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Latin America was afflicted 15 years ago by a miasma of mismanagement that left its economies and companies hopelessly at sea. Today economic and business conditions in the region surpass those in the U.S. and Europe, thanks to new, hard-won discipline among Latin political and corporate leaders.

The result is a level of ambition and confidence heretofore unseen within the upper reaches of the region’s management ranks, one that has them taking rapid advantage of strong domestic demand fueled by a growing middle class as well as opportunities arising far beyond national and continental boundaries. Those aspirations have spawned a new generation of regional and global leaders, as reflected in ­Institutional Investor’s second annual Latin American Executive Team.

Consider Vale, the Brazilian iron-ore and nickel producer, which has become the world’s second-­biggest miner, after BHP Billiton, the Anglo-­Australian giant. Consider Petrobras, Brazil’s oil major, which is expected to surpass Exxon Mobil as the world’s biggest oil company in market capitalization by 2020. Or Cía. de Bebidas das Américas, known as AmBev, the Brazilian brewer whose management helped to create Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian behemoth that today supplies Budweiser to the bars of New York as well as Stella Artois to the brasseries of ­Brussels. Or Itaú Unibanco, Brazil’s biggest retail bank, which is now larger than Citigroup in market value. The CEOs, CFOs and/or IR Professionals at all four companies score at or near the top of II’s rankings this year, and our profiles of such firms clearly reveal the region’s new swagger.

“The world is becoming multipolar,” says Almir Guilherme Barbassa, chief financial officer of Petrobras, who tops the CFO rankings in the Oil, Gas & Petrochemicals sector. “One of those poles is Brazil and the rest of South America.”

This year as last our rankings highlight the region’s best CEOs, CFOs and IR Professionals, as well as the companies with the most-­valued investor relations, based on a survey that asked analysts on both the buy and the sell sides to choose the top performers in their domains.

Of course, Latin America’s corporates are by no means free of concerns. Long-term financing is still hard to come by, particularly in Brazil, which inhibits infrastructure development and, with it, companies’ ability to tap growing demand. “This limits growth,” says Marcos Aguiar, Brazil head at the Boston Consulting Group. “Most business people in the country would say that the infrastructural problems create real issues for them,” Aguiar adds, noting that development agencies need to step in to ensure investment takes place in this sector.

Also, global market volatility threatens what access to capital the Latins currently enjoy.

Such constraints obviously would inhibit the ­Latins’ ability to exploit burgeoning potential outside the region as well as within. And much if not most of that external potential could evaporate if, as feared, renewed recession not only grips the developed world but spreads to emerging Asia. Latin America’s escape from the macroeconomic shadows has largely depended upon China’s own. Should the latter reverse course, cry for Argentina and others as well.

“The slowdown in the U.S. and the euro zone is starting to create some concern,” says Rogério Calderón, director of investor relations and controller of Itaú Unibanco Holding, whose CEO, CFO and investor relations team top the rankings in the Banking & Financial Services category by analysts on either or both the buy and sell sides, and whose management team ties for fifth overall. “As long as things globally start to recover within the next few months, Brazil will be fine,” Calderón adds. “If it takes longer, then it will start to have a greater impact.”

The Chinese central bank has started to rein in growth but by a small margin. And most experts believe that China is unlikely to experience a severe economic slowdown, so the impact on Brazil and the rest of Latin America of a contraction abroad should be limited.

Moreover, some analysts cite the region’s demographic trends as an overriding positive, at least for the long term. “The demographics are in Latin America’s favor — the population is young and the proportion of people in the working-­age range as a percentage of the overall population is high,” says Boston Consulting’s Aguiar. “This will create a sweet spot for the next ten years.”

Brazil’s central bank has nonetheless reacted quickly to signs of slowing global growth by reducing interest rates. Whether high inflation precludes its monetary authorities from further reductions in the event of a continued slowdown remains an open question.

In any case, Calderón finds a certain irony in the fact that Latin America is currently in better shape than much of the rest of the world. “This is the first time that Brazil and other Latin American countries have not been at the center of the crisis,” he observes.

What exactly has changed in Latin America? During the past ten years, many countries in the region — including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Peru — have targeted reasonable levels of inflation, exerted greater control over their fiscal deficits and dramatically improved their balance of payments. Stability has dispelled uncertainty as a result, and corporate executives have responded in kind.

Says Alejandro Valenzuela del Río, chief executive officer at Grupo Financiero Banorte, Mexico’s third-­largest retail bank, after BBVA Bancomer and Banco Nacional de México, a subsidiary of Citigroup: “Before, the region was autarkic and its corporations inward-­looking. Today they have embraced globalization and become outward-­looking. When they see opportunities abroad, Latin American companies seize them.” Banorte’s head of investor relations is the best among IR professionals in the Banking & Financial Services sector, according to sell-side analysts.

This year Brazilian executives dominate the list. They lead corporations that are the strongest and most innovative in Latin America and thus best able to confront the challenges of the global economy. Even as global market volatility has made raising capital harder throughout the world, companies in Brazil have accumulated it by increasing their returns on the strength of gross domestic product growth. Those in the country’s consumer segments are content to stay home for now, thanks to fast-­growing domestic markets, while those in commodities use their balance sheet strength to expand overseas.

The company that tops the ranking this year has had no need for markets besides Brazil’s. The only company to have eight first-place finishes, sweeping all the executive categories, Rio de Janeiro–based PDG Realty has become the country’s biggest real estate developer and the largest homebuilder in the world outside China. PDG is also the largest real estate company, by market value, in the Americas, something that would have been unthinkable before the U.S. housing collapse decimated builders in that country.

PDG has ridden the wave of Brazil’s economic growth during the past decade, benefiting from the emergence of a much larger middle class and more affordable mortgage financing. Roughly 39.5 million Brazilians climbed into the middle class between 2003 and May 2011, according to Fundação Getulio Vargas, a Rio-­based research institute. The country has a housing deficit of some 5.8 million units, according to the think tank.

PDG expects to sell 35,000 homes and apartments this year and has another 100,000 under construction, compared with the 2,000 to 3,000 it produced in 2003. Net income this year is slated to hit 1 billion reais ($572.5 million), up from 22 million reais in 2006. Since PDG had its IPO, in 2007, the share price has climbed by 105 percent, more than those of all but one other Brazilian company (shopping mall operator BR Malls Participações) that have gone public since then.

CFO Michel Wurman acknowledges the company’s fortuitous timing. “We are very lucky that the market came to us,” says ­Wurman, who along with chairman Gilberto Sayão da Silva and CEO José Antonio Grabowsky has worked at PDG since it was founded, in 2003, by investment bank Pactual, now part of BTG Pactual. The executives were close to André Esteves, the prominent Brazilian banker who is now the CEO at BTG Pactual. PDG was spun off three years later and went public the following year.

But PDG has capitalized on its good fortune, quickly ­developing a results-­driven culture similar to that of ­Pactual, with executive pay linked closely to performance.

“We learned very fast that you must treat shareholders with all due respect,” says Grabowsky. “Our culture has a sense of urgency. Our main competitors were family-­owned businesses. They did not really know how to deal with shareholders. At Pactual we reported results every semester. Today we report them quarterly.”

PDG also acquired three large development companies, Goldfarb Incorporações e Construções, CHL Desenvolvimento Imobiliário and Agre Empreendimentos Imobiliários, in quick succession.

But financing for customers remains a challenge. Only during the past three years have the country’s banks become accustomed to granting mortgages for a 25-to-30-year period. Currently, mortgage credit amounts to just 5 percent of Brazil’s GDP, far below the levels in most developed countries. Banks would like to see that rise to 15 percent eventually.

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