When Coffee Crashed, Brazil Discovered Black Gold and the Remaking of a Nationalized Oil Company: Petróleo Brasileiro S.A.

The country of Brazil contains 26 different states in South America. On the eastern shores of the state of Bahai lie the Bay of the Saints and on the eastern edge of this bay is the town of Lobato. One of Brazil’s most prolific writers was Monterio Lobato. In addition to his writing credit, he pioneered Brazil’s oil industry and promulgated the belief that oil would be the vehicle that would industrialize Brazil (Wirth, 2001a). He was opposed in the 1930’s by Hota Barbosa who wanted to invite foreign investment namely, from US Standard Oil to modernize Brazil (Wirth, 2001a). Amidst this controversy of import vs. domestic, oil was discovered in the town named after Lobato in 1939 on an exploratory well named DNPM-163 (Leite, 2009).

This history of oil in Brazil remained closely related to its politics. Following the US stock market crash of 1929, foreign investment in Brazil decreased and created difficult conditions for Brazilian coffee and milk exporters. These businessmen remained dependent on foreign capital in a Marxist economic system known as Valorization. A severe market correction of 60% followed this economic distortion and civil unrest resulted. A military junta overthrew the Luis government in 1930 and placed President Vargas into power as the provisional leader of Brazil (Dulles, 2014). He remained in power until 1945. Toward the end of his constitutional term and not wanting to give up power, Vargas alleged a communist plot called the Cohen Plot (Flynn 1979, p.87). President Vargas suspended elections in 1937 where he ruled as a corporatist dictator. He failed to deliver on land reforms promised, he brutally crushed political opposition, and began a campaign of economic nationalism. Called the Estado Novo, this period of Vargas’s rule ended when his military advisers deposed him in 1945 following the end of the Second World War (Watkins, 2015). Vargas remained in politics and was reelected in 1951 and served until 1954 where his presidency terminated due to his suicide.

During Estado Novo Brazil moved away from neutrality between the US and the Axis powers and sided with the allied powers throughout World War II (Watkins, 2015). Brazil began to support the US war effort by exporting large quantities of rubber, steel and oil. Under the guise of a nationalist effort to remove the influence of foreign powers, the Brazilian government strove to nationalize oil, steel and water and power companies. Many of these companies were created with direct foreign investment. General Horta Barbosa lead this campaign to nationalize the oil saying, “The Oil Belongs to us” in a nationalization slogan (Costa, 2013). In 1953, Brazil nationalized oil companies and in 1961 it nationalized power companies (Ellis, 1969). Tensions between the foreign corporate owners and the national government intensified. Brazil accused the US ambassador Berle of being an agent for oil interests at the height of this nationalization (Wood, 1985). Ambassador Berle did this following his famous speech dubbed “Petropolis,” (Wood, 1985). Brazil’s military dictatorship struggled because many of these businesses remained dependent upon foreign capital investment. Challenged for cash, in 1964, the military overthrew the government again where it ruled until 1985 (Breneman, 1995). Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. became a corporation as a result of nationalization efforts amalgamated several oil interests within the country (Wirth, 2001b).

Petróleo Brasileiro S.A had difficulty with cash flow during the 1990’s where oil was very inexpensive on the global market. Between 1996 and 1997 Brazil sold sections of Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. to private interests (Hawrylyshyn, 1996). In socialist environments, privatization often implies corporatism and cronyism rather than a true embrace of a free-market (Konczal, 2012; Ornstein, 2013). Unfortunately, when the business is turned over to those private interests, this does not automatically connote an increase in the qualitative aspects of goods or services that benefit the market. It is an exchange of a public monopoly for a private one. Shortly after the company privatized, Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. experienced an oil spill and a refinery leaked oil into a river, and a rig spilt 300,000 gallons into the ocean (Gabrielli de Azevedo, 2009). This injured the public image of Petróleo Brasileiro S.A.

Spencer’s case study focuses on a change within Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. following these multiple accidents. The President of the company, Jose Sergio Gabrielli De Acevedo, invested more capital into the safety budget of the company. He worked hard to improve corporate compliance with the best practices and standards of oil production and refining. The CEO moved the company toward greener fuels, entered with the UN Global Compact on the environment, and worked hard to improve the public image of the company (Gabrielli de Azevedo, 2009). Since these efforts Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. went eight years without a major accident. Management and Excellence awarded Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. for their efforts at sustainability. These energies improved investment in capacity and set a lofty goal toward Brazilian energy independence by 2014 (Gabrielli de Azevedo, 2009).

The Purpose Statement

The purpose of this essay will be to define what actions Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. took to transform itself and provide evidence that the CEO set the vision for this effort. In addition, this document will describe why this is important and if the efforts of the CEO are sustainable.


Corporate value in a marketplace extends beyond the profit and loss sheet and decisions in the boardroom to the image of the company (Adams Hudson, 2015). This has lead to an area of business called Corporate Social Responsibility (Fallon & Brooks, 2015). Corporate Social Responsibility may focus on environmental issues and some argue may enhance profitability (Wheeland, 2008). Forbes reported five characteristics of successful CSR programs which included: a business based social purpose, a clear theory of change, quality and depth of the information provided, a concentrated effort, and collaborating with experts (Klein, 2011).

How companies use resources often becomes a target of environmentalists and social activists. If companies pollute or have gross negligence in their safety practices watchdog groups can impact their bottom line with social activism. This activism can sway public opinion and steer customers towards their competitors more socially responsible products or services. On a macroeconomic scale, some assert that environmentalists injur the economy by crippling business with controls and the power of the state (Noon, 2013). An environmental researcher, Beder reported that many companies hire environmentalists to help with their image and not necessarily to change the practices that tarnished reputations first (Beder, 2002). Conversely, environmental writer Church asserted that environmental values and profit were not mutually exclusive or competitive. Church declared they remained complementary when he noted that countries like Japan and Germany have an estimated 5% competitive advantage in their efficiencies of waste and energy management compared with the United States (Church, 1992). The efficiencies created by recycling and use of renewable energies add to the bottom lines of the companies in these economies while also improving their image.

Often the consumer, who votes with their wallet, finds more value in this knowledge. Sustainable Media reported that 50% of consumers surveyed would pay more for socially responsible brands. A Nielsen survey found that 64% of Asia-Pacific customers and 64% in Latin America would pay more for socially conscious products and services (Rayapura, 2014). The Food Journal echoed this sentiment when they called it a movement and noted, “Part of the power of this socially responsible spending movement is that consumers truly believe they can change the world, every day, with the power of their spending and buying choices,” (“The Socially Conscious Spending of Consumers,” 2014).

When Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. tried to go green, it was to address these concerns and become more profitable. Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. attempted to improve its image and record by investing internally in health and safety programs. Former CEO Gabrielli de Azevedo trumpeted a sizable $2.5 billion investment in these programs(Gabrielli de Azevedo, 2009). This included a lofty goal to certify all their units with international health, safety, and environmental standards, including the best-practice standard for environmental management, ISO 14001 (Gabrielli de Azevedo, 2009). This continued with the current CEO Mares’ das Graças Silva Foster who addressed this issue specifically when she noted:

The adoption of ISO 9001 was a strategic decision aimed at improving our operations, cutting costs and boosting customers’ satisfaction. Applying ISO 9001 helped increase asset efficiency, improve processes, enhance flexibility and strengthen our commitment to safety and the environment. Furthermore, factors such as the predictability of the characteristics of products and services, workforce awareness of quality aspects and increased standardization are helping the company achieve results and satisfy market requirements (Denis, 2012).

Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. has been recognized for these efforts with awards. In 2010, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents Occupational Health and Safety Awards and the Malaysian Society for Occupational Safety and Health (MSOSH) both recognized Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. both applauded the company for their efforts to improve standardization across their company (“Awards and Recognition,” 2014).

Also notable in this image shift at Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. was the means by which goods and services were sourced at the company. Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. decided it would be a best practice to resource the best domestic companies and suppliers for their $40 billion in capital spent yearly (Gabrielli de Azevedo, 2009). Since Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. joined the UN Compact in 2003, ten principles governed how the company dealt with suppliers (Gabrielli de Azevedo, 2009). These principles included key areas of: freedom of association and the protection of human rights, the abolition of child and compulsory labor, promotion of greater environmental responsibility, and to work against corruption in all its forms (“The Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact,” 2015). Diversity became a target of governance at Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. In May of 2008, Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. announced that it would hire 14,000 geologists and oil rig workers which would bring its total workforce to 74,000 (Caroll 2008). This hiring binge allowed Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. to surpass Chevron and all of OPEC except Saudi Arabia regarding absolute employment (Caroll, 2008).

Brazil remained the focus of an emerging economy with Western newspapers peppering headlines with Brazilian banks creating a partnership with Russia, China, India and South Africa in an acronym known as BRICS. These BRICS formed an investment bank that alleges to rival the US-based International Monetary Fund and World Bank as these economies develop (“Watch Out, World Bank: Here Comes the BRICS Bank,” 2013). These banks invested in a new communication infrastructure to avoid spying by the US spy agencies as revealed by Edward Snowden (Watson, 2013). In 2012, Bloomberg reported that Brazil’s central bank doubled its reserves of gold (Sim, 2012). Brazil in 2015 reported that pig iron exports were up 40% over the previous year (“Brazil June pig iron exports up 40.6% year on year: ministry,” 2015). Metal Bulletin noted that in 2015, Nickel exports in Brazil increased 28% over the previous year (“Brazil’s nickel exports up year-on-year in September,” 2015) and Biofuels Website, reported that Brazilian exports of biofuels had increased over 250% over the previous year (Sapp, 2015). The Financial Times Limited reported that Brazil dominated the Latin American marketplace in attracting foreign investment with a 38% increase in the region in 2011 while also increasing its external investment in regional projects 10% as an economic partner (Ribeiro, 2012).

Unfortunately, all of these economic indicators are superficial to the culture of Brazilian business. A culture that spent most of the twentieth century living under a dictatorship can remain suspect of corporate opacity. Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of the state for much of that time and thus, it is wiser to examine the actions of a company or a government regulating that company rather than the words of their advertising image campaign. Transparency International notes that Brazil has a severe problem with corruption. They rated Brazil 43 against the United States 74, France 69 and the United Kingdom 78 (“Country Profile: Brazil,” 2014). Transparency International noted that “From 2003 to 2012, the federal auditor’s office [terminated] 4,000 employees from public service. Most of these charges stemmed from corruption or dishonesty,” (“Corruption by Country: Brazil,” 2014). The Latin Correspondent reported early in 2015 that Brazil jumped from being the 14th worst place to do business in 2013 to number two in 2014 (Natalie Southwick, 2015). CNBC reported in 2014 that Brazil ranked as the eighth worst economies to do business in because of high taxation (around 37%) and an inability to navigate a horrible political system for permits and licensing (“The World’s 10 Worst Countries for Business,” 2011). The International Policy Digest also noted that Brazil remained a terrible place to do business because of very low worker productivity and small direct foreign investment compared to other nations its size (Wagner, 2014). Recently, The Economist Magazine reported that Brazil’s debt crisis handicapped the marketplace when they noted:

Brazil’s gross government debt of 66% may look piffling compared to Greece’s 175% or Japan’s 227%. But Brazil’s high interest rates of around 14% make borrowing costlier to service. Debt payments eat up more than 8% of output. To let businesses and consumers borrow at less exorbitant rates, public banks have increasingly filled the gap, offering cheap, subsidized loans. These went from 40% of all lending in 2010 to 55% (“Brazilian waxing and waning,” 2015).

The outcomes of these image improvement programs were not as advertised. Following this turn around of image and investment at Petróleo Brasileiro S.A., the International Business Times reported that Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. spilt more oil than Chevron off the coast of Rio de Janeiro in 2011 (Bertrand, 2011). At 4200 barrels of oil, this number remained well above the permissible limit of 3895 annually (Bertrand 2011). The United States and Brazil topped Live Science Magazine reporting of countries with the worst impacts on the environment (“Brazil and U.S. Ranked Worst for Environmental Impact,” 2010). Brazilian mining giant Vale ranked as the worst corporation in the world for its environmental record (Bennett & Millikan, 2012). Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. in the spring of 2014 dropped a 2.3 km steel pipe at the bottom of the ocean and this industrial error fiscally set it back tens of millions of dollars (Blount, 2014). In the spring of 2015, the Supreme Court of Brazil approved and inquiry into the politics of Petróleo Brasileiro S.A., which allegedly included a corruption investigation to the former President of Brazil, 53 other politicians and more than $800 million in bribes and graft (“Politicians face investigation in Brazil’s biggest ever corruption scandal,” 2015). Titled Operação Lava Jato or translated Operation Car Wash, the investigation, “blossomed into a near-nightly parade of handcuffed executives, police raids and filmed depositions – not to mention apoplectic defense lawyers and indignant politicians,” (Nicholson, 2015). Injuring the Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. image of diversity, over $150,000 in laundered money purchased prostitutes amidst the graft and bribery allegations (Rizério, 2013). Angered employees and pensioners of Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. protested outside the company in 2015 (“Women are naked in protest against deviations in Petrobras,” 2015). The probe also involved Transocean International (“Transocean mentioned in Petrobras probe,” 2015). The probe motivated several to settle out of court including Brazil’s largest construction company Odebrecht (Pallavi Guniganti, 2015).

The result of this corruption probe involved many outcomes in the country of Brazil. While Gabrielli de Azevedo resigned as the head of the oil giant in 2012 ahead of these allegations (Peter Millard, 2012), in February 2015 Graças Foster also resigned in the middle of these allegations of corruption, bribery and graft (“Graças Foster resigns as Petrobras chief executive,” 2015). The former President of Brazil, Lula also became a target of this probe (“Brazilian prosecutors announce corruption probe into ex-president Lula,” 2015). Foreign investment left the country including a large construction firm named Skanska (“Skanska liquidates Brazil assets after involvement in Petrobras probe,” 2015). During the summer of 2015, Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. announced that it would sell off many of its assets (Levin, Liautaud, & Caroll, 2015). Owned by the government of Brazil, it made the company of Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. an unlikely target for a hostile takeover (Barrionuevo, 2009). In the fall of 2015, credit problems at Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. downgraded their stock status to junk (Connors, 2015). Finally, the country of Brazil also downgraded to junk status as the demotion, “Came earlier than many analysts forecast and arrived at a time of extreme volatility for the Brazilian economy, with inflation hovering around 10% and unemployment the highest it has been in decades,” (“Brazil has debt rating cut to ‘junk’ status as problems mount,” 2015).


When examining the results of Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. through the lenses of re-invention, the attempt to root out a social norm such as corruption created political and economic controversy. To get things done in Brazil, even as the BRICS flaunted competition to the primacy of the United States financial system, internal efforts to misrepresent Brazil’s grandeur made it a take-down target of international investors. It’s flirtatious socialist corporatism echoed a fascism that made friends and allies of the company money but failed to provide the best to those concerned most about the bottom line. It injured the companies ability to remain productive and competitive in the international marketplace despite the its best PR campaign. This ‘palm-greasing’ led to an international downgrading of one of the largest corporations in the world and the government it was owned by.
The full outcomes of these events are yet to be observed. In other historical evidences in Latin America restructuring the political system often favored the multinational corporation and unfortunately was orchestrated by them through revolution or coupe d’état. While many key documents remained classified, the US Central Intelligence Agency was implicated in the Brazilian military’s coupe de tat in 1964 (Kornbluh, 2004). This dictatorship ruled for decades and privatized large sectors of the country. To the free market, it looked more like corporatist fascism instead of laissez-faire capitalism and its monopolization of resources equally failed to deliver the best product or service for the market (Doctor, 2007). Brazil remains vulnerable to these politics. Opponents of the Brazilian Government protested in April of 2015 asking the military to intervene on their behalf (Whitman, 2015). This decreased the likelihood that direct foreign investment would seek to access the resources of production, labor, politics, and regulation unless it would judge that it was worth it the financial, political and security risk. The state becomes a heavy burden in many respects and instead of functioning as a protectorate of the UN Compact that Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. was a party too, the government instead assists in its subversion. This is the problem with the collectivist systems such as the neo-corporatism in Brazil, which stifles innovation (Hall, 2014) and is often confused for capitalism (Snyder, 2011). It also creates a problem for Brazil by which if their government liberalized their pro-Brazilian approach to business, multinationals would gobble up resources. It is likely, little benefit would goto the citizens of the country. The rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer. For Example, India’s growth disenfranchised the working and rural poor even though the wealthiest in the country have seen incomes and investments grow since India liberalized trade in 1991 (Choudhury, 2011). Open Left provided a more direct view of a corporate take over of states when it noted:
Although territory is still divided up into what we call “nations,” the fact is that the major international corporations have bribed so many politicians in so many governments, have overthrown democratic governments and set up puppet military dictatorships, and have taken control of so much of the military and police forces of the world, that the corporations are the “real” governments. The corporations own most of the resources, take most of the money, dictate what will happen inside countries including deciding what countries will be invaded, they own the media and strictly control what information is or is not made available to the people, and they decide which people will be murdered, who will get a job, who will eat, who will starve, who shall live and who will not (“Globalism Equals Corporate Dictatorships: Nigeria, Oil Corporations, The Murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa,” 2009).

The problem with Open Left however is their advocacy for state-controlled resources or even revolution. This only breeds a different equality of tyranny. Williamson noted the corporatism of the British Empire bred similar inequality when he noted, “the income shares at the top rose and the shares at the bottom fell,” (Williamson, 1985, p. 200). Entrepreneurialism and growth were not the focus of the central government of Brazil’s efforts, nor that of Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. Instead Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. focused on meeting the ISO standard rather than improving or changing it in a revolutionary sense when oil neared $100/Barrel. Brazil consequently remains in jeopardy of becoming a failed state.

More than 1000 favelas are controlled by Rival gangs in Rio (Karim, 2014). Zaraysky reported in 2014 that Brazil had problems with its water supply systems, providing basic security, electrical outages, violence, and a brain drain (Zaraysky, 2014). These are all signs of a failing state. The Fund for Peace noted that Brazil fell to 123 from 126 as a sustainable economy (“The Failed States Index 2015,” 2015) which are signs of distress. It is this perspective that investors must consider as the world economy experienced the worst correction in history in the summer of 2015 (“The $100 Trillion Bond Bubble Just Burst,” 2015).

This is the perspective that confronts the world. Will America’s legacy of the Good Neighbor Policy also be lip service to another clandestine intervention as a new government in Brazil is called for by disruptive interests? As for the effects of Petróleo Brasileiro S.A.’s reorganization and image makeover, these efforts failed and made Brazil a target for a hostile takeover since Brazilians decided to take over entire industry sectors in their indecision between corporatism and socialism. Given these two choices, Brazil’s future will likely ensure that a select few will control those resources and their pockets will remain lined despite the current anti-corruption efforts of the state and wage disparity will increase. Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. may find itself a target of a sovereign debt crisis as recently observed in Greece.


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