When he was twenty-odd years old and was in the third year of engineering at
São Paulo’s Mackenzie school, Romeu Chap Chap decided he wanted to visit the
United States. As he had no money for the trip, he developed a plan: He would
send letters to 600 North American companies asking them to cover the cost of a
two-day stay and transport between two cities.
The proposal included a group of five students and a professor. Sixty companies answered agreeing with the proposal.
The second problem now had to be solved. The cost of the tickets. Chap Chap had no qualms; he travelled to Rio de Janeiro, then the federal capital, to ask nobody other than Juscelino Kubitschek, the president of Brazil at the time.
He was not met by the president, but was granted a meeting with the minister of University Matters, who did not grant him the tickets, but asked airline Varig to give the group a discount. Thus, Chap Chap and his colleagues travelled to New York, in 1958, paying for just half a ticket.
The story is in the autobiography that the businessman has recently released “Romeu Chap Chap – A Life in Construction” (Campus Publishing House). The book was published at the same time in which he left the presidency at the Secovi, after 13 years heading the largest real estate union in the country.
“I could have continued, it is true, but I feel that I have already fulfilled my mission there.” In 2001, he closed his construction company to dedicate himself exclusively to the public life that his job at the Secovi demanded. “It was a high cost. I had constructions halted, was inspected by the Revenue Service due to a disagreement with a minister. But I would do it all again.”
The case of the trip to the United States shows two characteristics that accompanied the businessman during his trajectory. The first is fearlessness. Doing, trying, daring. “I never feared in advance. I do not do anything believing that it will not work out.” The second is the relations with presidents. His attempt in meeting president Juscelino Kubitschek was just his first trip to the federal capital seeking political support for some project, idea or cause.
“Occasionally, when I met Lula, I kept some papers in my pocket and said: ‘here, read this’,” he recalls. Secovi folders with text like “Habitation, an emergency question!” or “A quick proposal to reduce the housing deficit for low-income families” ended up in the pockets of Lula’s and other president with whom he met.
He was invited to manage public organizations connected to the area of habitation several times. He declined them all. “As the Secovi president I was able to operate more politically than if I had accepted one of these positions,” he said.
“I did not want to have to show my accounts to minor saints. I wanted to talk straight to Jesus Christ. And I did not want to have to answer to political parties.”
As the president at the Union, he travelled to Brazilian capital Brasília several times, at the invitation of several governments to give his opinion on habitation, to present projects and to seek support. Many ministers listened carefully to his suggestions. And then did all the opposite. Others paid heed to some of his suggestions.
A beacon, in this respect, he attributed to a meeting he had with then finance minister Antonio Palocci, in 2004, in which he and sector businessmen showed the main problems that halted growth of the real estate sector, among them bank insecurity to finance constructions, mainly due to the case of construction company Encol, which went broke in the 1990s.
“Four months later the government approved a regulator for the sector,” he celebrates. To him, the real estate boom the country is living now is a reflex of these changes made to the law, among others.
However, Chap Chap thinks that very little has been done for habitation in all the governments he accompanied. He mentioned the João Figueiredo government, the Fernando Collor government and now the Lula government as those that did something. “But Collor didn’t even have enough time,” he points out. “And Fernando Henrique lived one crisis after the other, and could not do anything,” he ponders.
To solve the problem of the housing deficit, there is no way, believes Chap Chap, other than subsidizing the purchase of a house for families that earn up to three minimum wages (currently equivalent to 1,140 Brazilian reais – US$ 650).
“There is a deficit of eight million houses in the country, and 79% of these families earn up to three minimum wages. How can they pay a financing plan of 400 reais (US$ 230) a month, for a 40,000-real (US$ 22,735) apartment on that income? It is not possible, they need subsidies. And what is already in existence in this area is still too little.”
Salim ChapChap (written that way, together), the businessman’s father, arrived in Brazil at the age of 18, from Hasbaya, on the frontier between Lebanon and Israel. His mother, Naziha Kairala, came later.
“He travelled to Hasbaya to collect her,” he explains. “As a typical Lebanese migrant, my father started his life in his new land as a travelling salesman,” he explains.
Chap Chap was born in Paraíso neighborhood, in São Paulo, where the Arab colony was concentrated at the time, in the 1930s. In the neighborhood there are at least 25 buildings put up by his construction company. In total, there were over 100.
Of his Lebanese blood what remained was his taste for adventure, for risk. “It is the Phoenician characteristic,”he says. From the Arabs, what remains is the passion for the food and comprehension of the language. “But I cannot speak it. I talk to my Lebanese cousins in English.”
And he has travelled to the land of his forefathers many times. The first was in 1964, accompanying his mother. At the time, he made use of the opportunity to visit Egypt, Jordan and even Jerusalem. Then, in 1975, he spent days locked in a hotel room due to the murder of a political leader in Beirut.
As he is considered a Lebanese descendant of great expression in Brazil, he was invited several times by politicians to give talks in the country. In 2003, he travelled in the delegation headed by president Lula. In 2005, he returned with then São Paulo state governor Geraldo Alckmin.
With each trip, he found a different Lebanon. “I could see, in the 2000s, all that happened to the country after the (Rafik) Hariri phase and what happened after his demise (in 2005)”, he recalls.
Shoe Shiner, Promoter and DJ
At the age of ten, the Chap Chap boy started shining his parents’ friends’ shoes to make some money. He also helped in a store where he received his “salary” in sweets. At the age of 14 he went to work as a salesman at a record shop in São Bento Street, in downtown São Paulo. After that he worked for Sears for three years and even went on military service.
At the time, he was already showing his entrepreneurial talent. He promoted several dances with a friend and on one occasion even leased a tram to take people from Paraíso neighborhood to Santo Amaro, where the party was going to take place.
A fair price was negotiated with Light, then responsible for public transport in São Paulo, and the tram was leased. He also had the “invisible orchestra”, him and the friends with whom he worked as a DJ at parties.
Aged 74, and with no desire to stop soon, Chap Chap left the Secovi presidency in September – being succeeded by João Batista Crestana – but he remains on the board of the union. Apart from that, he has taken on two new projects.
The first is a partnership with company Marcopolo for the construction of the “PracticalHouse”, a house that may be put up in ten days, with an area of 60 square meters (646 sq feet) and that is being tested in a condominium in the city of Pindamonhangaba, in the interior of São Paulo. “It may be an excellent solution to the problem of lack of low-income housing,” he bets.
The other enterprise is a partnership with BCSul Verax Serviços Financeiros, an organization connected to Cruzeiro do Sul Bank. The idea is to create investment projects for small and medium companies in the retail sector.
“Large companies have opened their capital on the stock exchanges. The small and medium ones have not many options. And there are several things that banks do not finance, like the purchase of plots of land,” he explained.
“Therefore, the idea is to focus on these companies.” The first step in this respect has already been taken and has even been given a name: Chap Chap Fund, a fund with participation in real estate enterprises with minimum investment of 1 million reais (US$ 570,000).
In the book, the businessman and now investment consultant explains that both the Chap Chap and the Kairala families are characteristically long-lived. Those who die at the age of 80, in the family, are considered to have died young. Maybe that is where the recipe for so much energy came from in someone who started working at the age of ten and is not going to stop any day soon.
Anba – www.anba.com.br
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