Business

The former child labourer making millions baking cakes

Cleusa Maria, 51

She is the multi-millionaire founder of one of Brazil's most popular chains of cake shops, but there is nothing sweet about the beginning of her life story.

Now 51, Cleusa Maria didn't have the chance to be a child.

When she was nine years old, she was much more familiar with hoes and rakes than with dolls.

She had a grown-up routine, helping her father every day on the small farm they rented in the countryside of Sao Paulo state, in south eastern Brazil.

That was until her dad died in a car accident in 1978 when she was 12 years old.

"That is when I found out that what was bad, could be worse," Cleusa says.

Her mother was suddenly a single parent with 10 children to look after, and with very little money they all had to move into Cleusa's grandmother's house.

"My mother and I were [now] the breadwinners," says Cleusa looking back. "I felt it was my responsibility to help my mother raise my nine [younger] siblings."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Brazilian sugarcane industry is still a tough place to work

And so, she and her mum both became field workers, cutting sugarcane with machetes at farms in their part of Sao Paulo state. Their 10-hour shifts started every day before sunrise.

Fast-forward to 2017 and Cleusa now has a life unimaginable to her former teenage self, who worked as a farm labourer for five years.

Instead of toiling in fields under Brazil's scorching sun, she is today the self-made boss of Sodie Doces, a chain of cake stores with 300 outlets across Brazil, and an annual turnover of more than 200m reais ($63m; £49m).

The journey towards Sodie Doces started when a 17-year-old Cleusa decided that she wasn't going to spend the rest of her life working in the fields. Instead she was going to gamble on changing her life completely.

So she left the countryside and moved to Sao Paulo city, the largest in Brazil, where she became a maid.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sodie Doces has 300 shops across Brazil

It was a completely new world, but it wasn't easy either. Cleusa had to live at her employer's home, and only had two days off each month. And all her salary was sent to her mother, who was still working on farms.

"I went from one extreme to another one," says Cleusa. "I left a two-room house to live with a rich family. There were nine servants for three people.

"But that life brought out the nonconformist in me. I said to myself 'why did I have to eat different food to the family? Why did I have to fill their glasses while they were eating?'."

She soon decided to again forge a different path for herself, signing up for an adult education course to get the education she missed out on as a child, and getting a job as a receptionist.

But also wanting to be nearer her mother, she decided to move back to their part of Sao Paulo state, and started working in a factory that made hi-fi equipment.

Image copyright Rafael Wainberg
Image caption The cakes come in a multitude of flavours

Then, in 1995, she got an unusual request from her boss's wife that would change her life - she wanted Cleusa to bake a 35kg birthday cake.

"My boss's wife used to sell cakes, but that day she broke her leg, says Cleusa. "I had no idea how to bake, but she gave me all the instructions and it worked out."

Her boss' wife was delighted with the result and insisted that Cleusa had a gift that couldn't be ignored.

She bought Cleusa a mixer and found her more clients.

By then Cleusa was divorced with a small daughter, working during the day at the factory and spending her nights baking.

Two years later, she resigned from her job and, with the help of one of her brothers, opened a small shop that she called Sensacoes Doces, which means Sweet Things in English.

The following years were full of hard work, but within a decade Cleusa owned four cake shops.

Once again, someone believed that she could do more. One of her customers insisted that her company should expand by selling off franchisees.

"I had no idea what a franchise was," says Cleusa. "But this client persisted, talking about it for a whole year.

"So I took a course in Sao Paulo to understand the business model, and decided to become a franchisor. That customer became our first franchisee, and in less than two years we had more than 50 new shops."


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After opening her 74th franchise, Cleusa hit a stumbling block when she found out that her company name, Sensacoes Doces, was already registered by the food giant Nestle.

She says: "It was going to be a fight I couldn't win. I spent four months without sleep, trying to figure out what to do."

Instead of trying to keep the name Sensacoes Doces, she came up with the firm's new moniker - Sodie Doces (Sweet Sodie) - by blending her children's names, Sofia and Diego.

After that, Cleusa sent new logos to all her franchisees, and paid for any alterations out of her own pocket.

As a result, Sodie Doces didn't turn a profit for the next four years, but the firm "kept its credibility and didn't close a single shop", she says.

Image copyright Rafael Wainberg
Image caption The cakes are not cheap by Brazilian standards

Two decades after opening her first store, Cleusa now has 300 outlets in 13 states in Brazil. The prices of her cakes range from about 43 reais (£10.30) to 74 reais.

To open a Sodie Doces outlet, franchisees must invest around 400,000 reais, and each shop hires up to 15 employees.

According to Luis Henrique Stockler, an expert on the Brazilian franchising sector, Sodie Doces has "passed all the market tests" thrown its way.

Cleusa says: "I had two dreams in my life. The first one was to take my mother away from the sugarcane fields, and the second was that my children never ended up doing that work.

"I was afraid when we started growing so fast that I didn't have enough experience and could lose the money I invested.

"But at some point I realised that everything was going fine, and that I should be grateful for getting so far."

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