One Woman's Path

One Clariant

We begin with a quotation. It is attributed to Katharine Hepburn, and is as if tailor-made for our protagonist. »Today’s women,« the Hollywood icon is supposed to have said, »don’t wait around for miracles – they arrange their miracles themselves.« It is a wonderfully apt description of Marcia Regina da Silva Rios, and as you read on you will see why.

Let’s zoom in from Google Earth. The scene is Latin America. What an immense continent, what an economic melting pot. Her domain.

Over 500 million people in an area of around 20 million square kilometers – from the Río Grande in the north down to the ice-covered needlepoint of the Cerro Torre peak in the south. Let’s take an imaginary flight around to get an overview. Up the Pacific coast and back down the Atlantic.

We start our trip at the naval base of Valparaíso in Chile. Then we continue along the Andes. We pass by Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, lined up like a string of pearls. Central America: the Panama Canal, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala. Elegant Acapulco and the industrial city of Monterrey. And then back down again: along the Gulf of Mexico with its oil rigs towards Venezuela. Maracaibo, Caracas. Paramaribo in Suriname, Kourou and the Ariane space station in French Guiana, finally Belém on the Amazon delta in Brazil. After Brazil there is still Paraguay, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, the diva of Argentina. But for now we have reached the places that all football fans (and not only them) yearn to be in this World Cup™ year of 2014: Fortaleza and Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro with its Sugar Loaf Mountain and Maracanã Stadium, and then finally the mega metropolis to beat all others: »SP,« or São Paulo. A vast city that is both beautiful and terrible at the same time.

Coming to this city of 12 million for the first time is a bit like being punched in the stomach. Where are the suburbs, where is the center? Every day, millions of cars stick together like leeches on ten-lane highways and creep bumper to bumper along the Rio Pinheiros and Rio Tietê. Motorbike riders – known locally as motoboys – dart between them, staging kamikaze races at 100 kilometers per hour. There are more helicopters in the air than in any other city in the world. Poor Marcia Rios, you would think before you first meet her, what sort of a life is this?

But there is not just this one São Paulo. Instead there are a whole series of them. Poor quarters, favelas, people washed up by life. But also the gleaming, nouveau riche Morumbi and the discreet old money villas in the Jardins district. There are the mirror-glass skyscraper facades in the new business district on Faria Lima. The picturesque old Centro with Niemeyer’s Edificio Copan on Avenida Ipiranga. An area that has come down in the world, yet still retains a certain grandeur.

There is the old station, converted into the Sala São Paulo, one of the most im­portant concert halls in South America. The business, shopping, and public demonstration street of Avenida Paulista, including the famous Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) right opposite the Parque Trianon. Not far away is the covered Mercado Municipal with its myriad delicacies, the huge Catedral Metropolitana, and last but not least the Parque do Ibirapuera, a last, giant haven of nature, sports, and leisure in the urban jungle. Early each morning at around 5.30 am, Marcia Rios puts on her running shoes here and runs for all she’s worth. »Running is a form of meditation for me,« says the veteran of eight marathons. »I solve my problems while I’m out there.«

Welcome to the day-to-day world of Marcia Rios, 53. Home address: Vila Sofia. We meet her, her husband Fabio, 48, daughter Georgia, 16, son Caio, 20, and dog Lucky at home on the eighth floor of a modern apartment complex. Hermetically sealed off, protected round the clock by video cameras and security personnel. A double gate when you drive into the underground parking lot and then the elevator takes you straight into the residential part of the building.

Marcia is a »paulista« through and through, born and raised in the megalopolis. She likes to appear in tasteful attire, carefully chosen – serious and tough. Classic outfits, silky blouses, tasteful handbags and shoes, and tailored trouser suits are her feminine statement. This is how she greets us, her shoulder-length hair tied up with a band. Some may believe in chance, but the fan of Leo Tolstoy and Jorge Amado is dismissive: »Nothing happens of its own accord, and everything has a deeper significance.« With pride and ambition she adds: »I want to be an example in my career, particularly as a woman.«

She occupies a high-ranking position in Clariant’s organizational structure. Since 2010 she has been responsible for the Industrial Applications segment for Latin America within the Business Unit Industrial & Consumer Specialties (ICS). This segment includes products from the Construction, Paints & Coatings, Industrial Lubricants, and Special Applications areas.

It is by no means an everyday occurrence for a woman to be in such a position, but a look at her curriculum vitae soon explains it: degree in chemical engineering in 1983, then postgraduate qualifications in administration (1987) and marketing (1992). This was followed by a master’s degree in mechanical engineering (2002) and – the icing on the cake – the MBA International Executive at the Fundação Instituto de Administração (FIA) at the University of São Paulo in 2009. Learning is a theme of her life. »If I am not furthering my education, I don’t feel stretched,« admits Marcia Rios, who has been working for Clariant since 2002.

Looking at her career and professional environment, the label of »pioneer« is certainly justified in her case. Throughout her life she has often been the first and only woman, and it is perhaps for that reason that she describes herself as »a representative of a generation that paved the way for women’s rights and is still working to create an environment for the next generation of young women, where men and women are able to work together successfully on equal terms.«

Not only in Brazil, women of her ilk are thin on the ground. Moreover, chemistry has traditionally been the poor cousin of emancipation. There have only ever been four female winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Marie Curie and her daughter Irène, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, and the Israeli Ada Yonath. Mar­garet Thatcher, in fact, obtained her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, but then embarked on a political career and became Britain’s »Iron Lady«.

It is a nice parallel, as Marcia Rios could have a similar reputation in the Clariant world in Latin America. Referring to her work, she says: »I can be very determined.« In her view, a technical term can be used to describe the interpersonal process. »I have calibrated myself,« she says. »I try to be as gentle as possible, but I am also able to struggle to win the challenges when required. I can show my feminine side most when I am dealing with my closest staff.«

From their perspective, Marcia Rios is more a charismatic leader than a boss. Tania Valeria Nascimento (Sales Construction Brazil) says: »She is concentrated and focused, speaks clearly, is a good listener, and is not afraid to discuss things openly. She makes us all feel important, and the focus is always on the team, the WE.«

And Pedro Dellabarba (Chemist of the Application Lab) puts it this way: »Her effort is for us to become better. She doesn’t just give guidance, but has a helpful approach and always gives feedback. That is a huge motivator, because we all have freedom in how we reach our objectives. She is certainly tough, but also resilient and humane, calm, ambitious, and decisive. She never loses temper.«

It’s Monday. At 10 am sharp, Marcia Rios meets her staff in the conference room of Clariant’s Latin American headquarters on Avenida das Nações Unidas in the São Paulo district of Santo Amaro. On the agenda are the results for the third quarter and preparations for the ABRAFATI 2013 paints & coatings fair in São Paulo. In front of her is a sheet of paper with the issues to be covered at the meeting. She quickly runs through the list, and after a brief response, calm discussion, or scheduling of a further meeting, she announces her agreement to each with »Tá Bom«. It’s ticked off, and then on to the next.

Later, looking back on this meeting, she will praise the competence of her staff, but by then we are already on our way to the northeast of the country – on route to the sugar cane fields and their ethanol-producing customers in the state of Pernambuco.

And because Marcia Rios is such a history buff, on the three-hour flight to Recife she takes us back a little into Brazil’s past. She spins a tale of bearded sailors on previously unexplored seas. These were the original pioneers, who sailed into the unknown and were finally washed up on distant, foreign shores.

The Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral makes landfall. It is the year 1500, and henceforth a new name appears on what is still an incomplete globe – Terra Brasilis. There is much mixing of bloodlines in those early days, but just as much blood – if not much more – is spilled. It is a raging world of conquest, military campaigns, lust for treasure, and exploitation. Brazil finally achieves its sove­reignty and proclaims an independent land in 1822. Moving forward to 1889, Emperor Dom Pedro II is overthrown by the military and flees the country.

»Sometimes I feel our country is a faint echo of those days.« She says this at the dawn of a new day on Carneiros beach near Porto de Galinhas. She looks out to sea, as if expecting rough-hewn adventurers or sinister slave dealers to appear over the horizon.

Like most of her compatriots, Marcia Rios has very diverse roots. They came to Brazil from everywhere: Europe and Africa, Asia, North America. »We Brazilians have a multifaceted identity and are a happy and always creative mixture from all corners of the world.« Skin color, face shape – you will find all types here. Her mother Luiza came from Italy. She began to work in a textiles factory in São Paulo. Her father Moises, born in northern Portugal, came to Brazil as a 16-year-old boy. He attended a technical school, was hired by Sachs Engineering as a mechanic, worked his way up, studied, and ultimately became an authority in the field of optical light systems. The two met while out walking in the beautiful park of the Museu do Ipiranga, and became a couple.

Her parents’ meeting place now decorates a whole wall of her apartment in the form of a black-and-white photograph. This is how important the memory of her parents is to her, particularly her mother, who died of cancer in 1976. Marcia was 16 and immediately became responsible for her sister Vania, four years younger than her, and buried her first dream. She had actually wanted to become an athlete, as she was a talented 400-meter runner, but that was over now. From that point on there were other duties as well as her obligations to her pragmatic father, who told her: »Set yourself goals and stand on your own two feet. You need your own career, your own money, and your independence.«

She became a chemist, and was always first in her class. We see her, the young woman she was then, taking her first steps in the professional world. To begin with, in a laboratory far outside of São Paulo. To enable her to work during the day and continue studying at night, she buys a motorbike and braves the São Paulo traffic. She marries, has her first child, supports her husband, is expecting Georgia, her second child, and is now working as a sales representative and covering thousands of kilometers in her car every year. A difficult time, but that is far from the end of it. She applies to do a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and is the only woman to be awarded one of the highly sought-after places. However, her professor makes her promise that she will complete all eight exams with the highest marks. She says: »That’s not fair,« but then agrees: »OK, I’ll do it.«

At Clariant, people first noticed Marcia Rios in 2002. She was working for a customer, and was hired to turn the company’s special lubricant for the metalworking industry into a success. Michael Pronin, Region Head of Clariant Latin America, says: »Marcia has essentially been one of our company’s top female employees for a decade now. She is part of a new generation of female managers, and to put it simply: she is a very positive example. Known to everyone, successful, and exemplary in every respect.«

Pronin is an energetic and dynamic man, a former Chilean naval officer. A picture of a ship in heavy seas hangs in his office, underlining in a very visible way one of his other sayings: »In Latin America we are familiar with crises and will not shrink before any storm.«

A chemistry set for advanced hobbyists could hardly be more exciting and explosive than this socially, politically – and particularly economically – diverse region of the world. In Pronin’s eyes, Chile stands among other things for an »excellent educational system and major copper deposits.« With a population of 50 million, Colombia has metal ores and produces both coal and increasing amounts of oil. The same applies to Mexico, with the added rider of »rising personal consumption.« Argentina is the powerhouse of the agricultural industry, and also has a strong presence in the oil and gas segment. In Peru, the mining sector is the most important driver of the economy, while Venezuela is extremely rich in oil. Brazil is taking something of a breather after an unbroken five-year economic boom in the years running up to the 2014 Football World Cup™ and the 2016 Olympic Games, but offers the most exciting prospects for Oil & Mining Services and ICS.

»With 12 production sites and laboratories with the best facilities, we have a powerful footprint in the region and are among the top international specialty chemicals companies in all relevant markets. In Latin America we manufacture around 80% of our sales ourselves and account for 15% of the Group’s total worldwide sales – with 7% in Brazil alone,« says Pronin.

A priceless treasure for Marcia Rios is the former gold-mining heart of Brazil – the town of Ouro Preto in the state of Minas Gerais. Framed by its steep hills, it is a site of pilgrimage that looks like a Baroque painting, with more than twenty Baroque churches and chapels. The cobblestones of the road that was once reserved for the emperor are still there, as is the Matriz Nossa Senhora do Pilar church, decorated with over 400 kilograms of precious metals.

Time has gnawed away on these and most other buildings. Their walls, which are supposed to be whitewashed, are now speckled with black mould. »But in future« – now speaks the chemist – »we can change that.« Nipasafe Syn is the answer. And that in fact goes for all the buildings in South America that are attacked by the damp equatorial climate. An environmentally compatible, highly efficient specialty chemical – devised, developed, and made ready for the market in her Clariant laboratory. The world premiere will be at the ABRAFATI in São Paulo, and despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes with a trade fair she really is looking forward to it like a small child.

A multi-faceted woman, then, who arranges her own miracles. In the final scene we see her, a practicing Catholic, in her church of Paróquia Sant’Ana as she is every Sunday. She holds the hand of her sister Vania, who even today still views her like a mother – the two women deep in silent prayer. Each new week begins like this. With a period of intense reflection on her family, friends, and colleagues. »Happiness is a fragile commodity,« says Marcia Rios. »In prayer I find peace.«

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