SAO PAULO, June 19 (Reuters) - With nerves of steel and a relentless drive to grow, Marcelo Odebrecht took his family’s Brazilian engineering conglomerate to places few companies dared to venture, like Libya and Cuba.
In Brazil, he did something few businessmen do - publicly defend the country’s left-leaning presidents and their policies. Now, the 46-year-old scion finds himself in the most unlikely of circumstances for a person of such prestige: in police custody.
On Friday, the chief executive officer of Odebrecht SA was arrested in connection with a corruption probe at state-controlled oil producer Petróleo Brasileiro SA. His was the most prominent arrest of a Brazilian executive since the scandal broke last year.
One of four siblings, Odebrecht has presided over a golden era for the family group since succeeding his father Emilio in late 2008 during the global financial crisis. His firm now spans 15 divisions spread across 21 countries. An engineer with a degree in finance, Odebrecht turned the conglomerate into Brazil’s largest employer and one of the top-five private-sector groups.
His rise coincided with the rule of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had a goal of transforming Brazil into a global powerhouse through the promotion of home-grown conglomerates.
“The rise of new political elites usually implies the resurgence of new business elites, which might have been the case” with Odebrecht, said Alberto Carlos Almeida, director at political consultancy Instituto Análise.
Odebrecht has been a staunch backer of Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff, penning unequivocal newspaper editorials like one in April 2013, in which he said that “Lula did what presidents and ex-presidents from Northern Hemisphere countries do when they help their national companies grow globally.”
How that political backing has played out in Odebrecht’s business is unclear. But the scandal at Petrobras, a key client since the 1960s, has brought the group’s dealings with state enterprises under increased scrutiny.
Some of Odebrecht’s biggest projects, like the construction of a port in Cuba, were financed with loans from Brazil’s state development bank BNDES. Since Marcelo Odebrecht took over, BNDES extended about 5.8 billion reais ($1.87 billion) in loans to finance projects abroad.
Federal prosecutors have opened a preliminary inquiry into whether Lula used his influence to persuade BNDES to lend Odebrecht money at below-market borrowing costs.
Both Lula and Odebrecht have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
$1 = 3.0991 Brazilian reais Additional reporting by Asher Levine; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Andrew Hay