F1 boss, international playboy and snakeskin aficionado Flavio Briatore rescued Queens Park Rangers from the brink of bankruptcy. He talks exclusively to Marketing Week about plans to turn the unfashionable football club into a global brand to rival Chelsea and Arsenal. By Louise Jack
The lift to Flavio Briatore’s Knightsbridge office is somewhat snug but extravagantly appointed, lined as it is with faux snakeskin. A full-length mirror hangs on one wall, surrounded by a wildly baroque gilded frame.
The inner sanctum itself is fittingly swish for an international playboy, boasting a huge glass slab of a desk which squats in front of a throne-like leather chair embroidered with the initials FB. Briatore, boss of Renault’s F1 team, sits flanked by assistants and consults them as to whether he is meant to be talking – exclusively to Marketing Week – about F1, Queens Park Rangers or, cryptically, his flat. “QPR,” he is informed.
Queens Park Rangers FC is Briatore’s new baby. In September last year, he swooped – “an hour before bankruptcy was declared,” he claims – and bought the troubled west London club.
QPR was at a low ebb, languishing at the lower end of the Championship with scandals in the boardroom and a team brawl during a “friendly” match with the Chinese Olympic team. When potential star striker Ray Jones was killed in a car crash and the club faced going into administration, things looked terminal to the fans.
Together with close “we talk 20 times a day” friend, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, Briatore paid £1m for the club and agreed to clear £13m of its debts. Since then, the pair have been joined by Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest man.
Billed as the world’s richest football club, QPR’s financial footing is now more than secure. Collectively, the trio are worth over £30bn, according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List, making Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s fortune of £11.7bn look almost paltry.
“Yes, none of us was looking for a job,” Briatore smiles, adding that they are not looking for what he calls “main” money.
But behind the glamour, the unimaginable wealth and the procession of supermodel girlfriends, Briatore is a shrewd operator. Though QPR may seem like an unlikely rival to Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea as a “global brand” – its stated aim – Briatore is not prone to investing in unsuccessful ventures.
He took over the Benetton F1 team in 1989 and transformed it from also-rans into world champions within five years. Briatore says what he did at Benetton was “simple”, but it can only have helped that in 1991 he signed a promising young German driver called Michael Schumacher.
The goal is now to pull off a similar transformation at QPR. “In F1 there is a large team behind a product – the car. It is the same at QPR, the team, the football is only the product. In sport, business efficiency is everything,” he says.
Briatore explains: “If I’m going to invest in champagne, I’ll go to France, if I decide to invest in ham then I’ll go to Parma. If you’re going to be in football, you have to be in England. And football is treated like a business here.”
There appears to be no sentiment involved for any of the new owners, in contrast to the likes of Harrods boss Mohamed al Fayed at Fulham, among others. None were avid supporters of the club before the deal, but Ecclestone was linked to buying a number of clubs, including Chelsea before Abramovich beat him to the punch.
The strategy that lies behind QPR’s position in this new chapter is based on “past, present and future”. Drawing on the club’s heroes of old like Stan Bowles and Rodney Marsh, the new regime intends to emphasise the club’s heritage and position the club as a “London jewel”.
Much is made of QPR’s ground Loftus Road being the “closest club to central London” and the club’s essential “Londonness” will be vital when marketing the QPR brand overseas.
A change of ownership and subsequent “change in direction” of a football club is a concern for supporters. Briatore, while not exactly dismissive of die-hard QPR fans, is clear on his position. “The first thing to remember is that without us, there was no QPR. It’s as simple as that.”
He adds: “I don’t want everybody telling me what I need to be doing. People believe the club is owned by the fans but it’s only a few that put their money down. For the rest of the people, it’s easy to criticise [when] they maybe spend £20.”
The plan is for the Championship side to win promotion to the Premiership within three years. Briatore says QPR will develop its own young team that will take the club up and keep it up.
The team’s performance improved dramatically after Briatore installed his friend “Gigi” Di Canio as manager but Briatore believes it would have been a “disaster” if QPR had been promoted this season. “I don’t want to be in an elevator, going up and down,” he says. Di Canio departed “by mutual consent” last week. Everything about QPR is set to be spruced up. Loftus Road will be improved, perhaps with extra seating, while Briatore’s exclusive Mayfair eaterie, Cipriani, will provide catering for the QPR restaurant.
Yet can the club hope to succeed against the odds? Just this month Newcastle United boss and former England manager Kevin Keegan spoke of the vicious circle that drives English football – run almost exclusively by a cartel of the big four clubs, nobody else has either the money or the marketing power to compete. QPR certainly has the cash, and could – eventually – compete in terms of commerce and pulling power.
One of Briatore’s great strengths in F1 has been his ability to attract highly lucrative sponsorship deals. He says he already has agreements with “three of four international companies” for QPR. At the end of March, the club announced it had signed a five-year deal worth £20m, the biggest ever Championship deal of its kind, with Italian firm Lotto Sport Italia as kit manufacturer.
And while the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea seem to be chasing the Asia dream, through Mittal the connection with India will be very important for QPR’s expansion into new markets. Mittal’s son-in-law, Amit Bhatia, has been installed as vice-chairman and says the club is looking to develop its links with India.
While QPR fans will not see an Abramovich-style spending spree this summer, Briatore is less parsimonious in his personal life. In one corner of the room sits a glass-encased model of a very large yacht. Asked if he owns the real thing: “Not yet,” he twinkles.
1950: Born in the Piedmont region of Italy, the son of schoolteachers.
1960s: Worked as a ski instructor and restaurant manager, later opening his own restaurant.
1970s: While working at the Italian stock exchange he is convicted of fraud related to the bankruptcy of Italian company Paramatti. Briatore flees to the Virgin Islands.
1980s: Having previously become close to Luciano Benetton, founder of the clothing company, Briatore takes over as director of the group’s US operation, opening hundreds of franchised stores and building his fortune.
1990s: Joins Benetton Formula One team as commercial director and quickly becomes managing director. In 1994, Michael Schumacher, three years after Briatore spotted him, wins the world championship. In 1996 Schumacher leaves for Ferrari and Briatore is fired a year later. He spends the remainder of the decade buying and selling engines and in 1998 founds his own fashion brand, Billionaire.
2000: Renault buys the Benetton team and returns Briatore as its managing director and team principal. In 2003 he replaces Jenson Button with Fernando Alonso, who becomes world champion in 2006.
Briatore’s other business interests include Cipriani’s restaurant in London’s Mayfair, a Tuscan holiday club and a resort in Kenya. He also manages F1 drivers Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen.