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There’s an old Portuguese saying that goes, “Change yourself and fortune will change with you,” and this eagerness to adapt and improve may be at the heart of Lusophone entrepreneurship. From the innovative paper mill refusing to buckle under Portugal’s teetering economy to the Brazilian financiers helping drive the country’s rocketing growth, Portuguese-speakers are bringing flair to markets around the world.

Lusophone Africa seems particularly ripe for success; former colonies have turned the page on civil unrest to emerge as resource-rich business hubs. Mozambique has seen a 40 per cent increase in incoming Portuguese immigrants hoping to make the most of its 7.2 per cent growth rate. So who are the key global players? We’ve selected our top 15 Lusophone companies – not necessarily the biggest, but they each fly the flag with ingenuity, ambition and, usually, unwavering faith in the family-run model.

01 Espirito Santo Group

Portugal

Before the overthrow of Portugal’s authoritarian Estado Novo regime, the Espirito Santo Group was the country’s strongest financial institution. After the Carnation Revolution in 1974, the banking sector was forced to nationalise. To avoid state control, Espirito Santo uprooted to Luxembourg, where it’s still headquartered today. Nowadays the group operates in 23 countries, with services ranging from personal banking to health insurance.

02 Petrobras

Brazil

A major player in the oil industry worldwide, state-owned Petrobras was established in 1953 and has grown to become the biggest company in Brazil. It is also a world leader in the development of advanced technology for deep-water oil production.

Maria das Graças Foster was appointed chief executive this year, becoming the first woman to lead the firm and representing a significant shift in gender equality under Dilma Rousseff’s administration.

03 tacv Cabo Verde Airlines

Cape Verde

Mentioning Cape Verde’s government-owned flag carrier usually elicits frustration among locals. Tardiness and poor service has been a barrier to establishing effective air links to the island nation. But the purchase of two new Boeing 737s and suggestions the company may soon be privatised has renewed hope in unlocking the potential of Cape Verde’s burgeoning tourism and fishing industries.

04 Grupo Portucel Soporcel

Portugal

When it comes to Portugal’s paper and pulp industry, money really does come from trees. With an annual turnover of €1.5bn, Lisbon-based Portucel Soporcel accounts for 3 per cent of the country’s total visible exports. There’s no sign of slowing either: the company has just invested in the world’s largest and most sophisticated paper printing machine. At top speed it can print 1,800 metres of paper a minute.

05 Grupo Folha

Brazil

One of the most influential media conglomerates in the Lusophone world along with Abril and Globo, Grupo Folha owns Brazil’s highly respected newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, and controls the biggest online news provider in the country, UOL. Established in 1921, Folha has been the eyes, ears and voice of the region and currently focuses on the country’s ballooning urban middle class.

06 EBX Group

Brazil

Besides reporting major losses in the past few months, Eike Batista’s company is still one of the most important in Brazil.

Between 2011 and 2012, the EBX Group invested $15.5bn in infrastructure and natural resources, setting itself up to reap the dividends. EBX operates in a wide range of fields, from logistics to medicine, operating throughout South America from its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro.

07 Banco do Brasil

Brazil

The oldest and most traditional bank in Brazil was founded in 1808 and is a national institution in the country. The bank is also a key partner of the Brazilian government in financing public programmes such as the DRS (Sustainable Regional Development). With over 55 million clients, the bank was a pioneer in services such as mobile banking and multi-functional cards.

08 Portugal Telecom

Portugal

The largest private company in Portugal, this telecommunication giant has 70 million clients globally, mostly in Lusophone countries. Unsurprisingly, Brazil has become a focus in recent years and PT is the number one Portuguese investor in the South American country, perfectly positioned to take advantage of the football World Cup and the Olympic Games. Other key countries for Portugal Telecom are Cape Verde, Timor-Leste, Angola and Namibia.

09 Sonangol Group

Angola

While the Portuguese continue to suffer under economic uncertainly, Angola has grown into Africa’s second-largest oil producer. State-run oil conglomerate Sonangol oversees most of the drilling, turning out 100,000 barrels a day. Its aviation subsidiary, SonAir, has led the way in establishing direct routes between Luanda and Houston. Aside from providing logistics to the firm’s drilling sites, SonAir also provides charter planes for government clients.

10 Itaú Unibanco

Brazil

The largest financial corporation in the Southern Hemisphere, Itaú was created in 2008 when Banco Itaú and Unibanco merged. With over 104,000 employees in 19 countries across the Americas, it is no surprise that it is one of the 10 largest banks on the planet. Its revenues in 2011 were about $75.5bn and it divides its services into commercial banking, insurance, foreign business and consumer credit.

11 Mozal sarl

Mozambique

In the wake of Mozambique’s bloody civil war South Africa offered to supply power to help rebuild the nation’s industry. One of the companies born out of this reconstruction effort was aluminium smelter Mozal SARL, a joint venture between the Mozambique government, BHP Billiton and the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa. Aluminium has now grown into the country’s key industry, making up 55 per cent of its exports.

12 Vale

Brazil

Vale is Brazil’s largest private company and makes up nearly a sixth of the country’s annual exports. With operations in 37 nations in steelmaking, energy and logistics, it’s also the world’s largest producer of iron ore by volume and second largest mining group. The firm was privatised in 1997 in what was a controversial decision at the time, as some politicians wanted to keep tight control of the company.

13 Sonae

Portugal

Sonae started out making laminates in the late 1950s. Today it’s Portugal’s largest private employer, with interests ranging from property to publishing. Its rapid growth began in the mid 1980s when it bought a supermarket chain. The wood production subsidy, Sonae Industria, is now autonomous but its departure has been less than smooth: it’s currently the subject of a class suit in the UK, with 10,000 Liverpudlians taking action over noxious emissions from a Sonae Industria-owned woodchip plant.

14 Conservas Ramirez

Portugal

The Ramirez family has overseen the world’s oldest operational fish cannery for the past 159 years. The company started Portugal’s first canning factory in Vila Real de Santo António, 300km south of Lisbon. It now sells around 40 million cans a year, 45 per cent of which is exported.

Internationally, Ramirez fish is marketed under 12 names that tailor to the language and culture of different markets, including Teddy (Russia), Al Fares (Lebanon) and Kulla (Africa).

15 Alpargatas

Brazil

Owner of one of Brazil’s most recognised exports, the colourful flip-flops Havaianas, Alpargatas was actually founded by a Scot who found his way to Brazil via Argentina. Established in São Paulo back in 1907, Alpargatas is now the leading footwear manufacturer in South America and is flying the flat-soled flag through 281 establishments around the world.

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