Alexandre Soares dos Santos, the man behind Jerónimo Martins’ empire and the main sponsor of the foundations created in his grandfather’s honour, the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation (FFMS). One of the richest men in Portugal, he is accredited for changing the business environment in his family’s company, as well as the rest of Portugal.

“I am unpredictable”

Early days

Alexandre Soares dos Santos was born to a family of entrepreneurs from Oporto, at the same time as his father was taking over the helm of his father-in-law’s business. Mr. Soares dos Santos interchanged his studies between Lisbon and Oporto, eventually going on to study Law, following his father’s wishes. However, to his father’s disappointment, Alexandre Soares dos Santos soon dropped out, which led their relationship to quickly sour.

As a result, Mr. Soares dos Santos joined Unilever in Germany, the consumer goods’ giant, where he’d go on to build a career for himself. At the time that he was in charge of the marketing department in Brazil, Alexandre Soares dos Santo’s father passed away, forcing him to move back to Portugal in order to take over the firm’s leadership.

Jerónimo Martins

His beginning at JM:

When thinking about the Portuguese retailer Jerónimo Martins, Alexandre Soares dos Santos should be a name that immediately pops up in our mind, being an inevitable figure in the retail giant. His ties with the company go back to way before he took charge. In 1935, his family decided to move to Lisbon, when Alexandre ́s father was offered a job to work with his father-in-law in a relatively unknown company based in the Portuguese capital: Jerónimo Martins.

Jerónimo Martins is currently the biggest food retailer in Portugal and the 56th largest retailer in the world, according to a study conducted by Deloitte, “Global Powers of Retailing”, in 2018. Although the company ́s foundation goes back to 1792, its most glorious and prosperous times occurred during the time Alexandre Soares dos Santos was the CEO of the retailer.

Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing, 2018Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing, 2018

Distribution is the answer

The revolution began as soon as Alexandre started administering the firm. In his earliest days, he started a new brand “FIMA”, bought the factories of the ice-cream company “Olá” (internationally known as Algida) and signed agreements with Unilever. This last measure is particularly relevant, as it marked the entry of the Jerónimo Martins group in the distribution market, which would later lead to the opening of the supermarket chain “Pingo Doce” – the group’s most valuable brand in Portugal. This was just the beginning of one of the most successful stories in Portuguese corporate history.

In more recent years, the group has consolidated in its main markets, with special emphasis on Poland, verifying increases in revenues from 13 billion euros in 2013 to close to 18 billion in 2017. Jerónimo Martins’ outstanding performance is not only shown by sales figures, but also by distancing itself from its closest competitor, Sonae, through a greater growth performance.

Jerónimo Martins and Sonae’s revenues between 20013 and 2017Jerónimo Martins and Sonae’s revenues between 2013 and 2017

The Brazilian Setback

Although today Jerónimo Martins is a synonym of success, that has not always been the case. Back at the turn of the millennium, the company faced serious financial difficulties following the expansion into Brazil and Poland. The company lacked financial resources to withstand investing in these two growing economies, leading to debt accumulation, eventually forcing the sale of the Brazilian assets.

Despite being mostly deemed as a bad bet, Mr. Soares dos Santos took personal responsibility, blaming his own arrogance for the company’s failure in Brazil, as well as the lack of market knowledge, planning and overconfidence. He believed that the lesson learnt was a major turning point for the firm, which defined the success in Poland.

“I don’t care about the past. I only care about the day of tomorrow.”

Vision for Portugal

Alexandre Soares dos Santos was long known for his strong criticism of the political landscape and personalities in Portugal. He believed the current economic and banking systems in Portugal to be faulty, in part due to political pressure and widespread corruption. In addition, he defended that the Government creates excessive constraints to investment and job creation through a bureaucratic and centralized decision-making process, which results in little to no prosperity and growth whatsoever.

Mr. Soares dos Santos’ views of the current environment in Portugal were the result of a lifetime of investing, reflecting his several experiences abroad in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. Nevertheless, he’d always maintain a distance from politics so as not to hamper his businesses.

I argue that the businessman does not have to get into politics. There is a conflict between being in the government and being in a business.  We obey to one goal: to defend the interests of the company and those who work there. Once a politician, a respectful guy, told me: ‘A politician’s goals are the next elections. Yours, not’”

Legacy – Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos

Besides his impact in business, Alexandre Soares dos Santos played a big role in some of the most relevant studies regarding the Portuguese reality in recent years, through the foundation he and his family created back in 2009: “Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos”. This foundation was created with the main goal of “Studying the great national problems and making them understandable for all, while stimulating open discussions regarding those topics”, as said by Mr. Soares dos Santos when presenting it. FFMS is also responsible for creating the popular statistical platform Pordata.

The database Pordata is one of the most successful projects of the FMS Foundation. It was started in 2010 as the “Database of Contemporary Portugal” and the project embodies one of the priorities of the Foundation: the collection, systematization, and dissemination of data on multiple areas of society. Pordata has a significant relevance at an economic level, as its ties with the Portuguese National Statistics Institute (INE) mean the database is one of the biggest sources of reliable economic information, not only at a national level, but regarding all of Europe.

All of this information about the Portuguese and European economic environment provide an unbiased and trustworthy analysis, which is fundamental to look into existent structural issues present in each country.

“Soares dos Santos had a great social sense, and he was sometimes frustrated that this sense was not perceived from outside.”Seixas da Costa.

Final thoughts

Mr. Soares dos Santos was the last of a generation of industrialists, having transformed a small company into one of the most important conglomerates in the Portuguese economy, and its biggest employer. Moreover, his views of the economic and political environment led him to create a foundation which is key to understanding how Portugal can develop itself.

Mr. Soares dos Santos is seen as an example for Portuguese people, but most importantly an inspiration to the next generation of entrepreneurs who wish to make a difference.

Sources: Observador, Jornal Económico, Jornal de Negócios

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