Sociedade Francisco Manuel dos Santos (SFMS) was established on August 2nd 1941 by Francisco Manuel dos Santos and his children. The goal was to formalize the participations he had in several companies, such as Jerónimo Martins, co-owned by him since 1921.
Today, SFMS is an international global holding company which manages a range of investments in distinct areas, such as distribution, manufacturing, agri-food, specialized retail, health care services and citizenship and environment. Supported by its current shareholders, heirs of the founder, the main role of SFMS is to ensure the continuity of the Group with a vision of future.
With the experience of more than four generations, Sociedade Francisco Manuel dos Santos is a Group that employs more than 90 thousand people, has revenues of €15 billion and serves directly more than 300 million people in various countries.
The Francisco Manuel dos Santos Family
In 1792, a Galician immigrant opened a modest grocer’s shop in the centre of Lisbon. The reputation he quickly acquired brought him respectable partners and clients and the right to supply the Royal Household. Over a century later, many of Jerónimo Martins’ descendents were still at the helm of the Chiado store; the decision to sell was a result of financial difficulties exacerbated by the First World War, probably combined with a crisis of succession. Francisco Manuel dos Santos was one of the three partners who in 1921 acquired Jerónimo Martins, launching the dynasty which still controls the company today. The fundamental role that he played in the company’s history explains the creation of a foundation in his honour.
Francisco Manuel dos Santos came from the same humble origins in the north of Portugal as Jerónimo Martins. Born in 1876 in Safurdão, 23 km from Guarda, he is thought to have had a relatively comfortable upbringing; the fact that he attended primary school (which meant him walking half the distance between his home and the district’s capital every day), suggests a middle-class household, given that it was rare for children, especially in the interior, to enjoy the benefits of an elementary education. Equipped with a limited grasp of reading, writing and arithmetic, Francisco Manuel dos Santos was, however, forced to abandon his native village due to the decline in his parents’ fortunes; he was 10 years old, and never again experienced formal education.
In response to a grocer’s advertisement for a boy who could read, write and do sums, Francisco Manuel dos Santos was sent to Porto. The city was then undergoing its most significant period of growth in modern times, and the young man did not hesitate in taking advantage of the opportunities this brought. Abandoning the position of grocer’s assistant, he set himself up in the same line of business. Highly successful, he made his fortune and developed a network of useful professional contacts, making the acquaintance of Elísio Pereira do Vale.
Together with Domingos Gomes they established the Grandes Armazéns Reunidos in 1920, with a headquarters in Porto. The following year, the company responded to Jerónimo Martins’ entry into the market; a substantial proportion of the profits from the old “corner shop” came from his work as a warehouse worker. The restructuring of the Estabelecimentos Jerónimo Martins & Filho was financed by a loan from the Borges & Irmão bank, which accepted the “business and honour” of Francisco Manuel dos Santos as collateral (Domingos Gomes having abdicated any executive responsibilities, these being shared only with Elísio Pereira do Vale). The strategy to divest itself of all trade in and storage of non-food products – a curious decision, in the light of the later failed attempts to re-enter this market – and open more retail outlets enabled a slow but steady recovery.
Father to numerous offspring, Francisco Manuel dos Santos was delighted when his daughter Maria da Conceição – a particular favourite since she was responsible for the household duties excused his wife due to ill health – married a first cousin, Elísio Alexandre dos Santos. A promising youth, he was offered a management position, which he officially accepted in 1935. The family patriarch Santos died in 1953, at the end of a period of shortages caused by the war and the industrial expansion of the company, leaving the future fortunes of Jerónimo Martins effectively in the hands of his son-in-law and nephew.
Of Francisco Manuel dos Santos’ seven children (Fernando, Francisco, Maria da Conceição, Helena, Alzira, Vasco and Artur), only the second was allowed the privilege of accompanying him on business trips, the rest remaining at the margins of the company management. However, the two men’s differing temperaments prevented them forming a bond which would allow the son to take over the company. In contrast, Elísio Alexandre dos Santos demonstrated clear signs of his professionalism over his decade of experience, enjoying the family’s complete confidence. So it was with the owners’ consent that that he assumed control of Jerónimo Martins, although with the status of a mere employee – only later was he granted a 1.8% share in the Estabelecimentos, a crucial percentage. In the case of a disagreement, this was enough to grant him the deciding vote in favour of the Vales or the Santos family.
Born in Porto in 1907, it is not clear what led the adolescent Elísio Alexandre dos Santos to leave for Angola. It is only known that he worked in Luanda until his father’s illness worsened, bringing him back to Portugal. The tightness of the family budget was behind his decision to relinquish his studies and help his brother Mário to qualify in Medicine; instead he attended the Complete Course in Commerce at the Escola Académica in Porto. In the early 1930s he was married, and in 1935 moved to the capital to help run the family business. He enjoyed an excellent relationship with Francisco Manuel dos Santos, who respected his competence and demonstrated a particular affection, amongst his fourteen grandchildren, for the younger Elísio Alexandre (known simply as Alexandre).
Soon after entering the firm, it was decided to invest in a margarine factory. A company named Fima (Fábrica Imperial de Margarinas, Lda.) was set up, in partnership with Silva Torrado; the factory at Sacavém remained idle, however, until the end of the Second World War, when it was finally fitted out with the necessary equipment. A devastating fire not long after put an end to its troubled existence. However, Unilever was looking for a partner to operate in Portugal which would allow it to get round the government’s restrictive industrial policies and so contacted Fima. Once the agreement was signed, Silva Torrado announced his desire to sell his share, worth some 10 million escudos. Constrained by the protocol of a large multinational, Unilever’s representative hesitated; Elísio Alexandre dos Santos did not. When Francisco Manuel dos Santos was informed of events, which would in fact give them a dominant position in Fima over Unilever, he seriously questioned the wisdom of the deal, concerned at the amount involved; a loan from Banco Lisboa & Açores sealed the argument.
The industrial expansion set in train by Fima accelerated over the next few decades: Lever (cleaning products), Favorita (ice cream) and Iglo (frozen food) came together in a joint-venture that binds Unilever and Jerónimo. However, in the mid-60s, this was called into question with the serious problem of ageing personnel, most of who had been employed by Francisco Manuel dos Santos in their youth if they promised to complete their schooling. The international outlook altered significantly with the creation of the European Community and EFTA, and the coming of the computer age called for a series of workers who were dynamic and open to new technology. Exhausted – he would die in Brazil in 1967 while visiting his son – Alexandre Soares dos Santos suggested that his son return to Portugal and run Jerónimo Martins. He declined and advised his father to sell the company, for which Unilever confirmed it was willing to offer 400 million escudos, a substantial sum.
The two key decisions taken by Elísio Alexandre dos Santos in the history of Jerónimo Martins were, then, to buy and to sell; while the first marked the change from its period as a retail and warehousing operation to its industrial phase, the second marked its sudden and unexpected rise as a distribution giant. In fact, the terms of Unilever’s proposed restructuring, once they became known after the death of Elísio Alexandre dos Santos, were taken badly by the family who refused to agree and instead backed the return of Alexandre Soares dos Santos to Portugal in order to revitalize Jerónimo Martins.
In 1957, he travelled to Germany to become a management trainee at Unilever. There followed spells in Ireland, France and Brazil, where he settled in 1964. At the time, employees of multinationals posted to countries categorized as third world had the right to two months annual holiday. It was during this break that father-son ties were strengthened in Lisbon, and both discussed for the first time the question of the leadership of Jerónimo Martins.
Anticipating the difficulties that a possible return would imply, aggravated by the inevitable personality clash, Alexandre Soares dos Santos felt reluctant to ally himself with a company that he viewed as ill-prepared to survive the turbulence of modern life. After the death of Elísio Alexandre dos Santos, the friendly intervention of the then vice-president of Unilever (who had been following his international career closely from the start) played a decisive role in influencing his return. After his demands for clear executive powers were made plain and agreed to, Alexandre Soares dos Santos finally entered the family business.
The challenge of the initial period of leadership was the urgent need to renew staff, resulting in a series of redundancies which were difficult for employees to understand. Their careers in many cases had developed entirely within the Group. With the revolution of 25th April de 1974, the delay in payments from Angola, a colony where Jerónimo Martins had interests in previous decades, had led to a progressive withdrawal from 1970 of investments in the newly-independent state (ironically, during the Christmas of 1973, Alexandre Soares dos Santos had talked to his wife about the possibility of moving to Luanda). Even so, the occupation of the company’s premises had grave financial and human consequences. A hundred workers were evacuated and put up at a holiday camp at Praia das Maçãs beach, causing problems when they returned. In Lisbon, the situation necessitated protection of the factory, threatened by PREC (Ongoing Revolutionary Process).
Once the storm had passed, Alexandre Soares dos Santos became concerned with the imbalance caused in the joint-venture by Unilever’s attempt at controlling production, and took the risk of taking over distribution as a counterbalancing strategy. In 1980, the first Pingo Doce supermarket was opened; that year marked the return of Jerónimo Martins to the small-scale grocery business on the Rua Garrett, which quickly became an extensive network of large stores. Again, it was a dialogue with the former vice-president of Unilever, while on a visit to the Linda-a-Velha supermarket, which provided the idea behind Alexandre Soares dos Santos’ next step.
Thus, in 1989, the Francisco Manuel dos Santos family acquired – after seven decades in business – the Vale family’s share in Jerónimo Martins, 40% of which remained in the hands of the Chairman of the Board, who retained the power to appoint the company management. The operation was financed by a flotation (initial public offering) of part of the company’s capital on the Stock Exchange.
Alexandre Soares dos Santos still occupies the position he assumed in 1967. He is 74 years old and has been married since 1957 to Maria Teresa Canas Mendes da Silveira e Castro, with whom he has seven children, two of whom are on the board of the company, and eighteen grandchildren.
Jerónimo Martins, leader of the sectors of Food Retail and Manufacture of Consumer Goods in Portugal (the latter, in a joint-venture with Unilever), ranks eighth in market capitalization in the Lisbon Stock Exchange and employs over fifty thousand people, half of whom working abroad. Since February 1996, Elísio Alexandre Soares dos Santos (commonly known as Alexandre Soares dos Santos) is Chairman of the Group; Luís Maria Viana Palha da Silva oversees the Financial department. Pedro Manuel Soares dos Santos is in charge of Food Distribution Operations, while José Manuel Soares dos Santos is responsible for Manufacturing Operations, Marketing Services, Representations and Restaurant. The Foundation recently created by the Soares dos Santos family pays homage to the man who, by becoming the owner of an age-old grocery, launched the enterprise: Francisco Manuel dos Santos.
The brand Jerónimo Martins had a long history in Lisbon’s commercial milieu by the transaction of 1921. The «tent» (as it was mentioned in official documents) founded in 1792 by a Galician in the centre of the city had by then been promoted to a grocery shop and transferred from Rua Ivens to Rua Garrett – one of Lisbon’s most elegant arteries. It traded in exquisite national and foreign brands, including the olive oil produced by the historian and politician Alexandre Herculano in his exile of Vale de Lobos. Boasting a clientele of elevated social status, the firm had been awarded by D. Fernando, regent and widow of D. Maria II, the warrant of supplier of the Royal Household (a distinction conspicuous in the façade of the establishment, destroyed in the Chiado blaze of 1988).
Until the death of its founder, the shop prospered steadily; the first financial hardships, towards the end of the 19th century, were due to the complacency of the heirs and specifically to the gambling debts piled up by one of Jerónimo Martins’ sons. The auction of a significant part of the family’s possessions and the outline and execution of a scheme of progressive payment to creditors, reliant on the good reputation enjoyed by João António Martins, put an end to the crisis (when João António Martins died childless, his employees decided to maintain the original name of the establishment). Things would turn out differently in 1918, when the thorny economic consequences of the war seem to have combined with the inexistence of successors committed to managing the business.
Three years later, the shop was taken over by Francisco Manuel dos Santos and his partners in the northern Grandes Armazéns Reúnidos, one of the biggest Wholesale companies in Porto: Elísio Pereira do Vale e Domingos Gomes. With the support of the bank Borges & Irmão, they put in place a network of retail shops, improved the warehousing, and suppressed all activities connected with non-edible products. Gradually, the renamed Estabelecimentos Jerónimo Martins & Filho regained financial stability, and became the first company in the country to pay the 13th month of salary to its employees, for whom a canteen was built in the Chiado premises.
The expansion into Industry took place in the mid 1930s, with the investment in a margarine factory (margarine was at the time a necessary yet rare product). Fima (Fábrica Industrial de Margarinas, Lda.) was born out of a partnership with Mr. Silva Torrado, although the plant only started operating in 1944, since the world conflict prevented the arrival of equipment; it burnt to the ground shortly after. The firm owes its survival to Unilever – whose brands Jerónimo Martins had been selling since 1926 – then forced by the dictatorship’s industrial policies to affiliate itself to a local agent in order to operate in Portugal. Jerónimo Martins eventually bought Silva Torrado out, thereby getting hold of 60% of FIMA; the balance was reset by the formation of Lever (cleaning and personal hygiene products), 60% of which was allotted to Unilever. In the 1970’s, Olá (ice-creams) and Iglo (frozen products) would also be included in the joint-venture.
The death of Francisco Manuel dos Santos in 1953 prompted the organization of the Soares dos Santos legatees in a non-commercial company, while the members of the Vale family founded a real estate company. Until the 25th of April 1974, the industrial option ensured the growth of Jerónimo Martins, thus signaling a second phase in the company’s extensive chronicle (after the inaugural one of Retail and Wholesale). Jerónimo Martins dealt predominantly with the colonies, mostly with Luanda, from where a relevant portion of its profits came. From 1970 onwards, there was a gradual withdrawal from Africa, explained by the inconvenient ‘delayed payments’. Prior to the Angolan proclamation of independence, Jerónimo Martins’ top executives contacted the revolutionary movements, as well as Portuguese authorities; nevertheless, the Group’s possessions in the country were occupied and dismantled.
In 1967, following the death of his father, Alexandre Soares dos Santos took charge of the family business, where Fima-Lever played a decisive role, resulting of the partnership entered in 1949 between Jerónimo Martins and Unilever. Realizing that the future would rely heavily on modern retail, Alexandre Soares dos Santos banks on expanding in this sector. The supermarket company Pingo Doce started operating in 1980, two years after being established. In 1985, the Group set up a strategic partnership with the Belgian Delhaize Group “Le Lion”, which thus joined the shareholder structure of Pingo Doce, and within two years, it bought 15 Pão de Açúcar stores, consolidating its position in food retail in Portugal.
In 1988 Jerónimo Martins became the largest shareholder of wholesaler Recheio, which had four stores at the time, and thus entered the wholesale market. In that same year, a major fire in the Chiado neighbourhood destroyed the Jerónimo Martins historical store and central offices on Rua Garrett.
In 1989 FIMA bought Victor Guedes, producer of Gallo olive oil and Jerónimo Martins acquired the remaining 40% of the Recheio chain. In the same year, company Francisco Manuel dos Santos acquired the stakes of remaining shareholders of Jerónimo Martins & Filho. In order to finance this major investment, it listed the company on the Lisbon Stock Exchange.
In 1990 the Group set up the chocolate and sweets chain Hussel and bought Arminho, a reference cash & carry located in Braga, which allowed Recheio to expand and boost sales. In 1992 as the Group celebrated its 200th birthday, it entered into a joint venture with Ahold, which replaced Delhaize as strategic partner in Pingo Doce. The nineties marked the beginning of Jerónimo Martins internationalisation. The Group expanded first to Poland where in 1995 it bought a chain of 48 cash & carries operating under brand Eurocash – and subsequently to Brazil where it acquired Supermarkets Sé. Jerónimo Martins left Brazil in 2002, to focus on building up market leadership for Biedronka, the Polish discount stores chain which had started to be developed in 1995.
In 2005 Bestfoods Portugal is merged into FIMA and two years later, the Group closed the deal for the purchase of Plus in Portugal and Poland, where it opened the 1000th Biedronka store. In the following year, the Pingo Doce chain made a full rebranding, and in 2009 it brought under its umbrella the Feira Nova hypermarkets. In 2011 the Group announced its next internationalisation target country – Colombia, and on March 12, 2013 it opened its first stores and the first distribution centre in the country, all located in the Colombian coffee region.
Ambition, resilience and capacity to overcome difficulties became intrinsic values of the Group as its history shows. In 2009, Sociedade Francisco Manuel dos Santos created a Foundation with the same name, the mission of which is to strengthen civil society in Portugal, promoting an in-depth knowledge of the problems, challenges and opportunities which the country and the Portuguese people face. In 2015 the company acquired the Oceanário de Lisboa, thus enhancing its social responsibility pillar, and in 2016 it launched a new Foundation devoted to the protection of oceans, the Oceano Azul Foundation.
Growth, sustainability and citizenship will continue to be the major guiding lines of investment and action.
The XXIst century will be the century of the oceans.