When Isabel Moises moved from Lisbon to São Paulo last year to take an executive position with beer company Heineken, she was following the same path taken five centuries ago by the Portuguese explorers who discovered Brazil. And these days, if her e-mail box is any indication, chances are Moises won't be the last. With Europe's economies stagnant Portugal needed a massive bailout last year more and more of its corporate talent is making the trans-Atlantic voyage to revive their flagging careers in Brazil, where companies are growing at a torrid pace. Says Moises, 44, a human resources vice president for Heineken's Brazil operation, "Every week I get people asking me how they can get a job in Brazil, what's the best way to send their resume, where there are opportunities."
One might ask, "Where aren't there opportunities in South America's biggest nation?" Although Brazil's economy is expected to grow less robustly this year, it should still outpace the troubled economies of the U.S. and Europe. It was one of the few countries to emerge from the global recession unscathed it recently passed the UK as the world's sixth largest economy and some 30 million people over the past decade have risen from poverty into the consuming classes. In fact, some estimates have Brazil creating almost 20 local-currency millionaires a day.
At a time when oil and gas industries are booming in the Americas, Brazil's are booming loudest, thanks to massive deep-ocean finds. And although Brazil's big cash cow is its commodities exports, domestic firms like jet-maker Embraer have laid a manufacturing base unusual for most Latin American countries, while cities like Recife in the relatively undeveloped Northeast are reinventing themselves as high-tech corridors for IT and software. The transport, tourism and construction sectors, as Brazil readies to host the 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, are also seeing massive investment.
All that has created a sharp demand, especially given Brazil's still middling education system, its lack of qualified engineers and technicians, and its dearth of experienced managers. Headhunters in São Paulo, the southern hemisphere's most populous city, say foreign executives used to come to Brazil, if they came at all, to get a few years of managerial experience they could parlay into a move somewhere more important. But now Brazil is the destination especially now that salaries exceed what's on offer in the developed world. A recent study by the Dasein Executive Search firm found that CEOs in São Paulo today earn an average annual salary of $620,000 (€455,000), more than their counterparts in New York ($574,00/€422,000), London ($550,000/€404,400) or Hong Kong ($242,000/€178,000).
One statistic illustrating the change came late last year when the government announced that the number of work visas issued to foreigners rose 50% in the first half of 2011. For the first time in 20 years, there are more foreigners living in Brazil than there are Brazilians living overseas. "The scarcer that high performance executives with a global vision are," says Dasein President Adriana Prates, "the more power they have in negotiating salaries." Moises would agree: "The salary in Brazil for the same position/executive job is 30% higher when compared with Portugal." Brazil may not yet be China, but it's attractive enough to be a manager magnet. "Today, you need to have emerging-market experience if you want to advance your career," says Nico Riggio, 37, an Italian and Columbia University grad who left his post as vice president for consumer electronics at Phillips in New Yorklast year to help run a U.S.-Brazilian beverage company, AMA Waters, in São Paulo. "It's like having an MBA 10 or 15 years ago." (Riggio didn't want to discuss his Brazilian salary for security reasons.)
Peter Gallagher also left New York for São Paulo and has climbed the corporate ladder since he arrived three years ago far more quickly than he would have in Manhattan, he says. People there questioned his sanity when he decided to head below the equator; but at 38, Gallagher is a director in the Latin America office for U.S. eyecare firm Bausch + Lomb. "The degree of responsibility is much more," he says, and he's "certainly not making less" money than he did in the U.S. "I could see the market potential, and so to me it was a no-brainer." Like Riggio, Gallagher also knows the experience will be golden: in his current position, he says, "You have a perspective of what headquarters is thinking, but you also understand the operational challenges and rhythm of day-to-day execution."
New arrivals like Gallagher don't deny Brazil faces significant problems, such as corruption, high taxes and bureaucratic red tape that could tie Houdini in knots. And the decade-long boom is slowing as concerns over inflation and exorbitant prices loom larger. But the stability President Dilma Rousseff has encouraged a welcome change from the boom-and-bust cycles of Brazil's past allows business decision-makers to remain sanguine. "There is a great desire to consume here, and that isn't the case in Europe, where people are saving rather than spending," says Portuguese national Filipe Tendeiro, Brazil manager for the Paris-based luxury leathergoods company Longchamp. (Brazil's luxury goods market was expected to grow 33% last year to $12 billion, thanks in no small part to a roster of more than 155,000 millionaires, the world's 11th largest.)
While transplants like Moises have an advantage because they already speak Portuguese, she also points to improvements like Brazil's falling murder rate, which has given her the security she didn't feel when she turned down her first chance to work in the country a decade ago. Others note the warm climate, welcoming people and a culture that knows how to mix business with pleasure. All that and a great paycheck too? "It's an employee's market," says Denys Monteiro, a managing partner at Fesa, Brazil's largest executive search firm. Or as Riggio might tell executives from London to Los Angeles: Come on in, the Amazon waters are tudo bem very fine.