Billionaire’s Empire Unexpectedly Thrives in Top Covid Hotspot

In a country where so much is going so wrong for so many people, the billionaire Rubens Menin is a very fortunate man.

Menin, 64, is Brazilian. And not only is he not one of the 1.76 million people in the country who’ve been infected with Covid-19 -- a rapidly-increasing tally that now includes the quarantining president -- but his principal business is thriving in an economy that is sinking.

That business is building small houses for lower-income Brazilians, an industry that seemed certain to collapse when the pandemic hit. Menin himself had been bracing for his company -- MRV Engenharia & Participacoes, the world’s third-biggest homebuilder -- to post as much as a 50% plunge in sales, but to his surprise, he said, “the market didn’t slow down.”

Billionaire’s Empire Unexpectedly Thrives in Top Covid Hotspot

MRV’s net sales soared to a record in the second quarter, an 8.4% increase from the first three months of the year that Menin called a “strong” performance.

His success provides a window into an under-appreciated aspect of the Brazilian economy today. Policy makers, for all their struggles, have managed to drive interest rates down to a record low without sparking a run on the currency or a spike in inflation. At 2.25%, the benchmark Selic rate is at a level that would have been unfathomable years ago in a country renowned for its sky-high highest borrowing costs. (As recently as 2017, the Selic was over 10%.)

It is these rock-bottom rates that are fueling the boom in demand for MRV’s micro-homes and padding Menin’s fortune, which, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has climbed to an estimated $1.4 billion. In recent years, he has used his growing cash pile to expand his empire, which now includes logistics, fintechs, a Brazilian version of CNN and even soccer.

At the first signs of the crisis, Menin said he prepped for the worst. As the pandemic spread, MRV postponed project launches in April, although it held off on firing employees for 60 days. Another of his companies, LOG Commercial Properties & Participacoes, the owner and operator of a network of warehouses that MRV spun off in 2018, discussed changing its four-year investment plan, in which it envisioned delivering 1 million square meters of storage space by 2024.

But with home sales holding up and record low contract cancellations on its projects, MRV has restarted some launches. And with the pace of e-commerce accelerating, demand for LOG’s warehouses is booming, Menin said. Both MRV and LOG are now “discreetly hiring,” and Menin says he’s cautiously optimistic.

“Some smaller firms are not coming back from this,” he said. But “once the health crisis is over, I think there will be an even stronger comeback than some expect.”

Even his foray into American real estate is doing better than he hoped for at the onset of the pandemic. MRV purchased earlier this year a firm that Menin himself created in the U.S., AHS Residential, to compete in the affordable-housing market.

Menin spoke during an interview first at MRV headquarters in Belo Horizonte late last year, that ended in an airport waiting room as a private jet was prepped to spirit him off to Sao Paulo. And then more recently in a followup by phone.

Investors seem to share some of his optimism. LOG, after losing half its market value between Jan. 1 and mid-March, has since recouped those losses and its shares are up 7.4% for the year. MRV has fallen 6% year-to-date, although it’s outperforming the benchmark Ibovespa stock index, which is down 14%. The homebuilder has been rallying over the past days after it released second quarter figures and was up as much as 4.3% on Friday, to the highest price since February.

Like many “Mineiros” -- as people born in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state are known -- Menin has a certain modesty about him that stands at odds with executives from the breakneck Sao Paulo or flashy Rio de Janeiro. He’s soft-spoken yet verbose; relaxed yet measured; versed but sometimes evasive.

Menin is “a phenomenal entrepreneur, who managed to build a company in a sector in which a lot of people failed,” said Fabio Alperowitch, co-founder at FAMA Investimentos Ltda., one of Brazil’s oldest equity funds, who invests both in MRV and LOG. He says he expected MRV sales to fall “near zero“ when the pandemic kicked off.

Menin is a third-generation civil engineer (His two sons make it a fourth, and his mother was only the third woman ever to graduate with a civil engineering degree in Minas Gerais). At 18, he worked as an intern helping to supervise construction in poor areas, an experience that shaped his future business model.

Decades later, MRV carved out its niche by focusing on homes for low-income brackets. At the beginning of the 2000s, the firm benefited as waves of Brazilians entered the swelling middle class, buoyed by the global commodities boom and the government largesse it afforded. A 2009 program introduced by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gave poor families heavily subsidized loans to buy homes. Menin was an adviser on the program -- and MRV a key beneficiary.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for the types of houses he’s selling and he managed to create a technology to build them in an industrial scale,” said Alberto Ajzental, a professor at Fundacao Getulio Vargas’ School of Business Administration.

Today, MRV has a market value of 9.7 billion reais ($1.8 billion). Menin’s son Rafael splits the CEO role with Eduardo Fischer, while his daughter, Maria Fernanda, is legal director. His youngest son, Joao Vitor, heads Banco Inter, which was founded as a consumer lender by Menin in 1994 and rebranded in 2017 as an online bank. SoftBank Group Corp. owns about 15% of Banco Inter, the Menin’s clan most valuable business.

All together, it’s a legacy that has thrust Menin into the spotlight plenty of times over the years -- including, most recently, for his decision to back CNN’s foray in Brazil. Controversy followed when it was announced Douglas Tavolaro, a 17-year veteran of an evangelical TV network founded by bishop and outspoken Bolsonaro supporter Edir Macedo, would run the channel. CNN debuted on March and so far, though it has given room to more Bolsonaro-aligned voices than some of its peers, it also has clashed with government representatives in interviews.

Menin himself is a critic of how Brazil is handling the pandemic. “Brazil is a continental country and everyone was rowing in different directions,” he said. That’s caused “exhaustion” among Brazilians who are giving up on lock-downs that were implemented “at the wrong time” and held markets and the economic rebound back.

He’s been trying to help by shelling out more cash in philantropy, handing out money to NGOs and hospitals at a faster pace than he expected, he says. He’s also embarked on another recent spending spree: Soccer.

Menin’s handing no-interest loans to help out his favorite team, Minas Gerais’s Atletico Mineiro. He declined to say how much capital he’s injected, although local media estimates the team has spent 55 million reais on new hires this year. This time, he doesn’t see it so much as an investment as a mission.

“Brazilian soccer has lost its luster,” said Menin, who wore a neck brace during the telephone interview after taking a fall while playing the game with his grandchildren and their friends at his country home. “We were once proud to have the best soccer in the world and that’s something I want to get back.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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