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Faces of hydropower: Norberto Odebrecht

A conglomerate operating in 23 countries through its 15 businesses, three investment funds and five supporting companies, Odebrecht Organisation employs nearly 200,000 people today and is one of the important actors in the hydropower sector. One man started this impressive entrepreneurial success and accompanied it over 70 years: Norberto Odebrecht.

Norberto OdebrechtWhen he founded his company in 1944, Norberto Odebrecht was just a young civil engineer who had graduated from the Federal University of Bahia Polytechnic School a year earlier. He had assumed the helm of his father's struggling construction business in 1941 at just 21 years of age and was on his way to save the family business.

The Odebrecht Entrepreneurial Technology (TEO)

Using his business savvy to stabilising the floundering company, Odebrecht paid off all the company’s debts by 1948 and went on to define his own business philosophy, known today within the company as the “Odebrecht Entrepreneurial Technology (TEO)”.

This shared goal of principles and concepts underpinning the work of the company’s leaders and staff was critical in sustaining the growth of the company over the years, while giving people common goals and direction. The company describes it as “the art of integrating people and circumstances to produce more and do it better”.

And indeed, Norberto Odebrecht’s business quickly became successful. In 1953, Norberto Odebrecht, now an internationally recognised entrepreneur, established a partnership with Petrobras, a Brazilian energy corporation based in Rio; the partnership continued to this day.

Subsequently completing its first project for the oil company, Norberto Odebrecht Construtora Ltda was responsible for the Catu-Candeias oil pipeline in Bahia.  Then in 1960, Odebrecht’s construction company restructured itself, extending its business into the north-east of Brazil.

Through a career spanning more than 70 years, the social and economic development achieved through his leadership has transformed and empowered the lives of millions"

Throughout the years, the business philosophy, giving an important role to education and autonomy, enabled the company to expand its activities in a decentralised way.

Norberto Odebrecht would go on to pen down his theories through a series of books and publications, publishing What Do We Need? (1968) – a treatise on the qualities of the decentralised business model and planned delegation, Points of Reference (1970); Survival, Growth and Perpetuity (1981); and Education through Work (1991).

An international business

In the late 1970s Odebrecht set his sights on internationalisation, and in 1979 contracted the construction of the Charcani V hydroelectric power plant in Peru, as well as the Maule River bypass work, part of the Colbún-Machicura project, in Chile, Norberto Odebrecht Construtora Ltda became an international business entity.  That same year, the company established Odebrecht Perfurações and acquired Companhia Petroquímica Camaçari in order to diversify.  In 1981, Odebrecht S.A. was created.

In 1985 Norberto Odebrecht stepped down as head of the organisation, turning the reigns over to his son, Emílio Alves Odebrecht.  In May of 1991, Norberto retired as president and CEO, and in 1998, transferred the position of Chair of the Odebrecht S.A. to his son, leaving the business after 60 years, but continuing to serve as Chair of the Odebrecht Foundation Board of Trustees and Honorary President of Odebrecht S.A.

The Odebrecht Foundation

Norberto Odebrecht had established the Odebrecht Foundation in 1965 as a non-profit institution, to offer members of Construtora SA benefits the country’s social security system did not. When the Brazilian government began contributing in these areas a few years later, the foundation began providing members other benefits, including medical and dental coverage. Later on, the foundation would expand to promote social development projects in Brazil’s north-eastern state of Bahia. In 2003 the Odebrecht Foundation would turn its social actions exclusively to the Bahia Southern Lowlands.  

In 2005 the Odebrecht Foundation celebrated its 40th anniversary, launching the “40 Proposals for Brazil's Social Development”, based on Norberto Odebrecht's vision, and highlighting the company's experience in the Bahia Southern Lowlands.  In 2008, the Foundation received the 2nd Brazil ODM Award, granted to projects that effectively contribute to meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

Norberto Odebrecht served as Chair of the Odebrecht Foundation Board of Trustees and Honorary Chair of the Odebrecht Organisation until his death on July 19, 2014. In his final months he focused his efforts on consolidating the Bahia Southern Lowlands Environmental Protection Area Mosaic Program for Integrated and Sustainable Development and Growth (PDCIS).

This highlights the passion that animated Norberto Odebrecht until his passing at the age of 93. Norberto Odebrecht leaves a remarkable legacy as a great industry leader. Through a career spanning more than 70 years, the social and economic development achieved through his leadership and the work of his company has transformed and empowered the lives of millions across Latin America.

Read more about Norberto Odebrecht here.