While spending time in jail for fraud and embezzlement, a young businessman on the verge of bankruptcy devised a plan that would make him within a year the richest man in Portugal. Alves dos Reis’ crime had never been attempted before and it could not be done again. Its fantastic success sent ripples through the highest echelons of business and government in continental Europe and England.
Reis’ father was an undertaker whose business ended up in bankruptcy. The young man wanted to study engineering. Reis started his degree but after only a year’s study he abandoned his course to get married. In 1916 he decided to emigrate to Angola which, at the time, was a Portuguese colony. At 480,000 square miles, Angola was almost twice the size of Texas or France. It was mostly agricultural, and exported coffee, cotton and sugar.
Reis forged himself a diploma of engineering from Oxford University. It qualified him in twenty one subjects including Engineering Science, Geology, Physics, Metallurgy and Electrical Engineering. In short, he studied everything and could do anything.
Reis took a job on the railways and because of his extraordinary abilities he was soon Acting Chief Engineer of the Angola Railways. He also built canals, bought and sold crops and war surplus goods.
In 1922 Reis and family, now richer, returned to Portugal and rented a stylish home in Lisbon. He hired a cook, maid, and a chauffeur. He acquired a US car dealership and set up a company to ship goods to and from Angola.
Alves dos Reis always needed new capital and friends introduced him to the Royal Trans-African Railway Company of Angola (Ambaca). He soon discovered that there was $100,000 ($1.4 billion in today’s dollars) in the company treasury, lent by the government to pay off bond coupons.
As he wrote later, “in the materialistic world there are neither honest men nor rogues, there are only victors and vanquished. So I had no hesitation in gaining control of the Company and making use of the shareholders’ money.”
Alves dos Reis had opened a small checking account with the National City Bank of New York. It took eight days for a check issued in Europe to reach New York by sea. With $40,000 worth of such checks ($600 million today), Reis bought control of Ambaca. When he controlled the company’s reserves he was able to cable the money to New York and make good the checks.