Owner of a retail giant that earned R $ 10 billion last year, businessman Ilson Mateus Rodrigues, 57, it always brings with it a tangible memory of its origins. It’s the gold digger card in Serra Pelada, whose validity expired in 1985, but which the newest member of the Forbes list of billionaires carries it in his pocket as proof of his trajectory.
The businessman was 21 years old when he arrived in Serra Pelada. Like thousands of men from all over Brazil, he hoped to get rich. And, like most garimpeiros, he did not “stagger” – an expression used to define who found a nugget of gold and became rich overnight. The gold mining dream turned out to be a chimera: unable to continue trying to “get it”, Ilson gave up. Easy fortune was not his destiny.
It was by hitchhiking in a truck, with the taste of failure in his mouth, that he left the prospect without even money to eat. As he managed, he returned to Imperatriz, in Maranhão, where he had left. As soon as he arrived, he invented a new business: collecting and buying glass bottles – or “casks”, as they were said at the time – to resell.
It was after glass that he came to know a little-explored corner of the interior of Maranhão: Balsas, which is almost 400 km from Imperatriz and 800 km from São Luís. At the time, the road was made up of almost impassable dirt roads. It was not uncommon for Ilson’s truck to break. But he arrived at Balsas. And he realized that he should stay there.
Instinctively, the entrepreneur understood the potential of that market. It was the perfect confluence. There was demand – from farmers from the South, pioneers in the development of soybean cultivation in Maranhão – and almost no supply. In 1986, Ilson set up a grocery store. But he realized a greater potential: the distribution of products in smaller cities and even more in need of food.
It didn’t take long to become a prosperous entrepreneur. In just over a year, the grocery store was expanded and, soon after, turned into a supermarket. But the “cat jump” was another. He bought food and cleaning products from the Imperatriz distributors and resold, with the help of employees, all over southern Maranhão. The business grew so much that Ilson started to bring goods from São Paulo.
The businessman Isael Pinto, owner of the popular brand Camp, was one of the first food manufacturers to sell directly to Ilson. At the time, Isael commanded the QR Refreshment. After a distributor refused to sell to the owner of the grocery store Mateus because of the reduced volume of the purchase, Isael decided to send a cargo to Balsas on the basis of trust. “I gave him 90 days to pay. In 30 days, Ilson called. I had already sold everything. ”
It was the password for Isael to take a plane to meet the boy – who, at the time, was 25 years old – who had explored the south of Maranhão alone. “I took a plane and then a car from Locate, which had just opened a store in Imperatriz. Finally, I arrived at Balsas ”, recalls the businessman. “And I had dinner at Mr. Ilson Mateus’s house – his wife, at the time, prepared a rice with pork sweat”, he remembers.
Then, an informal partnership started. At fairs in the supermarket sector in São Paulo, Ilson used Isael’s stands to make contacts with multinationals such as Nestle e Colgate-Palmolive, which started to distribute directly. The two became friends. And today it’s Isael who rides the Phenom 300 jet, from Embraer, from the owner of Grupo Mateus, who has a pilot and co-pilot at his disposal.
The plane is much more a practicality than a luxury, according to Isael: “His business is work. For Ilson, there is no Sunday, public holiday or holy day. He rides a popular car, almost always a Gol. There’s the plane to save time. ”
THE Estadão talked to financial market sources and consultants who worked for the Mateus Group. “Ilson is a simple guy”, defined one of them. “He prefers to eat a pastry and drink cane juice over a fancy restaurant.” Being in a period of silence because of the arrival at the Bag, the businessman did not interview the report.
After years of accelerated expansion, the group had revenues of R $ 9.9 billion in 2019. Today, it has 137 stores, including Atacarejos, supermarkets, appliance resellers and bakeries. Long before thinking about the IPO, scheduled for October and which may exceed R $ 6 billion, Ilson sought professionalization. Hired, for example, the Falconi, one of the main business consultants in the country.
With the help of Falconi, he sought to professionalize the group’s management, but without losing agility in decisions. Simple and easy to deal with, Ilson is seen by business partners as a reserved person, of few words and very objective. And with an eye for talent: an executive from the Falconi team was hired by the group and today is a key player in the company’s financial area.
Professionalization goes hand in hand with family management. The founder’s brothers and sons have relevant roles in the group – Ilson Júnior, for example, was vital in the realization of the IPO. The operation, which is in good demand, is led by XP Investments, with the participation of a “who’s who” of the financial market: Bradesco BBI, BTG Pactual, Itaú BBA, BB Investimentos, Santander e Vintage.
Most of the money raised from the IPO will be used to open stores in the states where the Mateus Group is now strong: Maranhão, Piauí, Pará and Tocantins – for now, there is no intention to dispute other regions. One of the priorities will be Camino supermarkets. The founder’s vision is clear: it is through this brand that he intends to “cover” small towns located between the regional hubs that already have units in their Atacarejo.
When growing up, the Mateus Group did not abandon the good ideas of the origin. Part of its clientele is still served by salespeople who travel taking orders, which are later delivered by the chain’s trucks. Even with the IPO, the strategy should not be abandoned. Although much has changed since the humble beginning in Balsas, something remains exactly the same: Ilson Mateus is not a man to lose guaranteed sale.