YouGov, an internet-based market research firm, published a ranking with the most admired people in the world by country. In several countries, the top names are political leaders, like President Barack Obama (#1 in the U.S.), scientists like Stephen Hawking (#1 in the UK), or footballers like Argentinians Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez (#1 and #2 in their home country, respectively) – all household names. In Brazil, though, the name appointed by 11.8% of Brazilians as the person they admire most is someone little known outside of our country, but who has an incredible life story: Silvio Santos, a showman, media baron, and entrepreneur.
The survey didn’t ask people why they chose who they did, but with Silvio Santos we understand why. The uber-charismatic son of Jewish immigrants from the old Ottoman Empire represents the ultimate self-made man in Brazil. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1930, he overcame a tough life thanks to his smarts and business abilities, building a multi-billion-dollar empire from scratch. He started his journey at the age of 14, selling pens on the street. Now, he is more admired in Brazil than the Dalai Lama, former President Lula da Silva, or Pope Francis.
The Ultimate Entrepreneur
During his teenage years, Senor Abravanel – his stage name of Silvio Santos wouldn’t come until years later – was preoccupied with bringing money to his house. His parents didn’t make much, and his father used to spend a lot with gambling. When he was 14, he saw a man selling plastic protections for documents on the street, and saw an opportunity. In the 1940s, unregulated street commerce was fiercely repressed by the police, so Santos and his brother Leon operated only during the 45-minute lunch break taken by guards in the city center.
At 18, he became a member of the parachute team in the army – but the military service didn’t pay as much as selling small items on the streets. With his powerful voice, daring sense of humor and big smile, he had no problem charming his customers. To complement his monthly income, Santos took a job at a radio station located in a city next to Rio – a ferry ride away. That’s when his entrepreneurial spirit took the front seat. The ride was always silent, so he decided to make a speaker system with music and, of course, ads for products that he began to sell. Needless to say, it was an instant hit.
His empire started to take shape in the late 1950s. A friend of his used to run a business selling toys for lower income families, who would pay a low monthly fee to have some toys for Christmas. Santos took over the business in 1958 and expanded the product offer. By the same time, he was hosting a TV program in which he aggressively promoted his toy business.
In 1975, Santos started his own TV channel, with 13,000 employees and a $10 million investment. This was the origin of SBT – Brazil’s second most popular station until a few years ago, when it dropped down a few spots to third place. His strategy was never to directly challenge Globo, the country’s leading TV station, but rather to produce content targeting lower-income populations through a multitude of shows distributing prizes, making people’s dreams (such as having a car, or a house) come true, and heavy on farcical, slapstick humor similar to The Three-Stooges.
His popular Sunday night TV show was called “All for Money,” where candidates would perform ridiculous stunts and compete for cash prizes. Between attractions, he would interact with the studio audience, shouting “Who wants money?” and throwing planes made out of $100 bills.
1989 Presidential Bid
By the 1980s, Silvio Santos was one of the most recognizable faces in Brazil. He was seen as a good man, a benefactor of the poor, in his TV shows. The political potential was there. In 1988, he had considered running for Mayor of São Paulo, but eventually backed out. In the 1989 presidential election – the first democratic election since 1960 – he decided to launch his candidacy after much hesitation, just 15 days before Election Day.
He intended to replace a semi-anonymous candidate (among the 12 people running). By the time he made his decision, ballots had already been printed, so Santos aired TV ads explaining that to vote for him, people should choose the name Armando Côrrea – the man who dropped out in his favor. His platform was based on programs to build houses for all Brazilians. Within three days, he had gathered 29% of votes, an amount that would normally have qualified him for the second round.
Seven days before Election Day however, the Superior Electoral Court considered his candidacy irregular because his party had not held a convention to appoint him as their candidate. We can only wonder what would have happened if he had indeed been on the ballots…
Financial difficulties and resurgence
In November 2010, the Silvio Santos Group faced a great economic crisis due to a $1 billion hole in the budget owned by the group’s bank. Corruption and fraud committed by executives were the main reasons. To avoid bankruptcy, Silvio Santos took out huge loans and negotiated a bailout with the government. He later sold the bank and liquidated some of his assets.
But only three years later, his finances were once again on the positive side. In 2013, his group registered a $1.7 billion turnover with a profit of $800,000. Not bad, huh?