Courtesy of Odebrecht
Norberto Odebrecht, pictured (sitting) with son Emilio in the 1990s, died on July 19 at age 93.

Norberto Odebrecht, whose launch, in the 1940s, of a Brazilian construction firm to pay his contractor father's debts grew into a $43-billion global contracting and industrial conglomerate, died on July 19 in Salvador, Brazil.

The engineer, who became the entrepreneurial wizard and later philanthropist behind Odebrecht SA, was 93. The company, of which he had been honorary chairman since 1998, said the cause of death was heart failure.

The still family-owned and -managed empire has survived corruption allegations, coups and controversies as recent as its role in building for the just completed World Cup soccer tournament, hosted by Brazil.

But Norberto Odebrecht, the author of five books on entrepreneurism, was an early proponent of decentralized corporate management and empowered employees.

He also led the firm in its megaproject blitz—championed by governments for potential economic benefit but also protested for social and environmental harm—in Brazil, elsewhere in South America and around the world.

The company's construction arm, Construtura Norberto Odebrecht, has had a major role in the country's largest and most complex hydroelectric projects, such as the record-setting 14,000-MW Itaipu dam on the Paraguay border, begun in the 1970s, and Belo Monte, which now is under construction and set to be the world's third-largest hydropower plant, with a capacity of 11,233 MW.

The firm also was a key builder of the $1.3-billion InterOceanic Highway across southern Peru. The project was completed several years ago as the final link in the ocean-to-ocean South America crossing. The firm has a 25-year operating and maintenance concession.

Mário Cavalcanti, a regional president of Brazil's engineers' council, said Odebrecht's death represents a loss "in stimulating innovation of advanced techniques in civil construction."

Norberto Odebrecht engineered, in 1980, the acquisition of Sao Paolo-based heavy contractor CPBO, both a rival and partner, that allowed his firm to take on more work for Petrobras, the growing state-owned oil company, and infrastructure projects, such as Rio de Janeiro's international airport and Brazil's nuclear plant in Angra dos Reis—the only complex of its type still in operation.

Aluizio Rebello de Araujo, then CPBO president and now an Odebrecht S.A. board member, said in a recent company blog, "You don't get to certain places just because you want to. You have to fight the good fight."

In the following years, Odebrecht started to perform abroad, with additional overseas acquisitions. Work includes the Capanda hydroelectric plant in Angola and a people-mover in Miami.

Construtora Norberto Odebrecht now ranks at No. 18 on ENR's list of the Top 250 Global Contractors, with $14.9 billion in 2012 global construction revenue. More than $9.2 billion is outside Brazil.

In addition, Odebrecht S.A. controls real estate businesses, infrastructure concessions, oil-and-gas operations and petrochemical giant Brasken, Latin America's biggest producer of thermoplastic resins. It now has about 180,000 global employees.

Norberto Odebrecht stepped down as CEO in 1990, when his son Emilio took over. Emilio now is chairman, and grandson Marcelo has been president and CEO since 2008. 

The company's growth made Norberto Odebrecht a multibillionaire, with a personal net worth of more than $4.5 billion, according to Forbes. He and the firm weathered public controversies over too-close ties to Brazil's political establishment and its business interests in Cuba.

While neither Norberto Odebrecht nor his company were ever indicted on any corruption-related charges, there were questions about the purpose of a $3.2-million company payment to a government consultant. But the firm and its leaders also took a key role in lobbying for changes in public bidding, according to an ENR story in 1993. 

ENR's Design-Build magazine noted, in a 2001 Odebrecht profile, that the controversy also became an issue in bidding in the U.S. Competitors vying, in 1999, with the Brazilian firm's Florida-based unit for an Army Corps of Engineers' contract to build the Seven Oaks Dam in California questioned, unsuccessfully, whether its low bid should have led to project award.

Recently, there were protests at the company's headquarters over its gains from the World Cup construction as part of a consortium that built four of the event's 12 stadiums, when other public infrastructure needs went unmet

In his later years, however, Norberto Odebrecht worked full time as president of the Odebrecht Foundation, a non-profit charity he founded in 1965 that now builds needed social infrastructure in Brazil and serves other roles for the country's poor and underserved population.

In an online mission statement, he termed this group as the foundation's "clients" and said the organization must see its needs as "a worthy, entrepreneurial business to which the principles and concepts of our entrepreneurial technology must be applied."

Among other things, the foundation says it invested nearly $20 million last year to help communities in Brazil's southern Bahia region.