Portugal’s socialist coffee king blends duty to staff with running a successful business

Rui Nabeiro built an empire from a small coffee-grinding concern and has been courted by food industry giants, but remains loyal to the small Portuguese town where he was born and where he’s revered

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 May, 2016, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 May, 2016, 12:30pm

Rui Nabeiro not only rose from humble beginnings to become one of Portugal’s richest men, but he also managed to survive the economic crisis while keeping his coffee business under family control in the small town where he grew up, despite overtures from multinationals.

At 85, he remains at the helm of the Delta firm he founded in 1961 in Campo Maior, in the country’s depressed east, as a small coffee-grinding business aimed at the Spanish market.

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Nabeiro, who travels the world to find the best quality coffee beans, especially in former Portuguese colonies such as Brazil, Angola and East Timor, dramatically expanded the business in the mid-1970s.

The company, which he runs with the help of his children and grandchildren, now produces Portugal’s best-selling coffee, with 31 per cent of the market, and has revenues of 350 million (HK$3.1 billion), a quarter of which is from sales in about 40 countries.

It also provides a living for one fifth of the population of his native Campo Maior.

The company is now coveted by food industry giants such as Nestlé, Kraft and Pepsi, who have tried to buy Delta from the Nabeiro family.

But the town patriarch has refused all offers. He says the business “belongs to all those who work there”.

“To create a job is to create wealth for someone; I have always sought to serve those who serve me. It’s an attitude that has given me what I have today,” he says.

His fortune, estimated at 390 million, places him 12th on the list of the richest people in the country, according to the magazine Exame.

But “to talk about millions is an offence in a country where there is still so much poverty”, he says in a calm voice, seated in an office in his factory where coffee is roasted, ground and packed. The plant is the largest in the Iberian peninsula.

In the streets of Campo Maior, a small town of about 8,500 people near the Spanish border, it is impossible to ignore the presence of Nabeiro – a statue of him dominates the main square and his name is everywhere, be it on the wall of a school or on the local sports hall.

The businessman, a socialist who has also been the mayor for about 10 years, owns the only hotel in town, a chain of supermarkets, a medical clinic and even a car dealership.

Residents of Campo Maior cannot hide their admiration for him.

“He is a good person, who loves his town and who helps a lot of people by giving them work,” says Antonio Susana, 68, a former builder whose wife has been with Delta her whole working life and whose two children are also employed there.

“He is a very affable and very simple man,” says Joao Custodio, a local councillor in his 30s, who described the town as an “oasis” in a part of the country hard hit by unemployment and an ageing population.

Campo Maior, where the birth rate is above the national average, is only one of 15 towns in the Alto Alentejo region to see its population increase, if only slightly, according to censuses carried out in 2001 and 2011.

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When Portugal was battered by the eurozone debt crisis five years ago, plunging the country into recession and sending the unemployment rate soaring to record levels, Nabeiro confronted the problem with his usual optimism.

“I told our partners that I don’t even want to hear about a crisis. Our sales dipped, but we’ve already recovered,” he says.

He refused to lay off one single employee from the business, which now has “10 to 15 per cent more than necessary” out of a total of 3,300, of whom about half are based in Campo Maior.

“The problems of my employees are mine, and vice versa,” says Nabeiro, who was the son of illiterate farmers but who said he is “happy to have had the chance to at least go to primary school”.

To allow his staff to reconcile work and family, the company pays up to 80 per cent of fees at an educational centre set up in 2007, where 170 children are enrolled from a very young age to learn business skills inspired by Delta.

Agence France-Presse