Juan Sartori, aged only 33, has come a long way in the past eight years. In 2006, he founded Union Group and started Uruguay’s first blueberry farming business on a two-hectare plantation close to Montevideo, the country’s capital, supported by a $300,000 investment which he raised with help from his friends.

“We realised that there was big demand for blueberries around the world,” he says. “We could produce them during the Uruguayan summer for export to Europe during the winter there.”

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Getting a taste for it

The business was so successful that soon afterwards Mr Sartori met with investors in North America to try to raise $10m to develop a much larger plantation. He ended up raising $50m, and instead of turning down the money he branched out into other areas of agribusiness, including soya bean, rice and wheat production and sheep and cattle raising. Today, his agricultural business – known as Union Agricultural Group (UAG) – is the largest of its kind in the country, with 180,000 hectares of land and 85,000 heads of cattle.

Last year, UAG became the largest company ever to list on the Montevideo Stock Exchange in the country’s first initial public offering since 2007. The subsidiary company is now valued at about $420m and accounts for 70% of the bourse’s market capital. UAG has an annual revenue of $200m, with the income stream divided equally three ways between soya, rice and meat. It is now the fourth biggest exporter of rice in the world.

However, if that was not enough, the Union Group saw that its business model’s success could be applied to other rapidly expanding economies in Latin America, such as Peru and Paraguay. “We act as a bridge between international capital and business opportunities in fast-growing emerging market economies,” says Mr Sartori.

The group – which has offices in London, Lima and Montevideo – took over Generación Andina, a Peruvian company developing two ready-to-build run-of-river hydropower projects in central Peru, and is investing $100m in developing the two plants and in constructing a 60-kilometre transmission line. Altogether, the company has a hydropower portfolio of 1000 megawatts of potential combined capacity in Peru, involving a total investment of $2bn over four years. Union Group has signed power purchase agreements with the Peruvian government for a 20-year period and eventually it will meet 15% of Peru’s energy needs.

Branching out

Union Group also sees big opportunities in mining and logistics in Paraguay. The country is believed to have significant titanium, uranium, gold and iron ore reserves, which until today have gone largely unexplored. Oil has also been found near the Paraguayan border in Argentina and Brazil, leading Mr Sartori to believe that reserves could be found in Paraguay.

His firm is also developing a logistics business to transport goods by barge from Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay down the rivers Paraguay and Paraná to a Uruguayan port for onward transhipment to the rest of the world.

“We like to invest in core strategic businesses in the countries in which we operate,” says Mr Sartori. “In Uruguay, that is agriculture, in Peru that is mining. In Uruguay’s case we were able to invest directly in agricultural assets, but in Peru’s case mining assets were too expensive, so we did the next best thing and explored further down the supply chain and decided to invest in infrastructure, including power generation, roads and ports.”

From its humble beginnings, Union Group’s overall valuation now exceeds $1.6bn.