The life of the Portuguese businessman Rui Nabeiro, who died this Sunday at the age of 91 in a Lisbon hospital where he had been admitted for a respiratory illness, is so literary that it ended up in a biographical novel by the writer José Luís Peixoto: sunday lunch (Random House Literature), which will be released in a few weeks in Spain. It begins in La Raya in the days of smuggling and misery and continues through historical characters and events that intersect in the life of Nabeiro. Says the Portuguese publisher, Quetzal, that it is also a book against death. And so it is: Peixoto’s novel is a vibrant approach to the life of one of the most popular businessmen in Portugal that acquires another symbolism now that his protagonist is no longer around.
Nabeiro was born in 1931 in Campo Maior, 14 kilometers from the border with Spain. His parents had a small store and a coffee roasting business. At the age of 13 he leaves school and begins to help the family. After the death of his father, Rui Nabeiro consolidates the coffee business, favored by the vibrant clandestine trade that took place throughout La Raya during the Spanish postwar period. “Our smuggling was always to cover holes,” he would declare years later to the weekly espresso. In an interview with EL PAÍS in 2014, he recalled his origins like this: “I started working at the age of 13 in a store with my uncle Joaquim and my parents. On the death of my father, at 17, I created my first company. I didn’t know anything about coffee. It had a 50 square meter warehouse and two toasters with a capacity of 30 kilos. I traveled a lot, I traveled all over Spain. The market was full, so I began to introduce myself with substitutes such as chicory. Quietly…”.
He named his first company Torrefacción Camelo and in 1961 founded Delta Cafés, which went from that small store with three employees to a brand with international activity with a presence in dozens of countries. In the eighties he created Novadelta, which he considered the largest coffee factory in the Iberian Peninsula, and a business group that diversified activity into other businesses (agrifood, tourism and real estate).
The Nabeiro Group, which has 3,800 workers, has managed to keep the property in the hands of the family clan. For the Portuguese, the creation of an international brand was as meritorious as the determination to maintain it in the country. Rui Nabeiro rejected purchase offers from food giants such as Nestlé, Kraft or Pepsi and retained control of the company. His relationship with Nespresso was also controversial regarding the coffee capsules, which, according to Nabeiro, the Portuguese had developed earlier. “We already had the single-dose capsules, but they were wrapped in aluminum bags to preserve the aroma. They came to see our facilities and then they took out their system with total industrial protection ”, he declared in the EL PAÍS interview.
He also had an open political sympathy for the Socialist Party. In different stages of the dictatorship and democracy, he was president of the Municipal Chamber of Campo Maior, which has declared five days of official mourning for his death. In recent years he had received numerous decorations and distinctions for his work, including the Spanish commendation of the Order of Isabel la Católica. The Portuguese president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, highlighted in his career both the construction “of a global brand, as there are few in our country” and his “social concern and civic participation”. The prime minister also praised his “humility and social responsibility”.
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