From Harvard Slacker To Wimbledon To Buffett’s Professor And Partner: Meet Lemann, Brazil’s Richest
Warren Buffett met Jorge Paulo Lemann in the early 1990s when both sat at the board of razor maker Gillette and have been “good friends,” as Buffett himself said, ever since. Last week, Buffett went to Sao Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital, to meet Lemann and finalize the largest deal in the food industry’s history, the $28 billion acquisition of Heinz. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway will come in as the banker while Lemann’s 3G will manage the multi-billion joint venture. “This is my kind of deal and my kind of partner,” said the Oracle of Omaha.
Brazil’s richest person, worth $17.8 billion, $5.8 billion more than last year mainly thanks to his stake in Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest beer company, Lemann controls Burger King in addition to the makers of Budweiser beer.
Despite his involvement with some of the world’s best known brands, little is known about Lemann himself.
Turns out he was a slacker at Harvard, played at Wimbledon and was a one-time journalist.
In a speech to students organized by his foundation Estudar, which provides merit-based scholarships to young Brazilians willing to study in universities like Harvard, the intensely private and media-shy billionaire finally revealed himself:
“Maybe I was accepted to Harvard only because of my tennis skills since I definitively had not great academic achievements.”
“My first year at Harvard was horrible. I was only 17 and I missed the beach and the sun a lot. Boston was too cold for me. It was my first time in the USA and I was not used to study or to write; we have to write a lot in Harvard. My grades were the worst possible. In the last day of classes in my freshman year, I decided to light fireworks in the Harvard yard. The celebration was a success among my peers but I was caught at the moment I was lighting the fireworks up. When I arrived in Brazil for vacation, my parents showed me a letter from Harvard that recommended me to stay in Brazil for a year. The letter alleged I was not mature enough and recommended me to take a one year break before going back to Harvard.”
“At that time I was deciding if I should go back to Harvard or not. I did not like Harvard. I wanted to go to “the real world” to start working as soon as possible. I analyzed the letter carefully and realized that it recommended I stayed in Brazil for a year but it did not require my absence. I ended up returning to Harvard because of my family’s pressure; they wanted me to have a Harvard diploma. Eventually, I decided to go back to Harvard but finish my studies as quickly as possible. I focused in graduating in only two years instead of three.”
“I developed a system for choosing new classes. I interviewed former students and professors before signing up for any classes. I also found out that previous exams were available in the library. Soon, I realized that professors usually repeat their questions. This methodology allowed me to know exactly what I would learn before signing up for any class. It also helped me to change my status from one of the students with the worst grades to a top student while taking six or seven classes per semester instead of only four as most of my peers. I was in the dean’s list and graduated when I was only 20.”
Lemann admitted that he regrets he did not engage in more networking activities during his time in Boston:
“I could have learned so much more in Harvard. Harvard is an experience you absorb, you don’t only learn precise things but you absorb Harvard by meeting people, networking, talking to professors. When I was a student, Paul Samuelson, Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Kissinger were professors. However, I did not take advantage of any of this. My focus was to study and graduate as soon as possible.”
After graduating from Harvard, he worked as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro, then as a trainee for Credit Suisse in Switzerland. He quit to join the European tennis circuit for a year and a half, winning the Swiss nationals and even playing at Wimbledon. He decided to stop when he “realized it would be hard to be among the 10 best in the world,” as he told a Brazilian magazine.
Lemann, whose Swiss father emigrated to Brazil a century ago, went back to Latin America’s largest country in 1963 and worked in various financial institutions for 8 years. He would later go back to live in Switzerland for a while after a kidnapping attempt on his children.
His first big success was at Brazilian investment Bank Garantia, which he cofounded as a brokerage firm with three partners in 1971 and sold to Credit Suisse First Boston in 1998 for $675 million. At Bank Garantia, Lemman imitated Goldman Sachs’ method of handing stock shares to the most brilliant executives. That is also where he first worked with Marcel Herrmann Telles, who started as a trainee, and with Carlos Alberto Sicupira, whom he had met while surfing in Rio de Janeiro. The trio became inseparable and have been acting together in every major transaction ever since. (Read: Brazil’s Richest Owns Burger King, Budweiser, Heinz, And More and The Burger King Deal Winners: Three Brazilian Billionaires).
The three billionaire musketeers are good friends and not only work together but also spent most of their (very limited) spare time together. Lemann is not the only one obsessed with sports. Sicupira, also known as Beto, holds multiple world records for underwater spearfishing. On the website of the Brazilian spearfishing confederation, Beto appears with a giant Blue Marlin, weighing 301 kilos.
Brazil’s richest is also serious about philanthropy, having, for instance, not only set up the Fundacao Estudar but also the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies at the University of Illinois through a $14 million donation and a professorship named after him at Harvard Business School. Given his ties to Buffett and his committment to philanthropy, we would not be surprised if Lemann becomes the first Brazilian to sign the Giving Pledge.