Alexandre Cortes

Mitsui & Co. (Brasil) S.A.
Manager of Transportation Project Department

Many members of my family—my father, my uncle, my brothers—work for CBTU, the Brazilian Urban Trains Company, and although I studied law at university, I’m a train fan at heart. Before joining Mitsui in 1999, I spent five years working for a railway engineering services company. While there, I occasionally had to negotiate with Mitsui. That gave me a sense of how serious Mitsui was about developing its business in Brazil; I could see that working here would be a great opportunity. As a rule, the Brazilians have a lot of respect for the Japanese and their attitude to work. I’ve always regarded myself as having Japanese characteristics—albeit slightly tropicalized!

Alexandre Cortes

At Mitsui, I started out working on the railway cargo side of the business. I also got to spend a couple of years in Japan starting in 2007. Working in the railway business, I knew before going that the Japanese system was the world’s best, but the level of punctuality is amazing. There’s nothing like it anywhere else. I used to take our Brazilian clients to see the Japanese systems and they were always astonished by their quality and by the care and seriousness that the employees put into train operation.

Mitsui was originally involved in the trading business in Brazil: we supplied equipment and trains, first from Japanese, and later from Korean and Chinese manufacturers. But once the manufacturers started trying to supply their products directly, people could no longer see what Mitsui’s function was. That’s why the transportation project department began developing a new passenger railway business with the São Paulo Metro Line 4 project. I was mostly in Tokyo at the time, so my involvement was quite small. I moved back to Brazil in autumn 2009.

Our partner in that São Paulo project was one of the country’s biggest privately owned conglomerates. From working with us, they knew that we had worldwide presence, good supplier relationships and financial firepower. Nonetheless, when we got back in touch with them in 2012 about the possibility of collaborating on further passenger railway projects, the initial response of the key people in Mitsui’s Tokyo headquarters was somewhat cautious. With passenger transport, more so than cargo, any accident can have a bad effect on the company’s image. Persuading people in Tokyo was so tough that I almost gave up several times.

Alexandre Cortes

Still, I believed that the project would open up new horizons for Mitsui’s transport business. It was important, so I stuck with it. Because of the time difference, I often stayed up late at night for discussions with Tokyo. Differences in culture can be a source of difficulty. As a rule, the Japanese insist on very careful analysis before they take any risk. This can slow things down somewhat—but then again, the final results are generally better! As the local representatives of Mitsui, we have to act like midfielders, feeding the ball between the Japanese and the local partner.

We finally signed the deal in November 2014. We have four assets, of which just one—SuperVia in Rio—was already in operation when we got involved. SuperVia is an old commuter system. It was privatized in 1998, but was in a bad way due to a lack of investment. It’s still in turnaround mode now. Mitsui’s role is to provide technical support from West Japan Railway to improve SuperVia’s operation and maintenance. I go to the SuperVia offices on a daily basis to discuss how we can make things better. It’s almost like I work for them; I even have a security pass for their offices. When I tell people I’m involved with SuperVia, the normal response is, “You’ve got a challenge on your hands there.” I am proud to be part of the team that has raised the quality of service over the last few years, and will continue to do so in the future.

We also operate the Rio de Janeiro LRT, a light rail system which started commercial operations through central Rio in July 2016. In the cargo business I felt I was contributing to the development of the country in the abstract, but with the tram I can see how excited Rio residents are to get modern transportation. What’s great about our system is that it’s “catenary-free.” The power comes from a third rail on the ground rather from overhead, meaning there are no poles or wires spoiling the view. That’s important as the tram is running down boulevards with historic buildings that are 100 years old. There’s only one other such system in the world, in Dubai. I’m proud and happy to be part of it.

Looking forward, the sky’s the limit. We can put the expertise and knowledge we are developing in passenger railways to good use either elsewhere in Brazil—a huge market—or in developing countries around the world. We can have a really positive impact on ordinary citizens’ lives.

Posted in July 2016