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Britcham Brasil 1916 - 2006 90 years fostering trade and investment with Brazil

In 1916 the British government approached British companies and individuals in Rio de Janeiro (then the Federal capital) and in São Paulo with the idea of forming British Chambers of Commerce. Great Britain and the British Empire were, in 1916, immersed in the epic struggle of the First World War and the imperial government in London, facing the threat to British trade from the German U-boats operating around the British coast, decided to take whatever steps were possible to protect trade with the countries of South America. The Chambers of Commerce in Rio de Janeiro (the British Chamber of Commerce in Brazil) and São Paulo (the British Chamber of Commerce for São Paulo and the South of Brazil) were both founded in 1916, and the Chambers of Commerce in Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Montevideo seem to have been originally founded at around the same time.

In Brazil, the moving force was Ernest Hambloch who was First Commercial Secretary of the British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro - at this time there was no British ambassador, and the Embassy was headed up by the resident British Minister. Ernest Hambloch lived in Brazil for 25 years as a British diplomat during which time he wrote a famous study of the First Republic (1889 to 1934) called 'His Majesty the President of Brazil' which was published in England. The publication deeply offended Getúlio Vargas and resulted in his expulsion from Brazil by Vargas and the fascist Estado Novo in 1935 - influenced by Mussolini's hostility to the British in South America.

It is easy to forget the tremendously strong British presence in Brazil in the first three decades of the 20th century. In 1900, Great Britain was by far and away Brazil's biggest trading partner and there were already huge British investments in Brazil, so even though the Italian and Portuguese Chambers of Commerce are considerably older, the importance of the British Chamber became quickly established. British trade continued to be very large as a proportion of all Brazilian trade until the 1940's, and the early years of the Chamber's history were devoted mainly to Brazil's predominant commercial relationship - including trade regulations, taxes, logistics, and shipping. As well as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, there were also active Chamber branches in Porto Alegre and Santos with their own members and executive committees.As early as August 1920 Ernest Hambloch is on record as urging the merger of the two British Chambers of Commerce in Brazil to form a single national Chamber, but this did not actually take place until 1967, when commercial and business conditions were very different to those in the early years of the Chamber. The decline of British commercial influence in Brazil was very rapid during the period from 1940 to 1960 and by the time the Federal Capital moved to Brasília in 1959, the British Chambers of Commerce had lost their importance in terms of stimulating and regulating Anglo-Brazilian trade.

In the early sixties an attempt was made to launch a British and Commonwealth Chamber of Commerce in the new Federal Capital with the support of the larger Commonwealth countries such as Australia and India. However, there were an insufficient number of companies in Brasília interested in being members, and after a year or so this Chamber closed. In the meantime the Chamber in Rio de Janeiro was strongly affected by the move of the Federal Capital to Brasília, and in 1967, with inflation in Brazil already high, the British Chamber of Commerce in Rio de Janeiro underwent a sudden financial crisis and finally resolved to merge with its counterpart in São Paulo. The Statutes were rewritten to provide for one national British Chamber of Commerce with two branches, the branches in Porto Alegre and Santos having closed in the intervening period. So the original objective of a single national Chamber was finally achieved some 45 years later, without, however, it having any representation in the Federal Capital.

The Chamber at this time had become what was basically a luncheon club for British businessmen that also provided a convenient platform for visiting British ministers and other VIP speakers, but even this minimalist role was gradually threatened by the steady reduction in long-term expatriate positions at the top of those British companies in Brazil. In 1984, Albert Healey as the new President of the Rio de Janeiro branch, and working closely with the British Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro, started a revival of Chamber activity in Rio which continued under his successors after Albert retired and returned to England. This extended to the head office in São Paulo and the São Paulo branch under the influence of Ray Krinker of Price Waterhouse (still an Honorary Councillor) and Dr José Pinheiro Neto (who sadly passed away last year). This period saw the formation of the first standing sub-committees of the postwar period in São Paulo - the Legal Committee and the Human Resources Committee - led respectively by Pinheiro Neto partners Gilberto Giusti and Peres Piccolomini.

A business plan was formulated in 1994 under the chairmanship of Bill Beith (still a Britcham councillor) and presented to a small group of large British member companies who agreed to provide additional funds to restructure the Chamber and make it profitable. David Thomas who was CEO of Lloyds Bank in Brazil at that time (and now a director of Lloyds TSB in London) took over the chairmanship and the Chamber offices in old downtown districts of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were sold. The Rio de Janeiro branch was invited by the Federação de Indústrias do Estado do Rio de Janeiro to move into the International Trade Centre in the FIRJAN building in Rio, and after a brief spell in Vila Olímpia, the head office and São Paulo branch moved into the Cultura Inglesa's new Brazilian British Centre when it was opened in 2000, co-located with the Consulate-General and the British Council.

The management of the Chamber was professionalised with the appointment of Richard Stevens as the Executive Director, succeeded by myself in 1998. During this period the first standing sub-committee in Rio de Janeiro - the Rio Legal Committee - was formed by Denis Daniel in 1999, to be followed by the Energy Committee and others, while a wide range of different committees were formed in São Paulo, the most active being the Environment Committee, the Health Sector Committee, and the International Trade and Investment Committee. An active and well visited website was set up, the old Chamber magazine was re-launched in 1999 as 'Britain Brasil' magazine, and the Annual Directory was also re-launched in 2005 for its 75th anniversary issue.

Under the chairmanship of Aldo Castelli the Chamber re-wrote its business plan and adopted a new mission statement 'To be a forum for the promotion of bilateral trade, investment and services'. A new branch was opened (actually re-opened) in Porto Alegre under the leadership of Russell Deakin, and a small office was opened in Porto Alegre in 2005. The Chamber continues to have the full support of the British government through H.M. Ambassador in Brasília and H.M. Consuls-General in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The wheel has now come full circle as the British Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Brazil returns to its roots promoting bilateral trade and investment between the two countries in the very different global business context of the 21st century.