Latin America's largest company gets a no-nonsense female professional as its new boss.
BY JOACHIM BAMRUD
Brazilian state oil company Petrobras is making history. By appointing Maria das Graças Foster as its new CEO it will set a milestone for female executives in Latin America.
Petrobras is the region’s largest company, measured by revenues and profits, according to the Latin 500 from Latin Business Chronicle. In 2010, its revenues reached $128 billion. The second-largest company in Latin America, Mexican state oil company Pemex, posted revenues of $103.8 billion. Meanwhile, profits at Petrobras reached $21.1 billion in 2010, outperforming private mining giant Vale’s $18 billion profit.
Meanwhile, based on 2011 market capitalization, it ranks as the fifth-largest energy company in the world, according to PFC Energy.
Even before her appointment, Graças Foster was one of the most prominent businesswomen in Latin America, according to the ranking of the region’s Top 50 Businesswomen from Latin Business Chronicle.
As director of oil and gas for Petrobras since September 2007 she played a key role in the company. She was also the only woman on the seven-member executive board.
No other major company in Latin America has a female CEO. The closest example of a female executive at a major Latin American company is Adriana Echeverri, the CFO of Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol, the country’s largest firm.
Meanwhile, several foreign multinationals have appointed female executives to head their country operations. For example, Grace Lieblein is president of General Motors in Brazil and previously headed up the carmaker’s Mexico operations.
“Prejudice against women in the world of work is synonymous with professional weakness,” Graças Foster told Brazilian newspaper O Globo in an interview last year. “I have no prejudice against men.”
She also told the newspaper that she is against quotas for women in the labor market.
The CEO job caps an impressive career for Graças Foster, who started as an intern at Petrobras and has been gradually rising through the ranks. Before becoming director of the gas and energy business area in September 2007, she held various key positions in Petrobras, including as president of Petroquisa and Executive Manager for Petrochemicals and Fertilizers, connected to Petrobras’ Downstream Board.
She also has private-sector experience, having served on the board of Braskem, Brazil’s and Latin America's biggest petrochemicals maker.
But perhaps one of the key factors that landed her the CEO job was her professional contact with Dilma Rousseff – today Brazil’s president. The two worked together in 1998 and when Rousseff became Brazil’s Mines & Energy Minister in 2003, she appointed Graças Foster as the ministry’s Secretary for Oil, Natural Gas, and Renewable Fuels, according to the BBC.
Her rise in Petrobras is also impressive in light of the still-rarer social mobility that exists in Latin America. Graças Foster grew up in a poor and violent slum in Rio de Janeiro.
“I lived in the Complexo do Alemão for 12 years, lived with domestic violence in childhood and faced difficulties in life,” she told O Globo. “I have always worked to help support my mother and my children and pay my studies. Willpower is everything for me. I was never afraid of work.”
A graduate in Chemical Engineering from the Federal Fluminense University (UFF), she holds a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (COPPE/UFRJ), and an MBA in Economics from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.
Graças Foster, 58, is married for the third time and the mother of two children. She credits support from her mother for making it easier for her to rise through the ranks of Petrobras.
PETROBRAS: RELATIVELY EFFICIENT
Graças Foster takes over a relatively efficient company. Although it has faced political pressures from the past two administrations, it is run much more efficiently than its counterparts in Mexico (Pemex) and Venezuela (PDVSA).
Petrobras only had 80,492 employees at the end of 2010 versus 184,090 employees at Pemex, according to the ranking of Latin America’s Top 100 Employers from Latin Business Chronicle.
However, many energy executives and investors are expecting that Graças Foster will improve Petrobras.
The company reached new highs under Jose Sergio Gabrielli, including the discovery of pre salt oil reserves and record $70 billion share sale, but his tenure was seen as more political than technical. Part of the problem was the administration of former president Lula put political pressure on Gabrielli. But another problem was that after Rousseff became president in January last year, relations between the Petrobras CEO and the president of Brazil have been tense. Gabrielli has acknowledged that the two have had shouting matches and speculation has been rife about Gabrielli’s ouster the past year.
Meanwhile, Graças Foster’s technical background and close relations with Rousseff may lead to a more efficient management of Petrobras. Before joining Petrobras as CFO in 2003, Gabrielli was most known for being a prominent academic and researcher rather than an energy professional like Graças Foster.
Like President Rousseff, Graças Foster is known as a tough and demanding boss, who demands results and that deadlines be kept. She starts her day at 7.30 AM. But she is not a typical office manager. Often she will put on a jumpsuit, gloves and protective glasses and personally inspect building sites.
Her loyalty to Petrobras is seen almost as a “religious devotion,” O Globo says “I would die for Petrobras,” she told business magazine Exame in 2008.
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