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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Q&A With Flavio Briatore

[This may be a transcript of an interview with Flavio Briatore, broadcast a few weeks ago?}
CNBC - December 2008
Leadership Driving 
Simon Hobbs meets Italian businessman Flavio Briatore, 
the face of fashion, fast cars and now football

Flavio Briatore, CEO of Renault F1, made his first fortune in the 1980s franchising Benetton stores across America. As head of Benetton’s F1 team he employed Michael Schumacher and led Benetton to world championship status. He repeated the success at Renault and recently became joint-owner of London football club QPR.

Simon Hobbs: Tell me about F1.

FB: You know, F1 is a big event and inside it you have the speed, the drivers, the famous people, the money, the private jet, the boat. It’s like a dream: it’s not only technology but lifestyle as well. It’s a big opportunity to make your brand known worldwide.

SH: People call you tempestuous, flamboyant and unpredictable – not things normally expected in corporate culture. Why have the accountants, with the money involved, not tried to change the culture of F1?

FB: F1 is very emotional – at every level. You are dealing with emotions and a team of 1,000 people. A big budget doesn’t guarantee victory; I believe, as in everything, that you go back to people. The best team wins but they don’t always have the big budget. 

SH: How do you look back on your childhood in a small town in the Italian Alps? Did you know you were going to be a success?

FB: I realise every day where I come from. I believe you never give up, whatever you are doing. Everyone has good and bad moments. You need to create your own opportunities.

SH: Luciano Benetton has been hugely important to you since you first met him when you were 24, working at the Milan Stock Exchange. How did that friendship develop?

FB: Sure, I remember we had dinner together. At the time, Benetton was not Benetton. Something happens in life; it’s a kind of destiny. You never know why you suddenly have a close relationship with somebody. 

SH: Within three years he’d asked you to launch Benetton in the US, but you didn’t even have any retail experience. 

FB: If everybody looks for experience then you never give a chance to the young people. If you have a nice project it is easy to find the money but what is very difficult is the people. You come back to square one all the time: it’s the people. 

SH: You were phenomenally successful in America, starting with five stores in 1979 and moving to 800. That couldn’t have been just about people.

FB: Well, America is a very hard market, a completely different game to Europe. But the fact that we were a group of people with no experience made the difference because we tried to be professional. 

SH: What about the shock-tactic advertising?

FB: The publicity was difficult but it brought about the brand, the name. I remember every time I went to a restaurant in New York people were arguing about whether the Benetton ads were good or bad. If you make advertising controversial, everybody will be talking. 

SH: And then there was F1, to which you came quite late, at the age of 38. Did you have any interest in the sport?

FB: Not really. Zero basically. I had been living for 10 years in the US, which isn’t close to F1. At the time it wasn’t even televised.

SH: But you became commercial director?

FB: You don’t need to know how many pistons are in the car to become the commercial director. The job was basically to find a partner to support the costs of F1. 

SH: And did you expect when you became the boss that the team would be sacked?

FB: I told Alessandro Benetton, the chairman, the easy way is to fire everybody because the people were going nowhere; they didn’t want to leave, just stay for the salary. 

SH: And how did you decide to lead?

FB: It’s the same in any business. You always hear that someone is right, someone is wrong, especially in F1, which is very technical with a lot of engineers and mechanics. I believe having no experience makes you better – you go quickly, respecting everyone.

SH: How did you recruit Michael Schumacher so quickly, within a year?

FB: Nothing is easy. At the time, it was hard for us to attract strong drivers. The first problem finance, with people asking for a lot of money; the second was the competition.

SH: How did you develop a management strategy for star talent, people upon whom the success of your business depended?

FB: If you are an entrepreneur you feel something before anybody else. This is the quality of the job: you can anticipate the future of a person or star. This is why I created the management company – I wanted to develop a young driver in my way.

SH: Could you have prevented Schumacher going to Ferrari?

FB: It’s very difficult in sport to keep somebody. They want it all and quickly. We won a lot in a short time and he wanted a change. 

SH: You next took charge of engine development for Renault. What did you do there?

FB: For Renault the engine was the heart of the company. Again, I had the responsibility for the team and the engine. I said to the chairman: “If you want success, I need to have responsibility for both.” If you have one guy in charge of everything the competition, the conflict, is finished. 

SH: What about working internationally?

FB: The character of the English and the French is very strong. We gave too much freedom to the engineers to build their own empire inside the team, and I wanted to be in charge, to ensure that the money we invested improved the performance of the car. We worked with a nice group of people who understood the philosophy.

SH: In September 2007 you announced that you were taking over struggling London football club Queen’s Park Rangers. How were you able to bring in two of the world’s richest men, Lakshmi Mittal and Bernie Ecclestone?

FB: I love football and I love to be in England. I believe the UK has the potential to do very well with football. QPR was a challenge and you like to do a challenge with friends. Bernie has been a friend for 20 years and Lakshmi is a good friend as well; we were sitting together and we decided to take over the club. 

SH: Will they be in top form in five years?

FB: You need time. Everybody always expects everything soon but you need to build up the foundations first. 

SH: Are you going to stick with F1?

FB: No. It’s very demanding. It’s the kind of job where you never close the door… 


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