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Mexican cement baron dies, made Cemex a global brand

Cemex Chief Executive Lorenzo Zambrano holds a news conference before the company's annual shareholders meeting in Monterrey in this file Fe
Cemex Chief Executive Lorenzo Zambrano holds a news conference before the company's annual shareholders meeting in Monterrey in this file Fe

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican businessman Lorenzo Zambrano, who turned cement maker Cemex into one of the country's first modern multinationals, but also almost brought it crashing down, died on Monday aged 70.

There were no immediate details about the cause of death in a statement released by Cemex, and there had been no reports of illness.

Before Zambrano took over as chief executive, Cemex was a financially solid, domestic operation that had successfully averted Mexico's dramatic economic crashes, and was risk-averse.

Zambrano moved to change that. A series of bold acquisitions extended the Cemex's reach to five continents, making him the poster boy for one of Latin America's most successful companies.

But a $16 billion acquisition of Australian building materials company Rinker in 2007, when the U.S. housing market was already months into a downturn, turned Cemex into an early victim of the subprime housing meltdown.

At the time, Zambrano put a brave face on it.

"We've shown that a company that is born in a developing country can compete in the whole world and we want to keep doing it," he told Reuters in 2009.

Cemex would spend the following years coping with large debt obligations, struggling to make deals with lenders, and trimming costs by outsourcing and restructuring jobs.

Zambrano, who was also chairman of the board at Cemex and was a board member at IBM Corp , died in Madrid, the company said in a statement, adding that it would continue to operate normally.

Founded by Zambrano's grandfather more than a century ago, the company started producing cement in the northern city of Monterrey, which later became one of Mexico's industrial hubs.

Bearing the name of both his grandfather and his father, Lorenzo Zambrano was born March 27, 1944. Early on during his adolescence, Zambrano showed an interest in running the company, unlike his father who never took the lead.

He joined the company straight after graduate school in 1968, when he earned his master degree in business administration at Stanford University.

By 1985, at the age of 41, the board of directors give him full power as CEO and in due course, Zambrano began to turn Cemex into one of the largest cement companies in the world.

Zambrano did not attend the company's annual analyst meeting in New York in February because he was snowed out, the company's head of investor relations said at the time.

Zambrano did sign Cemex's annual report, filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission at the end of April.

(Reporting by Elinor Comlay; Editing by Simon Gardner, Dave Graham and Andre Grenon)

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