Nature’s Bounty

March 14, 2009 at 4:46 pm | Posted in School, Travel | Leave a comment
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Behind the Vale

Time to get serious. To the business of business.

logo_valeOur first visit was with Vale, a $60B Brazilian mining company focusing on the extraction of iron ore, nickel, copper, and, recently, coal. Having seen their revenues skyrocket since they transformed from a government run business to a privately managed company, it was nice, for a change, to hear a story about the success of a free-market system rather than the heralding of its impeding doom.

We listened to our speaker tell us rather enthusiastically about the 40% and 50% price increases that Vale had gotten for their materials as the commodities market soared, but noticed a distinct change in tone when the prospect of this years pricing was raised. I suspect, that like many other manufacturers right now, the spectre of 2009 price increases (or lack thereof) looms menacingly over their head as a generation of managers raised in the the boom times begin to accept the reality of coming price decreases.

It was also refreshing to hear a business discuss the use of coal in a non-emotional manner for a change. We may not like it, it may not be the cleanest source of energy, but the reality is this: it is cheap, it is safe, and it is prevalent. Green, not green, regardless; we will be using this material for quite some time.

Lastly, a lengthy discussion of the substantial cash reserves the company was sitting on. What contrast to the heady days of just a few short years ago (read: pre-financial collapse) when large corporations like ABB were executing their CEO’s for sitting on too much cash and not expanding quickly enough. The stakes have changed, the world is unsure, and cash is king once more.

Closing remarks, a trip into Vale’s Google-esque “decompression chamber” in their office building, and we were on our way. Perhaps with a little more of the Captain in us after leaving that silly, silly room, perhaps a tad too decompressed.


Texas Tea

Next up was a visit to Petrobras, a Petrochemical company that existed in Brazil as a monopoly until 1998 when the market was first opened to imagesoutside competitors. Naming their sixty-two new competitors rather offhandedly, one can understand how they may find it difficult to take these upstarts, like Exxon and Shell, serious when you’ve had a 45 year head start.

Petrobras walked us through the two main drivers of their business: technology and supply. An exhilarating review of the decade-long improvements to their offshore drilling capabilities, leading to the recent discovery of an undersea oilfield of unfathomable size, ending with a question:

“Had we not invested in offshore drilling in the late 70’s, we would currently only be producing 15% of our own oil. Can you imagine a country like that?”

To a group of American MBA students, he asked this question. Many sighs and shaking of heads soon followed. It must be said, in reflection, that these are the effects of the long term decisions that our rather myopic government delays year, after year, after year. No we cannot drill. No we cannot develop. No we cannot put that there.

Petrobras recent oilfield discovery will create 139,000 new jobs in Brazil during 2009. As we gear up for the highest unemployment in years back in America, I worry that the people we choose to make these decisions are rarely looking beyond their next campaign.

It was refreshing to see a country where such long term vision is indeed paying off.

Day of Reckoning

March 14, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Posted in School, Travel | Leave a comment
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Market Madness

We approached the Brazilian market, having fairly recently visited the Chinesedsc04524 equivalent, and steeled ourselves for the inevitable onrush of local merchants and cheap plastic baubles. We were greeted instead with what I would classify at best as mildly interested apathy.

Perhaps it’s the heat. The constant, oppressive heat making it too difficult for them to even turn their necks. Lord knows that it wasn’t for lack of trying (see exhibit 1: giant white man in crowded Brazilian market with t-shirt around his head like a turban).


A fine dinner, a fancy coffee, and a rather forward offer from an aggressive  Brazilian bartender closed out the evening, a fine evening indeed.

Jungle Book

The next morning – a “Jungle Jeep Tour” through the forests of Rio in the back of a Toyota truck; pleasant for us but surely horrific for some poor group of Chrysler marketers cowering in Detroit. Bad enough they’ve stolen your customers, gentlemen, they’ve now stolen your very name.

Our guide was enthused to have the opportunity to expand his English vocabulary; in turn he offered me the friendly advice that I should stop accidentally making the hand gesture on the street that signaled that I was looking for man-on-man action. Hmmm. Indeed. Message received.dsc04585

Waterfalls, giant insects, little plants that explode upon the touching – the trend of life continued. Most places you visit in this world, the destinations, the tourist traps, they’re some form of look at what we’ve built. More and more here we’re brought instead to look at what they’ve found.

Stone Cold

He hung over us at every moment, ever present, always watching. While marching through the jungles, one looked up and he was there. Laying on the beach, there.  At the Brazilian steakhouse (again) – still. And now here it was.

The moment, the happening. The visit with the big man.dsc04630

Not being a religious person in general (or, you know, at all), the prospect of standing beneath a giant stone statue of Christ tends to lead to conflicting emotions. Yet here we were, in His shadow, His image, His gaze.

First: that is a big statue of Jesus (or Cristos, as he is referred to by the locals). Built in the early 1900’s with donations from the citizens of Rio, it is an impressive likeness indeed.

Second: the city laid bare before you, three-hundred and sixty degrees of beaches, favelas (slums – and also my new favorite word), and forest, is overpowering. Nine million people toil away below you while you stand atop a giant rock in the shadow of a god.

Ok, Cristos, you win.


The passage of time

March 12, 2009 at 9:35 am | Posted in School, Travel | 3 Comments
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This was intended to be a daily thing, this record, this commentary. Things have managed to get a bit in the way, though.

Unlike China, regimented, scheduled, directed, the trip to Brazil, and the culture in Rio in general, tends to ebb and flow a bit. Your watch here exists, that’s true, but as more of a funny sight gag than as a  functioning tool. As mentioned earlier, there is an organic nature to everything here, meaning that while you may have been scheduled to see the giant statue of Jesus today, maybe instead you’ll just hanglide off the top of a 1500 foot mountain and drink out of a coconut (more on that later).

And behind that, should things not work out, the ever-present spectre of the beach. Said beach is not like an American beach, a place to go, a plan for the day, a location. Said beach, beaches, really, are more integration than destination, and it serves as an acceptable consolation prize indeed.

Enough, though. On to the capturing. The documenting. The story.

Pass the Sugar

What I have learned of Brazilians, or Rio de Janeirans, is that these people dsc04500like-a the places on high. Specifically, they like to find the places on high, place things atop them, and then construct elaborate transportation systems with which to visit them. We have done this many times, here, beginning with the shot on your right, the mountain known as Sugarloaf.

It was high, it was hot, it was beautiful. Standing here, looking out over the bay and the beach and the ocean, one feels small, insignificant. Had we known that this was only to be the opening act of this magnificenct game, lookdownonstuffinawe, we might not have been so affected.

Would you like beef with that?

dsc045041If one were a vegetarian faced with the prospect of traveling to Rio, you might want to prepare your small intestine for the eating of sand. There is nothing but meat here. Beef, lamb, beef, chicken, beef, and sausage.

It is served not on a plate, but on a sword; it’s quite possible that it’s the same sword used for the finishing of the animal, their appetites for the beef so severe, so overwhelming, that they cannot spare the time to remove the very killing instrument itself.

I only make conjecture, I cannot know for sure.

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