Brazil's Eike Batista and the making of a billionaire

Fred Langan on a Brazilian mining magnate's Canadian connection

It was a bit of a shocker. There on the cover of Forbes magazine — its billionaire issue, no less — was someone I had met a few times back in the late-1980s.

Today, Eike Batista is the richest man in Brazil and, according to Forbes, the eighth richest man in the world, with a net worth of $27.1 billion.

What's more, Batista, who is 53, made the fastest move up the Forbes list in the past year, jumping over more than 50 other billionaires, thanks to his investment in the huge new oilfields off the coast of Brazil.

Mining and oil magnate Eike Batista, Brazil's golden boy, holds up the left side of a $4.5-million US cheque he donated to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games bid in April 2009. (Associated Press)

He only went into the oil business in 2007 after building his wealth mostly in gold mining. And that foray into oil involved at least one of his many Canadian connections.

A big partner in that initial $800-million investment in offshore oil leases was the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan.

The teachers' plan was just one of a number of influential Canadian investors Batista had been cultivating for the better part of two decades.

Already a legend

I met Batista for the first time not long after he came to Toronto in the early '80s and haven't seen him for at least 22 years. Though I remember him, I doubt he would remember me.

Fred Langan is the CBC business reporter based in Toronto.

I was working as a freelance financial journalist at the time and was always looking for a new story to sell. Some contacts of mine invited me to a dinner with their new partner, a 30-year-old Brazilian who was already a bit of legend.

As a young businessman, he was working with Canadians to raise money on the Toronto stock exchange for mining properties he was developing in Brazil, Chile and other parts of South America.

One of the gold mining properties, I recall, specialized in "alluvial mining," a process that used giant dredges to strain gold from rivers much the same way old-fashioned prospectors panned for gold in the Yukon.

The promoters of the mining operation organized tours of the sites in South America and I managed to tag along and cover it for two papers, one in Britain and the other in the United States.

Colonial gold

The company was called TVX, short for Treasure Valley Explorations, long since defunct but, at the time, a successful start-up.

Brazil's Eike Batista, the eighth richest man on the planet, according to the Forbes magazine list of billionaires. (Associated Press)

We drove up into the Andes across what a company geologist described as stretches of barren lava from when the mountains were active volcanoes.

If you passed a mountain stream, the area around it was lush and green because of the rich soil and the heat.

It hardly ever rains up there. But occasionally we could see patches of green in the valleys below, which I was told were vineyards being fed water by trickle irrigation.

Our objective that trip was an abandoned gold mine at an altitude of 4,400 metres above sea level. Later, Batista told me he found many of his gold properties by studying old Spanish colonial records.

Where there once was gold, he reckoned, there probably still is some to be mined, especially using modern techniques.

Home base

From Santiago we went to Rio, where Batista was proud to show us around his home base.

He told us stories about how he started in his 20s going into the Brazilian jungle to buy small amounts of gold from garimpeiros, the tough-minded prospectors who panned and dug for gold on small pieces of land they had staked out.

Those transactions became the basis of his fortune. One story he told stuck with me.

After bargaining with one miner, Batista refused to pay his price and called him a bastard. As he walked away the garimpeiro shot him in the back.

Batista survived, obviously, but learned a lesson. "You never call a Brazilian a bastard."


From Rio, we went inland to look at an alluvial gold mining project.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva shows the first sample of oil from one of the country's new offshore drilling sites in September 2008. The offshore find represents the biggest oil discovery in the Western hemisphere in 30 years. (Associated Press)

I had seen similar dredges clearing the silt from harbours in Canada, but here they were sifting gold through giant strainers.

The company itself was only briefly a success, though many of the men on trip went on to do well. One of them was Ian Telfer, the Canadian chartered accountant who went on to become chairman of Vancouver-based Goldcorp.

There was another Canadian connection in Batista's rise up the ladder, though I didn't know it at the time.

At a formal dinner in Rio, I sat beside Eliezer Batista de Silva, Eike Batista's father. An engineer by training, he was, at the time, Brazil's minister of mines.

In the Forbes article, both father and son insisted there had been no nepotism in the younger man's successes.

The father is 85 and still active. After his political career he became head of the state-owned mining company and, when it went private several years ago, he stayed on as chairman.

That company is Vale, which is now the owner of Vale Inco in Canada, with assets in three provinces but especially Ontario where the Brazilian company is locked in a bitter battle with the union — the longest strike ever at Sudbury's nickel mines.

"He never let me near Vale," the son told Forbes in that interview. "I wasn't allowed because he was afraid of a conflict of interest."

Just as well, perhaps, given how things have worked out. Eike Batista seems to be doing pretty well on his own, sticking in Brazil and trying to move up the list of the richest people in the world.