Roger Agnelli exploited surging iron-ore prices and his own charisma to transform a sleepy Brazilian company into one of the world’s biggest miners. Then Brazilian politics ended his career as chief executive of Vale SA in 2011 and forced him to start over.
Mr. Agnelli, 56 years old, was still reinventing himself when his private plane crashed shortly after takeoff March 19 in São Paulo, killing him, his wife, his two grown children, and three others, including the pilot.
While other Brazilian business moguls won control of global brands in beer (Budweiser) and packaged food (Kraft and Heinz), Mr. Agnelli focused on minerals. Bearing a passing resemblance to actor Omar Sharif, he owed some of his success to charm that dazzled business partners and even competitors. Cynthia Carroll, a former CEO of the mining company Anglo American PLC, said Mr. Agnelli always greeted her with a bear hug.
Paul Anderson, a former CEO of BHP Billiton Ltd., was a guest at Mr. Agnelli’s home in Angra dos Reis, near Rio de Janeiro, where he raced around on boats and presided over seaside picnics. “He was just like a big happy kid,” Mr. Anderson said. Though tough in negotiations, “he would leave you with your pride. He didn’t feel the need to win to the point where you felt beaten up.”
Iron ore, used in making steel, provided the unlikely rocket fuel for Vale. Iron-ore prices were steady for decades, until surging demand from China sent them from around $14 a ton in 2003 to a peak of $190 in early 2011. Falling demand and a glut from enormous new mines then sent prices crashing. In recent days, iron ore has been quoted around $55.
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