Ex-gold miner is worth $1.6 billion after Brazil’s biggest IPO

Ilson Mateus. Image courtesy of Grupo Mateus.

When Ilson Mateus was 21 years old, he sought his fortune — unsuccessfully — as a gold miner in Brazil. Now, at age 57, he’s hit the mother lode.

Mateus became the latest Brazilian to join the ranks of the world’s wealthiest after the food retailing chain he founded went public in the country’s biggest IPO this year. Shares of Grupo Mateus SA surged as much as 5.4% on debut Tuesday before retreating later in the day. That took his fortune to about $1.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Mateus’s rise to riches showcases a side of Brazil often ignored in the nation’s financial circles. Born in the Northeastern state of Maranhao, where 1-in-10 people live in extreme poverty, Mateus started working at age 12 to help support his family. At 17, he was making cachaça, a traditional sugarcane-based alcoholic beverage, before trying his hand at gold mining.

“I was pushed to being an entrepreneur at a very early age, after my dad died when I was 4 and we moved to my grandparent’s house,” Mateus said in a 2018 interview with a local television station. He declined to comment for this story.

It was during his gold-digging years that he developed the idea that would later become Grupo Mateus. While working at the Serra Pelada open-pit mines, Mateus heard about Balsas, a city in Maranhao where soybean farming was becoming prevalent. He opened a grocery store there in 1986 after first selling sodas along the roadside.

Grupo Mateus

Grupo Mateus is now Brazil’s fourth-biggest food retailer, with a market value of about 20 billion reais ($3.6 billion) and 137 stores scattered across the country’s North and Northeast regions, according to the company’s prospectus. The Sao Luis-based firm had 8.1 billion reais in revenue in 2019 and more than 29,000 employees.

Mateus is the firm’s chief executive officer and biggest shareholder, even after selling some stock at the offering. His son, Ilson Mateus Rodrigues Jr., is also a shareholder and on the company’s board.

An accident a few days before the IPO nearly marred the offering: Shelves at one of the company’s stores collapsed, killing one person and leaving dozens others injured. Grupo Mateus is investigating what caused the incident, according to the prospectus.

During the bell ringing ceremony on Tuesday, Mateus vowed to use the proceeds of the 4.6 billion reais IPO to quadruple the number of employees at the firm. He also quoted a Biblical verse about Noah building an altar to the Lord and promised to do the same in his stores — a promise rarely heard in Brazil’s stock exchange.

(By Felipe Marques and Vinícius Andrade)

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