When Carlos Bulgheroni was 28 years old, doctors diagnosed him with cancer and said he only had five months to live. He defied all expectations but his time finally came yesterday, when, at age 71 he died at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was recovering from surgery.
In the years since his first diagnosis, he and his brother, Alejandro, built a business empire based on the oil business that turned them into Argentina’s richest men. Forbes estimated the net worth of the Bulgheroni brothers at US$4.8 billion, ranking the pair as the 324th richest in the world.
The brothers didn’t exactly make their wealth out of nothing, but they took the company they inherited from their father, Bridas Corp., and turned it into a global player in energy. Throughout the years, it was Carlos who was seen as the real driver of the company’s oil business, the tireless worker who had an uncanny ability to lobby and make friends in the country’s ever-changing political landscape. He was a great ally to President Raúl Alfonsín in the 1980s before becoming a huge supporter of Carlos Menem in the 1990s and, despite a bit of a rough start with Néstor Kirchner in 2003, became one of the few business leaders who was there in personn to hear Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s inaugural speech in 2007.
It was this drive to seal deals that is often credited with turning Bridas, which was once mainly a supplier to national oil company YPF, into a key oil producer. The Bulgheronis ended up selling 50 percent of Bridas to China’s influential state-owned oil company Cnooc in 2010 for US$3.1 billion. For its part, Bridas owns 40 percent of Pan American Energy (PAE), the company that operates the country’s largest oil field (Cerro Dragón) and is second only to YPF in terms of production. And in 2012, Bridas bought Esso’s assets in Argentina, which it renamed Axion, making the company an important player in the retail fuel sector as well.
Even as he was politically savvy at home, Bulgheroni also looked abroad toward opportunities in the energy sector that opened up in Asia after the iron curtain came tumbling down. One of the most iconic photos of Carlos Bulgheroni shows him sitting in the desert, negotiating with the Taliban to build a pipeline through Afghanistan in 1994. The significance of that photo goes well beyond Argentina’s borders as it confirms how Carlos Bulgheroni effectively became the first Western business leader to negotiate directly with the Taliban. The pipeline never became a reality as the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996 and assassinated the president. The photo only came to light years later, when Clarín published it in September, 1997.