$7,8 MM in debt

Americanas case start battle among Brazil’s wealthiest men, but may harm the poorest people

The company’s billionaire owners and creditor banks start a legal battle, while bankruptcy risk threatens 43,000 jobs

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | Curitiba (PR, Brasil) |
Americanas has over 1,700 stores in the country and about 43,000 employees - Divulgação

The billionaire crisis of the company that owns Americanas Stores created a public conflict among some of the wealthiest men in Brazil. On one side, there is Jorge Paulo Lemann – the country’s wealthiest man, according to Forbes magazine – and his partners, who are also billionaires. On the other side, banker André Esteves, a BTG Pactual bank partner and the seventh richest Brazilian. 

Esteves' bank lent at least 1.2 billion reais to Americanas, which is owned by Lemann. However, the company obtained an injunction that allows it not to pay the loan until it manages to draw up a plan to solve its debts.

As of last week, Americanas itself declared to authorities that the company owes 40 billion reais. It was revealed days after Americanas announced it found “accounting inconsistencies” of about 20 billion reais in the balance sheets that the company presented to investors and creditors – including BTG.

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However, the bank did not like the announcement. BTG took legal action to reverse the judgment in favor of Americanas and, thus, recover the funds. BTG asserted that the "inconsistency" detected was actually a fraud committed by Lemann and his partners Marcel Telles and Beto Sicupira, owners of 3G Capital and majority shareholders of Americanas.

Marcel Telles is the third richest man in Brazil; Sicupira is in the fourth position.

According to Forbes, Lemann, Telles, and Sicupira have a total of almost 160 billion reais. In its appeal, BTG says they have 180 billion reais. To convince judges that Americanas must pay its debts immediately, the bank cites this amount. 

“The three richest men in Brazil (with assets estimated at 180 billion reais), anointed as a kind of demigods of the 'good' world capitalism, were caught with their hands in the cash of what, since 1982, has been one of their most important companies,” BTG lawyers declared to the Court, accusing Lemann and his partners.

List of suspicion

In the petition, the BTG lawyers mocked the “good” capitalist, referring to the social projects financed by Lemann and his partners. However, they recall that the men were suspected of being involved in other fraud cases in their companies. 

“In 2005, they were accused of abusing control power for distorting the objectives of Ambev's stock option plan,” says BTG. "Jorge Paulo Lemann, Marcel Telles and Carlos Alberto Sicupira were also accused, as directors of Ambev, of having violated their fiduciary duties to the company.”

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The case was at the center of a legal action by the Securities and Exchange Commission (CVM, in Portuguese), the department that monitors the investment market in the country. The action was concluded after an agreement that included the payment of 15 million reais. 

BTG also recalls the case involving the Kraft Heinz company – the famous ketchup producer – that was also controlled by Lemann. In 2019, the company admitted inconsistencies of 15 billion dollars on its balance sheet (about 75 billion reais at the current exchange rate). A fine of 62 million dollars (over 310 million reais) was paid to the US government to end the lawsuit that started there. 

Real risks 

Rather than fines for mistakes found in the documents, and losses for investors and creditors, what raises concerns in the Americanas case is the bankruptcy of the company. The president of the Trade Union of São Paulo (Sindicato dos Comerciários de São Paulo, in Portuguese) Ricardo Patah told Brasil de Fato that the organization is monitoring whether the problems with the company affect its operation.

“We have already formalized an invitation for the company to come here. We have a team visiting the stores to see if layoffs or any problems are already happening,” he said.

According to Patah, Americanas has 43,000 employees. 

The National Collective of Electricians (CNE, in Portuguese) fears the problem Americanas is facing is also found in Eletrobrás, the company responsible for a third of all electric energy in the country. 

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Last year, the company was privatized by the government of former President Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party). Lemann’s 3G Capital took 10 percent of the company’s preferred stock (those that prioritize receiving part of the profits). 

According to CNE, Lemann and his partners were the ones who worked for the privatization of the former state-owned company. They put Wilson Ferreira junior in the presidency of Eletrobrás and call the shots at the company to this day. “Lemann’s 3G group put Elvira Presta as CFO of Eletrobrás during Themer’s presidential term intending to prepare the company to be privatized,” reads a report by CNE.

“Lemann’s 3G group is a corporate leech: it acquires healthy companies that have consolidated their position in the market, cuts expenses to their limits, and increases profit margins at the expense of competitiveness until companies become bankrupt. But then, the owners of 3G have already multiplied their low investment," CNE added. 

The collective advocates for the renationalization of the company. The transition group of the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers’ Party) studied the matter. So far, the president and his ministers have made no comments on whether the idea will be put into practice. 

Edited by: Nicolau Soares e Flávia Chacon