If you have flown on a regional airline in Europe or the US recently, it is quite possible you were sitting in an Embraer aircraft – designed and built in Brazil. If you have eaten grilled chicken on the Fourth of July at a barbecue in the US, the poultry could well have been provided by Pilgrim’s Pride, majority-owned by JBS, the Brazilian meat processor.

And if you perhaps drank a Budweiser at that barbecue, nowadays that is a slice of Brazil as well. The iconic American beer brand belongs to Anheuser-Busch InBev, the $37bn Belgian-headquartered company, most of whose top managers call Brazil home.

These are just three of the growing band of Latin multinationals dubbed “multilatinas”. It is no accident they hail from Brazil, which accounts for roughly half of Latin America’s economy and population. But multilatinas are common to Spanish-speaking Latin America as well.

Mexico’s Grupo Bimbo is the world’s third-largest bakery, behind Japanese-based Yamazaki Baking and US-based Nabisco, part of Kraft. With more than 91,000 employees worldwide, Grupo Bimbo operates in more than 18 countries, selling English muffins, white bread and ready-made pizza crust across the US and baked goods as far afield as Europe and China.

Or there is the Guatemalan restaurant chain Pollo Campero, which has spread from its home base to employ more than 7,000 people working in more than 260 restaurants worldwide, with outlets in Spain and Asia that clearly appeal to diners beyond the company’s Hispanic roots.

Clearly, the rise of emerging economies in the world order is not just reshaping geopolitical questions; their companies are changing global business patterns, too.

Generally, multilatinas are aggressive enterprises that are a by-product of the market liberalisation that swept Latin American economies in the 1990s. Battle-hardened by that liberalisation, they then opportunistically swooped on some of their multinational competitors’ local operations when economic volatility prompted them to withdraw from the region at the end of the 1990s.

Mexico’s América Móvil, for example, has been a calculated acquirer of the distressed assets of telecoms giants such as AT&T Latin America, MCIWorldcom, Verizon Dominicana and the Brazilian assets of BellSouth. It is now one of the world’s largest telecoms companies and its owner, Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world.

Mr Slim’s wealth may be as much an advert for his talent as it is for the region’s gross inequalities. But while Latin America still has many poor people, poverty is no longer what defines it. Instead, it is the rising middle class. And here, arguably, China’s hunger for the commodities Latin America has in abundance has done more than decades of western aid and countless so-called “Marshall plans”.

While the global financial crisis brought most of the developed world’s economies to their knees, thanks to its trade links with Asia, Latin America’s economies were broadly unhurt. Although the region, forecast by the International Monetary Fund to grow by 6 per cent this year, does not quite match Asia’s dynamism, it has become a very different place from the clichés so often used to describe it in the past: a place of macroeconomic instability and sluggish business, or “a man with a moustache and a guitar and a revolver”, as Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning author, once characterised common European perceptions of the continent.

Martin Sorrell, head of WPP, the advertising agency, has said the 2010s could be the decade of Latin America. The World Bank has praised its prospects. In an ebullient recent report entitled The New Face of Latin America: Globalised, Resilient, Dynamic, the bank said past crises had immunised the region, so that during this financial crisis, while advanced economies caught pneumonia, Latin America “only got a cold”.

Today, worry-worts at the International Monetary Fund fear the greatest threat to Latin America is that it is growing too fast. The IMF warning raises the disturbing prospect that the region could yet return to the boom-and-bust cycles of the past, so testing the continent’s hard-won macroeconomic stability. In addition, there are other persistent long-term challenges that need to be addressed, especially education.

“My biggest worry is people – and the shortage of skills,” says Roger Agnelli, chief executive of Brazil’s Vale, the world’s largest iron-ore producer. It is a complaint echoed again and again across the region. In Peru, for example, there is a shortage of qualified welders needed to build gas pipelines.

Then there is security and a rise in violence – often associated with drug criminality, most particularly in Mexico.

“Latin American governments have learnt to provide macroeconomic stability,” says one senior Mexican diplomat. “Now they need to be able to provide social stability. Both are prerequisites for successful government.”

As daunting as it may seem today, achieving social stability is not an impossible task. In Colombia, for example, violence dropped sharply under the administration of former president Álvaro Uribe, opening areas of the country previously closed through guerrilla activity.

How do small and medium-sized enterprises fit into this picture?

As in most economies, SMEs account for the bulk of companies and jobs. One study by the Inter-American Development Bank suggests that in Latin America, SMEs account for 90 per cent of all firms, about two-thirds of employment and roughly a third of economic output.

Traditionally, though, SMEs have occupied an uncomfortable position in the region, sandwiched between the large and often state-backed, commodity-producing big local companies, such as Brazil’s Petrobras or Venezuela’s PdVSA, and the continent’s huge and unmapped informal economy. In Peru, currently the region’s fastest-growing economy, set to expand by 8 per cent this year, the informal sector accounts for more than half of jobs.

SMEs, therefore, are perhaps best understood by what they are not. They exhibit more formalism than firms in the shadow economy, but at the same time struggle to absorb the social security and other payments that, in Brazil, for example, can double employment costs.

Meanwhile, some governments’ near-impenetrable bureaucracy “can act as a barrier to entry to foreign competition and executives”, says Bill Cooke, professor of management studies at Lancaster University. It also increases the transaction costs for small companies. For example, the tax affairs of a typical Brazilian company require on average 2,600 hours to complete every year.

SMEs share some of the traits of multilatinas, especially family ownership, as can be seen in Colombia, where mid-sized family-controlled conglomerates dominate the corporate landscape. But they also often lack the thrusting aggression of their bigger peers. A well-developed sense of risk aversion is natural, given the region’s history of instability: Colombian companies, for example, tend to eschew debt finance.

But such prudence can also be a good thing, especially when multilatina ambition is allied with an occasionally grandiose sense of historic mission. As another IADB study put it, it was no accident that Lorenzo Zambrano, chairman and chief executive of Cemex, the cement group, launched a substantial Spanish acquisition in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Spain’s colonisation of Mexico.

Multilatinas also often place a high premium on first-rate training for their executives – an MBA from a top US or European business school, for example. SMEs, by contrast, are typically run and owned by someone who gained on-the-job training at a larger company – and may then use that experience to provide services to that same company.

Multilatinas, by dint of their scale or history of state involvement, also rarely struggle for access to credit – either from large local private banks and state-owned lenders such as Brazil’s BNDES, or international bond markets. SMEs, by contrast, are often self-financing, at least in the beginning, and are set up using personal or family savings.

Although private equity and venture capital may slowly be changing this pattern by providing alternative sources of finance, poor access to capital explains why most fast-growing Latin American SMEs are in services – rather than more capital-intensive manufacturing, extractive or agro-industrial sectors. It is also why Justin Lin, the World Bank’s chief economist, says small local banks should be the backbone of emerging economies’ financial systems.

Then there is geography. Less than a century ago, during the great rubber boom, the quickest way to travel from Lima, Peru’s capital on the Pacific coast, to the provincial town of Iquitos 620 miles away was on a boat that rounded Cape Horn and then paddled up the Amazon.

Today, the internet and the growing ubiquity of air travel is speeding integration both within and between countries in the region, and so opening the way for today’s SMEs to become tomorrow’s multilatinas. Plane freight volumes, for example, have grown by 40 per cent in Latin America this year, according to Iata, the trade body – almost twice the global average.

Nonetheless, the challenges remain large – and frustrating. Brazil, for example, is ranked 127th out of 183 countries this year in the World Bank’s annual Doing Business Report, below Mozambique and Nepal.

But they can also be overcome. Just look at Marfrig. A food company that began operations in 1986 as a family-owned meat business outside São Paulo, it now has a market capitalisation of $3bn and annual sales last year of more than $6bn.

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