Interview with Rafael Birmann on Entrepreneurship in Brazil

[This is the full interview with Rafael Birmann which was published in our Kaizen newsletter.]

Rafael Birmann on Entrepreneurship in Brazil

Rafael Birmann is a Brazilian real estate developer and President of Birmann S/A Comércio e Empreendimentos.

Kaizen: When did you decide first to go into real estate development, in your career?

Rafael Birmann: It’s an interesting story because I always say I never choose this profession. Very early on, in 1978, I was working in a software company.

Kaizen: Software?

Birmann: I was selling software, and then my father got ill. He had Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1978, and his doctor said he had 6 months to 3 years. He was a banker, and he sold his bank and said, “Let’s invest in real estate.” I turned to him and said, “But, father, what do we know about real estate?” “It’s easy,” he always said that, “it’s easy, don’t worry.” We didn’t know anything, and that’s how I got into it. And then I really enjoyed it because I think it’s very easy just because you can do anything—you can grow new economics, public relations, public spirit, business—it all relates to real estate.

KaizenIt’s where we live and work.

Birmann: Yeah, you can explore or develop yourself in anything; it’s part of you. So I enjoy it. That was forty years ago. I was 25-years-old when my father got sick. He was deteriorating fast, and I was handling the business without much experience. It was very interesting because at the time I didn’t know what I should do.

Kaizen: As a young man, right.

Birmann: How do I make decisions? It was a slow, difficult, dirty process. It occurred very, very slow.

Kaizen: Now, forty years later, you have projects all over Brazil.

Birmann: I did projects in Rio, São Paulo, and now in Brasília.

KaizenWhy don’t we talk about the current one here in São Paulo?

Birmann: It’s an office building. We got the site, which was kind of the best site in the business district of São Paulo. It’s on the most prominent business avenue. It was an assembly of 35 lots, so it was a struggle to buy. Most people would say, “Oh, I’ll buy it if somebody gets an option for all 35.” That doesn’t work. So I decided, let’s buy each one independently and just believe that in the end we will get the whole thing. I said, “I will get those 35 lots.” For some you pay more. The last one you pay the most and some guy is blackmailing you, but in the end we bought the site.

Kaizen: What is the footprint of the 35 lots?

Birmann: The footprint it almost 14,000 square meters. It’s good. We can build about four times that. Today it’s considered a very valuable piece of property. I started buying those things in 1998.

KaizenIt’s turning into a twenty-year project.

Birmann: Then I had some financial issues in 2000. I, more or less, had to restructure the whole thing. I had what you’d call a boutique company, which is a nice way to say that it shrank a lot. So at the time I stopped, and then I had this five-year hell period from 2002 to 2005. At times I was trying to get deals and get some people to put some money in this deal. Nobody wanted to put money in the deal. I needed money to finalize the assemblage of the site.

Finally, I got some people to invest some money in 2005, which is the date I came back to the business, and in two years we had the whole thing assembled. That’s the process. Then we got this design, and I thought that I did many buildings in the past and then went through that hell period and now I had this opportunity to do something meaningful again, so I set this goal: I said, “I want to do the best building in São Paulo. How do I do that?” So I set three goals: I want to be the best in terms of architecture and urban design, I want everything inside to be at the edge of technological development, and I want to revise the whole ownership and management of the building.

So the design process was a study process and discussion with our team and a lot of thinking about how we should do this and how we should do that. How would the buildings be open to the city? That was a very fascinating discussion, and we came through with a much more open perception of how this thing should work because in Brazilian cities we have so much concern about security and crime. Everything is closed, and that kills the city in a way because of the lack of interaction.

Kaizen: You want to have human connections going on.

Birmann: Yeah, at times it becomes not a city. All this is very interesting. Then we came to a discussion of public space. Investing in a public space is an externality, so why would I as a private investor care to improve the wealth of the public of the city? It’s a very interesting discussion, and in the end I came to a conclusion about that. Each individual that promotes this externality will not make a profit by himself, but when everybody else is doing something, we all make a profit. It’s very interesting.

KaizenSo it’s a collective action issue.

Birmann: I had this discussion with my partners. Some of the partners even sued me because they were saying I was not interested in a business and they invested in the project as a business. They wanted to know why I was diverting the focus from the business and talking about urbanism and public space. They thought it was ridiculous, and it even got me in the newspapers. My defense was that it would bemore profitable, though it’s questionable if we will be more profitable. I like it much more and I want to do it like this, but is it more profitable?

Kaizen: Part of it is the issue of aesthetics and meaningfulness to you to make the best building you can.

Birmann: Yeah, absolutely. My motivation was always that.

KaizenSo the main issue of the design was that you wanted to incorporate the urban space and make it a people-friendly space. How did you solve that problem? How would you describe the concept?

Birmann: First, most buildings in São Paulo are gated. Ours is totally open. We have a public square in front of the building. A tenant would say, “Oh, I want security.” I say, “But we have this public square. It’s an open space.” So there’s a conflict there, and we have to manage it. We have this full square. I want to bring in chairs like in Bryant Park in New York City. “Oh, people will steal the chairs,” they said. No, people will learn to respect the public space, but we have to spearhead those things. If you don’t, nobody will learn.

Kaizen: So, it’s a public education.

Birmann: We developed several concepts around that. We thought, let’s make the building also open. We’ll have information about the design of the building so people can learn about it. The building, when it’s finished, will have a kind of visitation program. They will go to an air-conditioned room, and we’ll have screens explaining all the concepts. You could ask what’s to gain from all of this, but personally, I like it. I think it’s good. I have a ten-year-old son and he says, “Father, you talk about being a libertarian, but sometimes you sound like a socialist.”

Kaizen: You can do it as a libertarian effort to create a libertarian-friendly social space. You don’t all have to be living on your private islands with no interaction.

Birmann: Right.

Kaizen: Someone has to create it.

Birmann: I think our capitalism is basically a social thing. Of course—interaction, exchange—all that is social. Anyway, so we had all those issues. I had a huge discussion with my son, Pedro, about the theater. The theater is a huge investment.

Kaizen: What kind of theater is it? A movie theater?

Birmann: No, it’s a live theater. It has 500 seats and super modern equipment. In fact, we are buying some Canadian stuff. There’s a Canadian company that does some shifting seats. We have reclined seating or flat seating, so you can have open space for conference, for exposition, or theater space. This will cost fifty or sixty million to do.

KaizenHow is a theater fifty or sixty million? This is U.S. dollars?

Birmann: No, Brazilian reais. It’s fifteen million dollars. The total investment is something like a billion reais.

KaizenSo about 350 million U.S. dollars?

Birmann: Yeah. We bought the land as equity, and then a local bank financed the total construction. That’s a new thing in Brazil. All my life I was fighting to find money, and finance wasn’t available. But this time we got the full finance which is very good. Back then the theater was questionable. How could I justify that investment? Most buildings are very badly managed here because they have this view, “Oh, I will hire so-and-so to do this, and I will hire so-and-so to do that,” but nobody really knows. There’s no alignment between the decisions and the interest of the tenants, which is basically the cause of the building—to serve the tenants.

Anyway, it was an experience of coming back and doing something fulfilling. That’s what I enjoy most to be able to do. And I was very lucky because I got partners.

Kaizen: How many partners do you have?

Birmann: At first we had a group of partners, but then we had a fight with one partner, and then I had another partner. He was able to bring in the financing and all of that, and he basically gave me enough so I could do execute my design vision.

KaizenTalk about the engineering. You were mentioning power plants and the energy systems.

Birmann: I’m very pleased because the main thing today with the energy system is…


Birmann: Yes, basically it’s a question of efficient use of energy and efficiently air conditioning the space without wasting.

Kaizen: The standard now is you buy electricity from the public utility?

Birmann: Everybody does that, but you can buy more or less efficiently. So we had these generators. We had what they call co-generation. At the same time the generators produce electricity they produce hot water. From that hot water, I can produce cold water. It’s very interesting. Part of the air conditioning of the building is down to this process, so it’s very efficient. We got these generators as we started designing the building. We are improving efficiency, and we are at very high efficiency today. Basically, at current rates, our annual bill of energy would be something like, say, a couple million dollars. They can save half of that. The way I designed the building, the owners of the property own that. And I do a deal with my tenants and say, “I’ll provide you energy, with fail-safe systems, for 95 percent of the going rate”.

KaizenEverybody likes five percent.

Birmann: Maybe I can negotiate ten percent, but that’s not an issue. But I own it, so the more efficient I am the better I get. The building is totally fail proof in terms of energy. They can supply from gas, from the grid, or what we call in Brazil today, the free market of energy. Somebody can sell energy in the market, and I can buy it and fix a different price.

The issue with those things is that when you buy that energy, people use for it for five years and then get kind of stuck in the contract and can’t get back to the grid. The grid company says, “Now you want to come back? First you have to sign this contract.” So you get stuck. But the way I do it is I have the gas. “Oh, you don’t want to sell to me? I have the gas.” So today I have gas, the grid, and the market. I can manage that daily.

Furthermore, I meter every tenant so everybody in the building knows how much they’re spending. Energy, air conditioning—I meter each one. I sell water to each floor, and we meter that. Everything is metered in the building, which is very interesting. Very few buildings have that.

Bottled water is also 100 percent managed. We have wells. We capture rainwater. And then we use the sewage water. We clean it and use for the air conditioning.

Kaizen: You have your own water treatment plant?

Birmann: Yes, because the water companies here charge you for the water they supply and, once more, for the sewage they receive. It’s much easier to have our own water and sewage.

Kaizen: All these engineering systems—the gas plant, the water treatment plants, and so forth—are these coming from all over the world?

Birmann: No, no. We are learning. There’s nothing we invented here in Brazil. The gas generators are from GE. It’s all international.

Kaizen: You’re buying the best from all over the world.

Birmann: Yeah. The design of the building was done with an American architect, the son of I.M. Pei. The landscape in the plaza was done by Tom Balsley from New York. The theater was a local Japanese architect.

I didn’t want to give the entire design to one architect. I told him, “You design only the tower,” and he didn’t like that very much. For the theater, the plaza, and so on, we have different designers. People say, “Oh, but it lacks unity.” I said, “Yeah, cities lack unity. There’s no unity.” We had this modernist view of architecture and sculpture with everything unified, but I think today we are recognizing that street level is much more important than unity. People really interact with the building, and that interaction is more important than unity. It needs more diversity.

Kaizen: So how many stories will it be?

Birmann: It will have thirty. It is not much by the international standard, but it will be the tallest building in Faria Lima. We’re one of the first to have insulated glass, which is also rare here.

Kaizen: If I am a standard person in business and I’m looking for office space in São Paulo, what makes your building attractive to me?

Birmann: Well, it’s not for anyone. The tenant that we envision is somebody like those tech companies: Google, Facebook, or Apple. I had some interviews with those guys, and the issues they have are interesting. They say things like, “Oh, I want to be able to bring my dog to the building.” Some buildings forbid it, and I say, “Well, of course you can bring your dog.” We’ll also be bicycle friendly.

There’s a symbolic or immaterial level to all of this. Not only is the building integrated in the city, but we’re also advocating for this type of integration. This advocacy gives the tenant a meaning of, “Oh, I am part of this.”

Kaizen: I’m just going to a cubicle of space and doing functioning work, right?

Birmann: Yes, the space gives some value to this. And I think this kind of tenant values these things—the recycling, the energy saving, and all of these things. And also the building is totally efficient to serve the business needs.

Also, we have this big plaza. I decided to put up a sculpture of a whale, so we have a full size whale as a focal point in the corner the plaza.

Kaizen: That would make it a landmark.

Birmann: Yeah, it’s very interesting. And I said, “I want something with meaning.” And they go, “What’s the meaning of a whale?” I say, “I don’t know. Let’s find a meaning,” and we did some research and came up with a beautiful story of the meaning of the whales. We found that the whale has many meanings. We have the whales and the sea, but few people have met those whales. We also have whales in our minds that we meet everyday, like Moby Dick and Jonah’s whale. Jonah and the Whale is a story of redemption, rebirth, and challenge. So I said, “Well, if you go into the belly of the beast, and come out, you come a better man.” So we did this sculpture, and it’s an open whale where you can walk through it.

Kaizen: It sounds like it would be really popular with the children, like something you want to explore.

Birmann: It’s a cool story. You go into the whale, and this is our symbol of visiting the city and you experience a magical moment that changes your perception. But what’s the business purpose of this shit? Well, everybody will know the place. People will say, “I’m going to the whale building.” This has value.

Kaizen: The building is scheduled open mid-2020. You mentioned projects also in Rio and Brasília. What were the natures of those?

Birmann: That’s an old project I did a few residential projects in Rio years ago. Nowadays, I’m doing only two things. This project in São Paulo and one in Brasília. The project in Brasília is a very interesting project too. We had this huge parcel of land, one of the only privately owned parcels of land of Brasília. We came up with this concept of making a new city. It will be kind of an answer to Lucio Costa’s Brasília, because he had this concept of modernist urban design that is absolutely crazy and dysfunctional. And we’ll have these walkable streets, sidewalks, stores, and so on.

Kaizen: Human organic, yeah.

Birmann: We’ll build something like five million meters. We’ll have something thing like 200,000 people in our project, but the whole area already has something like 200,000 people, so there will be close to 500,000 people. 500,000 people is a city.

We had all these discussions again focusing not only on the land but how to direct the whole project. One big mistake is when we just focused on the design of the building. You need a whole design concept. We need to pay attention to what’s across the street. How we interact with those things? That’s the right way to approach design. We want to do something interesting and challenging and meaningful.

Kaizen: The kind of place people want to live?

Birmann: Yeah, I would say it’s a city for people. Our goal is to make people happy with the city and design a city we would like to live in. My son Ricardo started working with me ten years ago. He studied physics at university, so he was into science, but he decided to come work with me.

When I first bought your book, I bought it because of postmodernism in architecture. And then I realized it was about something else, but in architecture it’s modernism that is irrational. They’ll say that a house is a machine for living. It’s bullshit. It sounds very rational, but it’s not. I think they miss the symbolism—all the values in the equation that you don’t see at first glance but are there.

Kaizen: So what stage is the project in Brasília in?

Birmann: We had huge challenges, as you can imagine. We finally have everything approved, and we’re about to start the first buildings next year. It’s been ten years of work.

Kaizen: The project in São Paulo is a twenty-year project. The one in Brasília is a ten-year project?

Birmann: Yeah. I question myself, what did I do that wrong?

Kaizen: You started investing millions years ago and you have been carrying those costs for so many years.

Birmann: Yeah, it’s absurd.

Kaizen: In the beginning did you think they would take this long?

Birmann: No, no, no.

Kaizen: Brazil has a reputation for being politically and financially difficult.

Birmann: Yes, everything is worse in Brazil.

Kaizen: So, why do it?

Birmann: I have ambition. It’s not ambition for the money, because I could make more money if I did simpler things. Who wants more money? My wife always say, “Why didn’t you do some simple thing? Why aren’t you building some small buildings? You would sell them and make money.”

Kaizen: But you have an architectural, human-lifestyle vision.

Birmann: I like to enjoy the things I do. Of course, I like to make money too.

Kaizen: Do you enjoy the deals?

Birmann: What I enjoy most is the kind of deal that you buy the house and it’s an interesting interaction. You have the concept, the engineering, and you have all these discussions and it’s amazing. I mean, it’s really interesting.

But why did so many of these projects take so long? Part of it is needing more money. I didn’t have enough, perhaps. We did many things without money and they were very efficient, but if you need money they take longer.

Then you have the regulatory nightmare. Here in Brazil, after the ’89 Constitution, they gave superpowers to the public attorneys. And these guys can’t be fired. They answer to no one. There is one guy in charge of urban design, and he meddles in everything. They’ll inquire about this and that, and they never close the inquiry. They never say, “Okay, you passed.” No, no. They keep it open and keep charging. Environmental issues are crazy.

Kaizen: You’re always on the strain.

Birmann: Not only me but also the public officials because they were trying to force the cities to do something, and the cities wouldn’t do anything. They start charging the individual responsible for the issue, not the department. They charge him personally, and the city does not supply him a lawyer to defend himself. This paralyzed the whole government structure. Is it better to do nothing? Because if you sign something you might be sued.

Kaizen: Then you’re liable.

Birmann: We have a regulatory nightmare. The government is not functioning. You have this strong leftist kind of anti-business, anti-market, anti-private development. I am considered the worst monster as if I eat children for breakfast and it’s crazy. So, the environment is very difficult.

But on the finance side of things, things have changed in the last few years. Now we have finance. We had very high interest rates, and now things are getting closer to normality. This building is the first building I ever built that I have fully financed. I don’t have to worry about it. I had buildings in the past where the money ended and I still had building to finish. So in the past we had to sell the building before we started construction.

Kaizen: For cash flow?

Birmann: For cash flow. Most of the people you would interview have successful business stories. I haven’t been as consistently successful, but I’m a survivor. There’s this guy, Elie Horn, who is the largest developer in São Paulo. Back in 1990, our companies were kind of around the same size, though his was somewhat bigger. Today this guy is worth three billion dollars. He was very successful, and I didn’t do it. From a business perspective, I think I didn’t do all the right things that I should have.

Kaizen: You made mistakes in a very difficult environment. That’s natural.

Birmann: Yes, but I think that’s life. You take the cards you’re dealt, you do what you can, and don’t give up. I’m trying to enjoy it.

Kaizen: The project in São Paulo is scheduled to be completed in July of 2020. And then, at what point will you know that it’s both a success according to the planning concept and a business success?

Birmann: The whole story of these challenges is a story of victories. We wanted this, and we wanted that—it’s all a success. The last thing that I need to achieve now is to get the tenants. We’re working on that now, and if we get the tenants it will really be a success. This building will be very valuable. It will be my retirement. I believe it will be a big financial success.

Kaizen: What about the project in Brasília with your son, Ricardo? Are you starting the construction this year?

Birmann: Next year we’ll start to build.

Kaizen: You’re talking half a million people.

Birmann: It’s a thirty-year project. The challenge is, how do you build a city form scratch? At first, cities, like in cowboy scenes, start with two or three houses. How does this start to grow?

Kaizen: So there will be organic development?

Birmann: We will try to do this organically, but you have to promote those things. You have to bring in the commerce, schools, shopping, and so on. And I think we don’t need to wait thirty years to know if it’ll be a success. After three, four, or five years, we’ll see the first things. Then we will have established a kind of a concept, and I think people will love to live there. It will sold by it’s urbanism, because you can’t walk in Brasília on a sidewalk.

Kaizen: There’s a huge cost for you, but you have a vision for what you want to do architecturally in terms of urban planning. What advice would you give younger people starting out in business in Brazil now?

Birmann: Well, I don’t know if this is good business advice, but I think it’s good life advice: Follow your passions. The only thing I told my children is, “Do whatever you want, but do it well. Do it the best ever. Do it your best.” Pedro, my second son, studied art. He complained to me, “Why did you let me study art? That’s useless! I should have studied engineering,” because now he’s more involved in computers. He blames me for letting him do what he wanted. I said, “What did you want me to do?”

Kaizen: Be a dictator dad?

Birmann: I tried to be open-minded. My fourth son is studying film in Boulder, Colorado, film. I think that’s useless. I say, “Okay, do what you want, but try to do a second thing in accounting or studying Western philosophy or something.”

Kaizen: Follow your passion, do it well, and have a backup plan.

Birmann: Of course, you have to follow your passion but understand business. Business is a game, it has rules, and you have to play according to the rules. My kids always complain that I was not a good father. I may not have been a good father, but they’re turning out okay. They’ll say, “You give this advice, but that’s not what you did.” That’s why I can give that advice; I know the other side. I tell them, “Take my advice as a father. Don’t do as I did.”

Kaizen: Learn from my mistakes.

Birmann: Yeah, of course.

Kaizen: Good. Let’s stop on that note.

This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks.

More Kaizen interviews with leading entrepreneurs are here at our site.

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