When Brazil’s most famous businesswoman stumbled and fell in front of the cameras while carrying the Olympic torch through her home town ahead of the 2016 Rio Games, shoppers across the country had reason to cheer.

“Dona Luiza fell but she’s alright,” tweeted her retail chain Magazine Luiza afterwards, as it announced new discounts. “Now prices have fallen too!”

Luiza Trajano meanwhile dealt with the setback just as she had with numerous other obstacles in her life: she picked herself up and carried on as if nothing had happened.

That grit and determination have helped Trajano, an only child from a shoemaking city deep in the interior of São Paulo state, climb from part-time sales assistant in the family store to become president and then chair of a retailing powerhouse valued at more than $23bn with 1,310 stores and 47,000 staff.

Along the way, she has become a powerful advocate for women’s rights and racial equality, as well as one of Latin America’s wealthiest women.

“I’m very grateful to have been brought up by firm women,” she says. “Because I was born in a cradle of entrepreneurial women, I felt I had a mission to also help other women learn to win.”

Trajano, 69, credits her success in business to an ability to put herself in the shoes of others and help solve their problems. “My mother brought me up to think of solutions,” she says. “When I used to arrive home from school saying the teacher had done something to me, she used to reply: ‘What are you going to do so that the teacher accepts you?’”

At 17, she began working in the family store in the city of Franca, a prosperous industrial city nearly 300km north of São Paulo, during school holidays to earn money for Christmas presents.

“I discovered I had a talent for dealing with people,” she says. “That’s what sales is all about . . . I learned that to sell, I had to enter the world of other people, to understand how they lived, how much they earned.”

Beginning in the 1970s, Magazine Luiza began a steady expansion and Trajano’s career grew with it. In 1991, when she took the top job, the company was still a family-owned chain named after her aunt with a few dozen stores in the interior of São Paulo and Minas Gerais states. She moved rapidly to professionalise management and bring in new ideas.

Customers queue to enter a Magazine Luiza store in São Paulo © Bruno Rocha/Fotoarena LTDA/Alamy

The 1990s were tough for Brazilian retailers. Recession and high inflation ate into profits and many stores closed. Trajano was contacted by mayors of small cities who had lost their only big store, asking her to open a branch of Magalu, as her chain is known. How could she do that profitably?

The solution she hit on was the “electronic shop” — a pre-internet prototype of online selling. Magazine Luiza opened small stores in less profitable cities with only a few staff and no stock on display. Shoppers were given advice in the store and shown the company’s range of white goods, consumer electronics, presents and furniture on VHS videos. Orders were delivered to homes. Customers loved it.

The company also blazed a trail in its employment practices, offering training programmes, comprehensive staff benefits and tough anti-discrimination rules.

“We’ve been [voted] among the best five companies to work in Brazil for 23 years,” Trajano says. Among the benefits Magazine Luiza offers is an extra monthly payment for staff with young children as well as health plans, life insurance, loans and a helpline for women suffering domestic violence. 

Technology was also a priority. Trajano tasked her business school-educated son, Federico, with setting up e-sales in-house in 2001, when Brazilian rivals were launching standalone online units. Magazine Luiza continued to invest in bricks and mortar, launching in Brazil’s business capital São Paulo in 2008 with 50 new stores.

Its commitment to an omnichannel model served the company well. Logistics are costly in Brazil and Luiza’s concept of selling online and using physical stores to deliver allowed it to turn profits denied to online-only competitors.

“We were pressured very heavily, even more after floating on the stock market [in 2011] . . . to separate the dotcom operation from the physical shops,” she says. “I thank my family, who were owners of 84 per cent of the stock at the time, they never asked why the shares were so low”. The two original shareholding families still own 58 per cent of the stock and Trajano’s 17 per cent stake is now worth more than $4bn, according to Forbes.

Reflecting her strong interest in social issues, Trajano created Mulheres do Brasil, a nationwide women’s network in 2013 to promote female empowerment. Three years later, she stepped back from the day-to-day operation of Magazine Luiza to chair the board and spend more time on social projects.

Trajano is unapologetic about her advocacy of quotas to increase the proportion of women on company boards from its current 7 per cent level in Brazil. “Until two or three years ago, women weren’t even thought of for boards, they had no chance,” she says. “You can only talk about meritocracy when there are opportunities for everyone.”

Three questions for Luiza Trajano

Who is your leadership hero?

My aunt was a very strong leader, very concerned with social issues. She donated a cancer hospital to the city. But I don’t have a single idol. I’ve always been inspired by various people.

If you were not a leader/CEO, what would you be?

I would have been a psychologist.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

I learned empathy. Empathy is changing places with another person, being in their world.

The same thinking led her towards increasing racial diversity in Magalu. She believes the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the US last year had a profound impact in Brazil, which was among the last nations in the western world to abolish slavery. “Those eight minutes of asphyxiation affected business people and the authorities profoundly,” she says. 

Magazine Luiza announced last year that it would reserve all the places in its highly sought-after graduate training scheme for black applicants in an effort to develop future black senior managers. Despite accusations on social media of reverse racism, the company went ahead and selected 20 black trainees from almost 20,000 applicants: other companies followed suit.

“Brazil had 400 years of slavery,” Trajano explains. “Slavery didn’t just leave a financial legacy but also an emotional one. People didn’t feel that the country was theirs . . . It was a very serious legacy of slavery and of the very bad way in which abolition happened . . . people were thrown on to the street without food, without work, without a home, without schooling and without money.”

Most recently, Trajano has launched an initiative called United for Vaccine to collect money to help speed up inoculations in a country with the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus deaths.

Her fame and popularity have led some in Brazil to suggest that she should run for president next year, an idea Trajano flatly rules out.

“I’m a politician in that I have a group of almost 100,000 women who want to be the biggest non-party organisation in Brazil,” she says. “100,000 people speaking the same language despite thinking differently. I believe in the transformation of the country through an organised and determined civil society.”

michael.stott@ft.com

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