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Brazen Brazilian billionaire shoots for the top

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Lisa Mahapatra and Linette Lopez

Zoom in on this story. Explore all there is to know.

The story of Eike Batista's push to be the world's richest man has it all - wealth, fame, romance and danger.

Billionaire businessman Eike Batista during a visit to Australia in 1999.

Billionaire businessman Eike Batista during a visit to Australia in 1999. Photo: Trevor Sykes

Look out Bill Gates, watch out Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim - a flamboyant Brazilian billionaire is after your title.

Eike Batista made his first million from gold trading before he was 24 years old and is now desperate to become the world's richest man, in spite of losing a large portion of his fortune in 2012.

Batista has already lived a life worthy of the silver screen — he married a Playboy model, entered speedboat contests, and made it to the top 20 of the world billionaires list.

Eike Batista living the high life with his then wife, model and actress Luma de Oliveira.

Eike Batista living the high life with his then wife, model and actress Luma de Oliveira.

By March 2012, he was worth $US30 billion ($A29.04 billion) and was the 7th richest person in the world according to Forbes magazine, and was gunning hungrily for the top spot.

But by the end of the year, half of his wealth had disappeared. According to Bloomberg's billionaires list he now ranks No.89 on the list of the world's wealthiest.

One of seven children, Batista was born in 1956 in Brazil to a Brazilian father and German mother. He spent his childhood in the country of his birth, but moved to Germany when he was a teenager.

In 1974, he began to study metallurgical engineering at the University of Aachen in Germany. His family returned to Brazil, and he started selling insurance to make ends meet. All his friends, on the other hand, were rich.

"So I got highly motivated to make some extra money and I sold insurance policies from door to door. It's a great learning experience because some doors open and some don't. I had a lot of teas with old ladies," Batista told the Australian Financial Review in 1999.

By 1979, he had dropped out of college before he could finish his degree and returned to Brazil. He first tried to export granite, marble and diamonds.

"I discovered it was controlled by the Italian Mafia, so I quit that and began organizing pick and shovel miners to produce diamonds," he told AFR.

The garimpeiros (shovel miners) would come to his Rio office with diamonds in little bags. Batista introduced them to Jewish dealers from Portugal and Antwerp and collected commissions on each sale.

In the early 1980s he started a gold trading firm, raising seed money from connections in Rio and quickly establishing a far-flung network of 60 buyers of raw gold in the Amazon.

Since the gold trading venture was working out so well, Batista decided to found his own gold mining company—TVX Gold, in 1980. The 'X' in the name is supposed to signify multiplication, as in multiplication of wealth.

It was rough going. His bodyguard killed and buried a man in the Amazon, he told the AFR.

Batista was travelling around the garimpeiros in the Amazon jungle to buy their gold. He also financed some of them, and one digger had made no attempt to repay him for six months.

"On one of my tours I went to see him and said: 'Where is my money?' He went screaming mad. He was a drunk. I made the mistake of calling him a son of a bitch. I turned around and walked a few metres away and bang! He shot me in the back.

"He was drunk. I was lying on the floor and the other guys' [his bodyguards] instinctive reaction was to shoot him because they didn't know whether he would shoot them next."

They buried the garimpeiro in an unmarked grave at the end of the airstrip.

Willie McLucas, a former manager of a European resource fund that invested in TVX in the 1980s, told The Age that Batista wasn't always on the straight and narrow in his dealings.

"Eike would go into the jungle and show these village chiefs a 10-day-old newspaper and say, 'Look, here's the price of gold'.

"Meanwhile, the price had gone up, and would go up even more by the time he got back to Rio. He'd pay the chiefs in local currency, which was dropping, and sell the gold in hard currency. You couldn't lose."

In 1983 Batista founded EBX, the umbrella under which he would found all his other companies. Between 2004 and 2012 he would add six public companies under the EBX umbrella, comprising energy, logistics, mining and offshore industry.

He became a superstar in his home country in 1991 when he eloped with model, actress and carnival dancer Luma de Oliveira.

The couple met in 1990 and at the height of their romance, were the darlings of gossip rags and the mainstream media. Adding to the scandal, Batista was seeing a Brazilian socialite at the time he and Oliveira married (because Oliveira was pregnant) behind her back. In the four years before they got divorced, they had two children—Thor and Olin.

Meanwhile, Batista started really living like a billionaire, winning several power boating championship titles – in the 1990s, he was the Brazilian, US and world champion in the super offshore powerboat class.

He also bought lots of really expensive things including yachts, a private jet and supercars such as the $US1.2 million Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. The latter was used to decorate the lounge of his Jardim Botanico mansion in Rio.

In 2001, he had to resign from TVX after plans for a gold mine in Greece went bust because of political opposition. The once high-flying company took a decided turn for the worse, and then the price of gold started to fall, reaching a paltry $US300 an ounce. Batista resigned in 2001, after the cash-strapped producer was forced to put itself up for sale.

But 10 years later, Batista bought back into the gold business. In 2011, he bought out Ventana Gold, a company he had had his eye on for a while.

One of his companies bought the rights to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Brazil. UFC Brazil is a mixed-martial arts fighting competition hosted in Sao Paulo that's aired on pay-per-view television.

By early 2012 he was inside the top 10 richest men in the world and he told Bloomberg that he absolutely had to number be No.1 because of the competitive spirit that he acquired in his childhood.

"I suffered very heavy asthma, so my mother threw me in the cold swimming pool," he said. "So I cured my asthma through discipline, and I saw that you could achieve things by performing, and it's part of my DNA ... I'm very competitive."

However, his oil and mining companies started hemorrhaging money in 2012. OGX, the oil company, had lost 40 per cent of its value halfway through 2012, as it had to cut production targets at its first two oil wells by as much as 75 per cent. And the mining company, MMX, got slapped with a $US1.8 billion way-past-due tax bill.

He started off 2012 with more than $US30 billion. By the end of the year, his net worth was down to about $US12.4 billion.

However, he also used 2012 to get Abu Dhabi's Mubadala Development Company, a government-owned fund, to invest $US2 billion in his EBX Group, which gave the fund a 5.63 per cent economic stake in the company. The money raised is to help develop his oil and mining businesses.

But if he doesn't deliver a 5 per cent annual return on Abu Dhabi's investment, he has to turn over more of the company by 2019. The amount that Batista would have to turn over is unknown; what is known is that he's taking on more risk.

But for someone used to making high-stakes gambles, he's probably okay with that.

BUSINESS INSIDER

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