The F1 boss made big money at Benetton, lost it at QPR, dated supermodels . . . what’s next on the menu?
Italian businessman Flavio Briatore, 69, worked as a ski instructor, restaurant manager and door-to-door insurance salesman before he fell in with Luciano Benetton, founder of the Benetton clothing company. In 1979, Briatore was appointed Benetton’s director of American operations; ten years later he had opened more than 800 stores in the United States — and had become a millionaire.
In 1988 he was named commercial director of Benetton’s Formula One operation, where he recruited Michael Schumacher, who won the drivers’ championship twice with the team. But the Italian left F1 in acrimony after an inquiry into race-fixing in 2009.
That’s not the only colourful aspect to Briatore’s life: he spent time in the Virgin Islands to avoid imprisonment for fraud — a conviction now revoked by amnesty; was once engaged to Naomi Campbell and had a daughter with another supermodel, Heidi Klum; and in 2007 he became a co-owner of Queens Park Rangers.
“I will never invest in a football club again,” he said three years later. “It’s only a good idea if you’re very rich and looking for ways to waste your money. In two years you’ll be very poor and won’t have that problem anymore.”
He currently owns restaurants in London, Dubai and Monte Carlo, as well as a safari resort in Kenya, and splits his time living between these locations.
How much money is in your wallet? Sometimes I keep some cash in my pocket but normally, I have no money around me. Really, never.
What credit cards do you use? I have a black American Express and a Visa. I am not a credit card collector, though. Sometimes I see people who have about 30 credit cards in their wallet — they end up wasting time trying to find the one they’re using. I have just two.
Briatore signed Michael Schumacher when he ran the Benetton F1 team
Are you a saver or a spender? I am in the middle. I am careful about spending money, because money is not easy to make, but I’m not tight either.
How much did you earn last year? I don’t know, but I know the turnover last year from all my companies was around €60m (£53m).
Have you ever been really hard up? Absolutely. I will never forget. I started working very young, 12 or 13, collecting apples during the summer to get a little cash for myself.
Do you own any property? I have lots of real estate. Honestly, I don’t know how much. I’ve been investing for the last 10 or 15 years and now have quite a lot of good property, mostly in Europe. I also have a flat in Chelsea, but I prefer to stay in the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge when I’m in London.
What was your first proper job? Selling insurance door-to-door in Milan when I was 17 or 18 — very tough, because in the summer it’s 30 degrees and I was walking. I did about 30km a day. I earned a lot of commission because I sold a lot of insurance. I got so good at it, I could pay the rent on an apartment and bought my first car, a Fiat 600.
What has been your most lucrative work? Formula One, for sure. It gave me the most possibilities to make money. I don’t miss it, though: it’s changing and is no longer the sport I knew. It’s become very boring, very predictable. It’s not like gladiators fighting anymore; the rules are very strict and the drivers are being penalised too often.
Are you better off than your parents? Yes. My parents were teachers and it was difficult for them to pay for school for me and my brother and sister. My parents have both passed away now, but I bought them a house before they died. I also help my siblings; my brother runs a farming business in Piedmont, near the Alps.
Do you invest in shares? Yes sometimes, but I prefer investing in my business, because that means I control my own my destiny. If you invest in the stock market you don’t really know what could happen, but I know my business will give me 15-20%, and if I do something wrong, it’s my fault.
What’s the best way of saving for retirement: property or a pension? Property provides more security. I don’t want to be taking any risks at my age — especially now, as I need to give my son the opportunity to take over my business.
When did you first feel wealthy? I don’t think it was a particular day, but I first started to think about it when I was opening Benetton clothing stores in New York. The salary was very good. I walked through restaurants and they suddenly started to give me a table without me waiting. I was about 38 or 40 though, so it shows that you should never give up.
What has been your best investment? While I was managing the Benetton F1 team, in 1994 I bought another team, Ligier, which gave us a new engine supplier. Ligier was at the back of the grid when we bought it, but soon after we won a grand prix in Monte Carlo. I helped bring Michael Schumacher into the team and he became one of the best drivers of all time.
Also, I recently started a food and beverage company and now we’re doing very well. Good investments take time, dedication and creativity.
And your worst? A clothing company called Billionaire Couture. I was busy with F1 and QPR and I didn’t really take care of the business. We still have a minority stake and the majority shareholder, Philipp Plein, is superb, so I’m sure in a couple of years I will recover the money I put in.
What is your money weakness? I spend a lot of money on boats and planes — these are expensive hobbies. Across my businesses we now employ about 1,200 people. The group is doing well, everyone is on a good salary, so I deserve to spoil myself a bit.
What aspect of the tax system would you change? The UK has very good tax regime but in Italy it is just impossible: tax there is around 60-65%. If you declare everything you’ll go bankrupt. Tax levels in the UK are correct, also in the US, the Emirates, Dubai — places where it’s between 20% and 35%. It gives you a chance to invest in your business.
What is the most important lesson you have learnt about money? Making money is very difficult but losing it is very simple. It only takes a few bad deals to destroy all the capital you have in the world — and there are plenty of people with bad deals to propose to you. Briatore’s latest restaurant, Crazy Pizza, opened in London’s Marylebone this year