Mexican cement baron dies, made Cemex a global brand

Mon May 12, 2014 10:32pm EDT
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MONTERREY (Reuters) - Lorenzo Zambrano, one of Mexico's best-known businessmen who turned Cemex into a global cement giant but also nearly brought the company crashing down, died on Monday aged 70.

Cemex (CMXCPO.MX: Quote) said its chief executive of the past three decades passed away in Madrid of natural causes. There had been no reports of illness and it was unclear who will succeed Zambrano, whose grandfather founded the company.

Among Mexico's wealthiest people in 2006, when he was worth an estimated $1.8 billion, Zambrano's fortune tumbled after a risky purchase of a rival the following year. He fell off Forbes' rich list, which fellow Mexican Carlos Slim later led.

Before Zambrano took charge, Cemex was a financially solid, domestic operation that had successfully avoided Mexico's dramatic economic crashes but was risk averse.

Zambrano moved to change that, building it into one of Mexico's first modern multinationals. A series of acquisitions extended Cemex's reach to five continents, making him the public face of one of Latin America's most successful companies.

But the $16 billion acquisition of Australian building materials company Rinker in 2007, when the U.S. housing market was already months into a downturn, turned Cemex into an early victim of the subprime housing crash.

At the time, Zambrano put a brave face on it.

"We've shown that a company that is born in a developing country can compete in the whole world, and we want to keep doing it," he told Reuters in 2009.

Cemex, one of Mexico's biggest listed companies with a market value of around 200 billion pesos ($15.4 billion), would spend the following years struggling with large debts and trimming costs by outsourcing and cutting jobs.   Continued...

Cemex Chief Executive Lorenzo Zambrano holds a news conference before the company's annual shareholders meeting in Monterrey February 23, 2012. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril