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Abilio Diniz, Brazilian billionaire who survived a kidnapping and the loss of his retail empire before a Francophile reinvention, dies at 87



Abilio Diniz, the acclaimed Brazilian business leader who grew his family retail business into a giant, lost control of it, then became a major shareholder in a rival company, has died. He was 87. 

Diniz died at a hospital in Sao Paulo, where he was being treated for respiratory failure caused by pneumonia, a spokesperson for his family and investment firm said on Sunday.

Regarded as a business guru by many in his home country, Diniz, the son of a Portuguese immigrant, helped his father convert a family bakery into Brazil’s biggest retailer, Cia. Brasileira de Distribuicao. Known as Pao de Acucar — “Sugar Loaf,” the name of a famous mountain in Rio de Janeiro — the chain of stores revolutionized shopping in Brazil with the vast offerings of its combined supermarkets and department stores. Among other innovations, it launched its own sports brand, PA Club, in 2001, and its own health food label, Taeq, in 2006. It started taking orders by fax, telephone or personal computers in 1995.

Having lost control of Pao de Acucar in 2012 after a high-profile corporate showdown with French supermarket operator Casino Guichard-Perrachon SA, Diniz built a stake in France’s Carrefour SA through his family office and joined its board in 2016. In his later years he dedicated himself to fitness, family, investments and hosting a program on CNN Brasil where he interviewed fellow business executives about their careers. He ended that show by telling his audience he was optimistic about the prospects of a better Brazil.

“Brazil has lost one of its most brilliant and inspirational personalities,” Rubens Menin, a businessman and chairman of CNN Brasil said in a LinkedIn post. “Abilio Diniz created opportunities and transformed realities.”

Diniz, who had a net worth of $1.2 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, drew inspiration from retail businesses he visited during his travels to Europe and the US and made changes to his business at home based on what he learned. He pioneered the supercenter concept in Brazil, snapping up rivals and expanding nationwide, while also placing locations at major intersections and along bus and train lines. 

At one point, he opened units in Spain, Portugal and Angola. He also sat on the government’s national monetary council for a decade. 

Largest Stake

His father, Valentim, began distributing shares to his children based on their performance in the family business, which had grown into a behemoth. Abilio received the largest stake of about 16%, each of his two brothers got 8% while his sisters were given 2% a piece, according to Cristiane Correa, who wrote a book about Abilio published in 2015. 

This set the stage for a series of family squabbles that pitted him against his siblings and mother and culminated in 1994 when Abilio purchased most of their shares and became the majority owner.

While he portrayed himself as an inspirational leader, and repeated in his two best-selling autobiographies that “if he could do it, anyone could,” Diniz’s management style was often seen as authoritarian and led to conflicts that got extensive press coverage and helped turn him into something of a celebrity. Besides the dispute with his siblings, he later waged his biggest fight with Casino’s Jean-Charles Naouri.

In 1989, he became one of the most high-profile kidnapping victims in the country. Diniz was kept in a three-cubic meters underground cell with no bathroom for a week until the criminals were caught. The images of a dazed, unshaved Diniz walking out of captivity were on the front pages of all the country’s newspapers and the case helped shape an anti-kidnapping law.

He later said the kidnapping led him to therapy and to recognize and tame some of his shortcomings, such as his temper.

Abilio dos Santos Diniz was born on Dec. 28, 1936, in Sao Paulo. He recalled being chubby at age 12, which led him to start boxing to defend himself from bullies. He became a highly competitive sportsman and a health fanatic. He also was a practicing Catholic. 

In his 80s, he would still box, play paddle sports, lift weights and run backwards on a treadmill to maintain his balance. 

He studied business administration and graduated from the esteemed Getulio Vargas Foundation in 1959. That year, he and his father opened the first Pao de Acucar supermarket. He started as a sales manager and worked his way up to chairman of the chain’s board of directors. 

In the 1990s, Pao de Acucar was struggling from a large debt load and payroll. After raising cash through an initial public offering in 1995, Diniz sold a 24% stake to Casino Guichard-Perrachon in 1999 for about $1 billion. Six years later, Casino snapped up more shares, becoming co-controllers, and gained an option to take full control some years later. 

As the deadline for Casino to exercise its option neared, Diniz tried desperately to fend off Naouri, including a proposed merger with Carrefour’s local assets, but by 2013 he had lost control. A year later he had sold the last of his shares.

‘Reinvented Himself’

He rebounded by becoming chairman of BRF SA, one of the world’s largest poultry producers and amassing a stake in the firm, only to be forced out in 2018 after his attempts to restructure operations toward a more consumer-led business from an industrial-based one, led BRF to post its largest-ever annual loss that year.

“Abilio has reinvented himself through time, and that’s what I admire the most in him,” Flavia Almeida, who runs Diniz’s family office Peninsula Participacoes and is a Carrefour board member, said in a 2019 interview at the firm’s offices in Sao Paulo.

Peninsula is the second-biggest shareholder in Carrefour with a stake of 8.4% and 13.7% of actual voting rights, according to the 2022 annual report. The French retailer, which reports earnings on Tuesday, gained 0.6%.

In addition to its Carrefour stake, the family office has invested in startups, launched its own hedge funds and supported social initiatives including sports and education through a foundation. 

“An outstanding entrepreneur,” Diniz “devoted his entire professional life to retail,” Carrefour said in a statement. “His exception human qualities, insatiable energy and in-depth knowledge of the retail business made a unique contribution” to the board of directors.

He is survived by his second wife, Geyze, and five of his six children: Ana Maria, Pedro Paulo, Adriana, Rafaela and Miguel. His son Joao Paulo died in 2022.

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