RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Aldemir Bendine, the new chief of Brazil’s embattled oil company Petrobras , spent recent years dutifully pushing the leftist government’s economic agenda while also pleasing private shareholders - a tricky balance that will be key to his survival in a much tougher job.
While many investors had hoped for a more independent figure, President Dilma Rousseff opted instead on Friday to choose a loyal footsoldier who has worked at the country’s largest bank by assets, Banco do Brasil from the age of 15, eventually becoming its CEO.
Like Petrobras, Banco do Brasil is a hybrid - run by the government, but also accountable to private-sector shareholders. Under Bendine’s leadership, the bank appealed to both groups, expanding loans to support the economy in the wake of the global financial crisis, while its shares soared about 90 percent.
Asked why Rousseff picked Bendine, an official close to her told Reuters: “Maybe because he (made) big profits while he was CEO?”. The official noted the bank likely made about 12 billion reais ($4.4 billion) last year, up from 10.4 billion in 2013.
However, Petrobras will be an entirely different challenge for the 51-year-old of Italian descent, who worked his way up after starting as an intern, in part due to strong connections to Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Petrobras is ensnared in a huge graft and bribery scheme, with former executives accused of conspiring with construction and engineering firms to overcharge for projects and then kick money back to political parties, including Rousseff’s own Workers Party.
Critics worry that Bendine’s background and loyalty to Rousseff will make him less likely to push back against the heavy-handed government intervention many blame for the company’s woes in recent years.
“His mission at Banco do Brasil was to carry out the wishes of the government,” said John Forman, a consultant and former executive at oil regulator ANP.
“He probably won’t have the necessary independence to be a counter-weight to government ideas of what should be done (at Petrobras),” said Forman, who does not know Bendine personally.
Bendine did not respond to requests for an interview Friday.
NOT A “YES MAN”
Others say, however, that Bendine should not be seen as a mere government yes-man.
He took the top job at Banco do Brasil in 2009 after then CEO Antonio Lima was pushed aside after reportedly refusing to follow government instructions to lower borrowing costs to help pull Brazil out of recession.
Yet, under Bendine’s leadership, the bank was often more rigorous than some other state-run institutions.
For example, in recent years, Banco do Brasil resisted heavy political pressure to help provide loans for the stadium built to host World Cup soccer games in Sao Paulo. Caixa Economica Federal, another state-run lender, eventually took the project - which has since faced financial difficulties.
In 2012, when Rousseff’s government again pushed state lenders to lend at cheaper rates, Banco do Brasil did so - but also raised service fees above many of its competitors, helping to keep the bank’s profitability high.
Even as Banco do Brasil expanded its loan portfolio, its overall staff numbers fell slightly, from about 114,000 at the end of 2012 to 112,000 last September. In that same period, Caixa’s staff rose from 89,700 to 100,000 people.
Some investors have also praised Bendine’s ability to surround himself with qualified technocrats - especially Ivan Monteiro, who was his vice president for finance at Banco do Brasil and will now become Petrobras’ chief financial officer.
Bendine was entangled in a minor scandal last year after local papers reported Banco do Brasil had sidestepped usual protocols to approve a 2.7 million reais ($975,000) loan to Brazilian reality TV star Val Marchiori. All parties involved denied wrongdoing.
Born in the small town of Paraguacu Paulista in the interior of Sao Paulo state, Bendine has two daughters. He has an MBA from the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro and according to local media reports enjoyed listening to Queen in his youth. (Additional reporting by Reese Ewing, Aluisio Alves, Gustavo Bonato, Brian Winter, Patricia Duarte and Guillermo Parra-Bernal; Editing by Brian Winter and Christian Plumb)