|Guilherme Benchimol - Mission to educate|
The money from the sale of his car – Guilherme Benchimol's only asset in 2003 – was running out. In a tiny rented office in Porto Alegre, one of the four desks had been recently been emptied out by a fresh-out-of-college intern. The same would soon happen to the second intern: there was just no way to keep her. Benchimol then told his partner, Marcelo Maisonnave, that he'd return to Rio de Janeiro and move back in with his mother if the company didn't get off the ground by the end of the year. While he was updating his resume, the 26 year old economist mentally reviewed his efforts, to make sure he wasn't giving up too easy from the dream of starting his own business.
No, there'd been no shortage of persistence. He had made almost 500 door-to-door visits, trying to motivate people referred by friends to invest in the stock market, without much success. Then, he tried to attract prospective investors to himself rather than chasing them down, but the lectures given in his company's small office were not enough for XP Investimentos to make a profit before the money from his car was depleted. The last shot would be a paid course, complete with teaching materials and reserved space in a hotel, to be tested the following weekend. The course was a hit, with 40 participants. Feeling encouraged, the two partners tried to convince the intern to remain at the company, offering her a partnership. To gloss over the fact that she'd be making less than internship pay, they tried a fanciful argument: XP would be the biggest brokerage firm in Brazil.
Like in fairy tales, the prophecy came to pass – and to boot, Benchimol ended up dating, marrying and having children with the intern who took a chance on the partnership. "I was this close to quitting", says the founder of XP, the largest independent broker in the BM&FBovespa ranking in 2009 and overall leader in January this year. Like every entrepreneur who starts from scratch – with an initial investment of R$ 10 thousand on used computers from a LAN house and a few pieces of furniture – Benchimol emphasizes that his success did not appear with the wave of a magic wand.
Even after creating a victorious business format based on investment education ("Nobody was doing that in Brazil"), his progress was hard-earned. "To the Brazilian market, we were crazy kids who went out on the street, gave lectures, refused to wear a tie", he says. "We didn't have to hire a rich kid to bring us contracts because we came up with an impersonal, professional model: there was a pent-up demand (people wanting to learn how to invest in stocks) and we promoted our product, a course named ‘Learn to invest in the stock market'.
As a Rio de Janeiro native from a traditional family of cardiologists, Guilherme Benchimol could have easily enjoyed the amenities of a pampered life, but his penchant for finance and entrepreneurship led him down a different path. "My dad didn't go easy on me", he adds. At age 15, after watching a difficult cardiac procedure in which the patient died, he discarded the possibility of a career in medicine. The siren's call of the financial market was so strong that at age 17, when he began attending economics school at UFRJ, he was already an intern at the Sênior brokerage firm. He was ecstatic when he got selected as a trainee by broker Icatu, and even more euphoric with the invitation to work for InvestShop, the Bozano group's virtual broker.
"It was an innovative project", Benchimol says. "XP became what InvestShop wasn't able to achieve due to wrong timing". It was through that job that he met his future partner and discovered a whole new market to explore in Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil, where he had traveled aiming to persuade a broker to adopt InvestShop's technology solution. The broker invited him to implement the project and, at age 23, he moved to Porto Alegre. "Despite my age, I already had some experience. I saw more potential for a business there than in Rio." Right from XP's early days, the meaning of "trailblazing a new market" became very clear to the young entrepreneur, who would knock on people's doors to extol the stock market, even pitching to housewives as they cooked. "I realized that for a brokerage business to take hold in the retail market, it had to focus on education. Our mission shifted increasingly toward teaching."
The education-based model led to quick expansion, both in the state of Rio Grande do Sul and other state capitals. By 2005, XP had 30 offices nationwide and 200 operators, with an asset manager already set up for students without the time to practice what they learned. In 2006, the partners acquired Rio de Janeiro broker Americainvest. "I started really believing in the dream", he says. If any doubt remained about the model implemented by XP, it soon dispersed with the 2008 world crisis: "We grew a great deal", says Benchimol. "A better-educated client is more loyal and doesn't worry as much about a decline in the market. More than a commercial solution, we created a continuity solution."
Rushing down the halls of XP's main office in the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca in Rio, Guilherme Benchimol doesn't seem "crazy", but rather a vibrant youth, younger than his 33 years. He confesses to being a workaholic (up to 18 hours a day, plus Saturdays and Sundays) and to enjoying the fast-track life, as well as a taste for adventure, which attracts him to motocross trails during rare moments of leisure ("I have fun at work"). Conveying that boundless energy to a team of over a thousand operators across Brazil is a challenge he imposes upon himself, now that the dream extends beyond consolidating the largest broker. "We want to become a major independent shopping center for financial products, like Charles Schwab in the U.S.", he says. Looking back, he can good-humoredly bring up the saying: "We have to be careful what we dream about; those dreams might come true."