10 to Watch: Claus Vieira

Pacing furiously up and down the terrace of a glitzy Miami Beach hotel, clad in his Italian designer suit and wraparound shades while barking crisp orders into a cell phone, he personifies the unnervingly overconfident, hyperactive character that Tom Cruise played in Rain Man.

It's mid-December and Claus Vieira, managing director of UOL International, is in Miami to announce the final piece of the service provider's online expansion in the Americas: the launch of its Internet portal for the U.S. Hispanic market.

No mean feat, considering that Vieira arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina - UOL's home base for the Spanish-speaking world - just seven months ago with no offices, staff or infrastructure. His mandate: Have six full-fledged sites operational in the region's biggest markets by year's end.

"In the past two years, I have started over 10 businesses," boasts Vieira, who has a reputation for 16-hour workdays and unanswered phone calls.

UOL - which is owned by Brazil's largest daily newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, and media conglomerate Abril - is the dominant Internet player in the buzzing Brazilian market. With 3.5 million people connected to the Net, Brazil is as big a market as the rest of Latin America combined.

However, the sales potential of Brazil's 160 million Portuguese speakers pales in comparison to the roughly 400 million Spanish speakers in the Americas and Spain, where Internet use is growing at breakneck speed. According to researcher International Data Corp., e-commerce spending in Latin America is expected to soar to $10 billion by the end of 2003, up from roughly $200 million in 1999.

So the company needs a strong regional presence if it hopes to make a splash at its planned public offering, which observers expect sometime early this year.

UOL can't afford to lose a minute digging trenches in Spanish-speaking markets if it wants to compete with the dozen other Internet companies vying for regional supremacy, including giants such as America Online, expected to enter Brazil in midyear; Microsoft; Terra Networks of Spain; and aggressive players like New York-based StarMedia, Miami-based Yupi and Argentine-born El Sitio, among others.

"In the rest of Latin America, we certainly do not have first-mover advantage like we had in Brazil. But at least we have managed to come out before the America Online launch, and we are very well-positioned to be among the three top players," says Vieira, who doesn't believe there will be room for more than three big hitters in the region. UOL has spent an estimated $40 million since June to launch its portals, including $6 million a month in advertising in its markets.

A 32-year-old engineer with graduate degrees in business administration and finance from top schools in Brazil and Great Britain, Vieira held executive positions in French industrial conglomerate Saint Gobain and worked in Brazil's telecommunications market. He joined UOL 18 months ago to take over Hispanic operations.

UOL has followed up its launches in the region with aggressive advertising campaigns focusing on free e-mail. "Our message is that you do not even need to own a computer to have e-mail," notes Vieira. "We are trying to turn this into a mass media [very quickly]."

Every Internet portal UOL has opened in Latin America seeks to capture the atmosphere of that particular market. "They already tell us that our Argentine site is too Argentine. Good," says Vieira. "That means we are being successful.

That's what we want."

"I'd hate to work with someone like that," confides one industry colleague of Vieira. "But if you want to do business, he's leading one of the future survivors in this war."

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