro has a new occupant, and for the first time in the company's history, that person – as in the president of state-owned oil giant – is a she.
Last week, Maria das Graças Foster, the head of the gas and petroleum division at Petrobas, took over the post formerly occupied by José Sérgio Gabrielli. His will be a hard act to follow, given that he multiplied the company's revenues by six in the years that he served as company president. The stock market, nevertheless, reacted positively to news of the new CEO's appointment, registering an immediate bump.
Graça Foster, as she is known, has been a life-long civil servant, both at Petrobras and in the government. Her appointment was approved by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff herself, with whom Graça Foster has a long-standing professional relationship. Petrobras, a public-private hybrid company, does have private stockholders, but the government holds 64% of the company's stock, enough to call the shots.
Graça Foster was a very strong candidate for the position, and the company's stocks jumped immediately after her appointment. According to Marco Aurélio Barbosa, a financial analyst, Graça Foster has a very strong track record in the company, as well as important technical knowledge. "She took over divisions that were losing money and managed to turn them around and make them profitable," he says.
Many experts, including Barbosa, say that they do not expect any major changes in Petrobras's management, in spite of the fact that Graça Foster's style is distinctly different from her predecessor.
Graça Foster, who came from humble beginnings, studied chemical engineering and has a Master's degree in mechanical engineering in addition to an MBA from the Fundación Getúlio Vargas. She began working at Petrobras in 1978 as a student intern, and rose in the ranks until, in 2003, the then-minister of energy and mines, Dilma Rousseff, invited her to become the secretary of petroleum, natural gas and biofuel. In 2007 Graça Foster took over the strategic direction of gas and petroleum at Petrobras.
Graça Foster, who is said to have an aggressive temperament, has earned the nickname "Maria Caveirão," in reference to the armored vehicles used by the military police in Rio de Janeiro. Like Dilma Rousseff", she's a member of the Worker's party and is also a technocrat.
That political coziness could have its negative aspects, especially since investors have long seen Petrobras as susceptible to interference from the Brazilian government. Her appointment is also attracting a lot of attention for the simple fact that she is a woman. Economically speaking, her position is indeed a powerful one. Petrobras is Latin America's largest company and, by some measures, the eighth largest in the world.
Political scientist David Fleischer of the University of Brasilia says that "there is still a lot of opposition against Graça simply because she is a woman. For a long time, her rise was blocked by José Dirceu, the former chief of staff for President Lula." Dirceu was forced to resign amid a major scandal involving payoffs to law-makers. "Without Dirceu in her way, she was free to rise," says Fleischer.
Another controversy surrounding Graça Foster was revealed last year by the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. According to a note published by the newspaper, the company C Foster, which belongs to Colin Vaugham Foster, Graça Foster's husband, signed 42 contracts with Petrobras between 2007 and 2010, of which 20 did not go through an open bidding process. C Foster said that the lack of open bidding was due to the relatively minor sums involved. The Financial Times, in a follow-up report, discovered that those contracts were worth up to $350,000. When the Financial Times contacted Colin Foster, he told the reporter that his company did not have any contracts with Petrobras or its subsidiaries.
In the next couple of months, Graça Foster will have to prove that the contracts with her husband's company are not cause for concern. And she will also have to show that the continuing fears of governmental intervention can be overcome. But for the most part, her appointment as the first woman to lead this major company did not surprise anyone.
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