Magazine article The Spectator

Martin Vander Weyer: The Surfer, the Sailor and the Horseman: Prosperity Is All about Personal Stories

Magazine article The Spectator

Martin Vander Weyer: The Surfer, the Sailor and the Horseman: Prosperity Is All about Personal Stories

Article excerpt

The tectonic plates of economic life rumble and shift. As ever, market watchers are obsessed by big themes -- and the demand for predictions about them even though so many past predictions have turned out wrong. Right now, we're gripped by the endgame for Greece, the timing of the first US rate rise, the future of energy prices given Opec's decision to maintain output above demand, the slowing of Chinese industrial growth, and the unresolved destiny of the global debt bubble. Yet we also know that wealth creation is fundamentally a matter of individual risk and endeavour, often pursued in defiance of the adverse alignment of market forces. On that basis, it is a constant theme of this column that personal stories are more informative than arid analysis of data and trends.

I'm guessing, for example, you'd enjoy knowing more about 75-year-old Jorge Paulo Lemann, 'the richest man in Brazil', whose rumoured interest in bidding for Diageo caused the food-and-drink giant's shares to leap on Monday morning. He turns out to be a former national tennis champion, Wimbledon competitor and Davis Cup representative for both Brazil and Switzerland, where his father came from and where, following a kidnap attempt against his family, he keeps his home. He never speaks to journalists, but in a speech in 2011 he revealed that as a young man he learned more about risk-taking by surfing a 30-foot breaker on Copacabana Beach than he did as an undergraduate at Harvard: 'I took the wave and felt the blood go to my feet. It was a lot faster than I was used to and a lot taller but I went for it, and I managed to get out before it crashed.' Quite a cool dude, then.

Having built his own investment bank and later sold it to Credit Suisse, Lemann now operates through a private equity firm called 3G Capital that has already acquired a major stake in the Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev as well as the Burger King chain and (in partnership with Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway group) the ketchup maker H.J. Heinz, which it is in the process of merging with Kraft Foods. As a collector of global brands, 3G must be well aware of the attractions of the Diageo portfolio, which includes Smirnoff vodka and Johnny Walker Scotch among many others.

The homespun Buffett is normally wary of private equity players, who he regards as rapacious short-termists in contrast to his own philosophy of picking sound companies and investing in them 'for ever'. He makes an exception for Lemann, who he has called 'classy' and 'a good friend', but that doesn't mean the 3G crew are pussycats: at Anheuser-Busch they banned free beer for employees, and the favourite phrase of Lemann's long-time associate Carlos Alberto Sicupira is reported to be, 'Costs are like fingernails, you have to cut them constantly.' Diageo executives had better sharpen up.

Old villains

When I was apprenticed here long ago, my predecessor Christopher Fildes warned me against 'letting old villains off too lightly'. …

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