Flavio Briatore's formula for life

The flamboyant ex-Formula One boss-turned retail mogul boasts about the success of his Dubai Billionaire Mansion restaurant. But there is one thing missing in the emirate, he argues. It needs more Europeans
Flavio Briatore's formula for life
Briatore opened his first Billionaire Couture boutique, exclusively for men, in Sardinia, Italy.
By Lubna Hamdan
Sat 11 Feb 2017 03:04 AM

How much does Flavio Briatore’s Billionaire Mansion make in one night?

“I’m not the bookkeeper,” he says, laughing. “I have no idea.”

And why would he know the intricate details of his Dubai restaurant, when it is just one of many lavish places under his Billionaire brand?

The Italian famous for scouting car racing legends Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso made his millions in automotive and retail thanks to a stint with clothing giant Luciano Benetton, which saw him co-manage the Benetton Formula One Team and the group’s US operations.

But not for long. A series of run-ins with the law ranging from race fixing to fraud saw him escape two prison sentences and a ban by the global motoring association Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Two decades later and a luxury holding company in his name, Briatore remains just as flamboyant.

Sitting in his suite at the Taj Hotel Dubai, where we have our most recent conversation, Briatore is dressed in his usual shirt and casual jeans designed by his clothing brand Billionaire Couture. Just a few floors down, his mega dining and entertainment venue Billionaire Mansion is preparing for a packed and eventful Thursday night, where Briatore says “tables all full”.

With his Italian accent heavy as ever, the 66-year-old sips on an espresso and slicks back a handful of rich white hair. Briatore is in a good mood. And he ought to be, having recently convinced close friend Andrea Bocelli to perform in Billionaire Mansion, the tenor’s first visit to Dubai after failed attempts by Dubai Opera to bring him to the Gulf city.

“He’s a friend of mine. He performed years ago in my club in Sardinia and we have a super relation in the last 20 years. So I insisted a little bit,” Briatore says.

But Bocelli is not the only one he’s won over. According to Briatore, his venue has attracted a steady flow of Emirati crowds since its launch in 2016, lured by the Japanese-Italian cuisines and hookah terrace.

“We are very proud to have a lot of locals [in the restaurant]. This is very important to us, because like in Monte Carlo, our base is the [locals]. In summer, sure everyone is busy. But my winter is also full all the time. We want it to be the same in Dubai,” he says.

The figures suggest he can meet the goal. The UAE’s fast-growing food and beverage sector was estimated to be worth $16.3bn in 2015, placing it among the world’s top 20 markets according to Euromonitor International. The country’s overall retail industry made up 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and accounted for 23 percent of the UAE’s total foreign direct investment.

Briatore launched the Billionaire brand in 1998 and has used it for a variety of high-end hospitality and clothing products.

Property advisor CBRE estimates that by 2019 the food and beverage sector will grow another 30 percent.

While some experts believe challenges such as high rent and low oil prices have resulted in demand falling behind supply, others argue Dubai consumers are spending more on eating out. A survey by KPMG revealed two-thirds of respondents increased their spending per meal in 2016.

Slowdown or no slowdown, Briatore insists that “everything is going up” for Billionaire Mansion.

“You know, the concept of Billionaire [Mansion] is quite correct. If you arrive at 6 o’clock at night, you leave at 3 o’clock in the morning. We have the mix of Italian and Japanese, we have the shisha, we have the music with the top DJ from Ibiza and we have the dinner show every 30 minutes. Every night we are fully booked,” he says.

Yet it takes more than a good concept to keep the wheels moving.

“We make sure the service is at top level, the food is top level, the quality, the music, the DJ. We make sure everything is working. Like a car, you need good tyres, good engine, good chassis and good driver,” says the ex-Formula One boss who, despite years out of the racing game, still enjoys good competition.

“Dubai is very competitive. People are spoiled because they’re used to having a lot of brands. But any place you go with a lot of competition is fantastic, because you’re fighting with the best people in the world. And every time you win, you get stronger. We want to fight with the big brands, always. But as usual, the good ones stay and the other ones…” he pauses and laughs, “Well, they go.”

While he may be used to competing with the big guys, Briatore is not accustomed to one thing: a market lacking European customers, which is what he argues is the case in Dubai.

“The market in Dubai is very good, [but] I think Dubai needs to attract more European people, because at this moment you don’t have so many European people. It’s easy for Europeans — it’s just a five, six-hour flight. Very few hours and little jet lag and you’re sure from the month of October to the month of April that you’ll have very good weather,” Briatore says.

“You have the best hotels and you have good service, too. But I think Dubai needs to be promoted more in Europe, because it is still not a destination. You don’t have a lot of Italian tourists in Dubai. You have a few English, but Dubai deserves very high quality of tourists — Italian, Spanish, French. I believe number one is Las Vegas [in terms of tourism]. Number two is Dubai. It’s true, because the quality of hotels is good, the security is good, the service is good, the people are nice, arriving in airport you have super service. The vision the Ruler [of Dubai] has is fantastic. He’s attracting tourists to the country. What I want is to have more Italian, more Spanish, more French, more German, more Swedish. But it only takes time.”

Dubai’s Billionaire Mansion restaurant has attracted celebrities from around the world.

Globally, things are looking up for the magnate since he shifted gears to launch his holding company Billionaire Life, which is estimated to cash in over $140m in annual revenues. Today, it comprises six entertainment venues in Monte Carlo, Italy, London, Mykonos and Dubai, two hotel resorts in Kenya, a luxury travel agency and 30 Billionaire Couture stores in major cities including Moscow, Saint Tropez, Doha and Dubai. Alone, the fashion stores bring in over $54m in yearly revenues.

But the pace is still not fast enough for Briatore. In September last year, the mogul sold 51 percent of Billionaire Couture to fashion designer and style icon Philipp Plein. The result? A 20 percent increase in sales and at least ten new shop openings between Monte Carlo and New York.

“The programme is very aggressive; I enjoy seeing my brand everywhere. In Dubai, already you see people [wearing] Billionaire. You see jeans, you see slippers, you see t-shirts,” he says.

“I started this business only seven years ago and its success is quite amazing. Now we feel that it’s going to the next stage, you know? When you go to the mountains, some people go just 2,000 metres and some people go to the last bit. I want to go to the last bit. I don’t want to stop just before I put the flag on the top of the mountain.”

Despite his ambition, Briatore has taken somewhat of a back seat. At 66, he is happy to give Plein a turn at the wheel.

“Before I was involved weekly, now I’m involved monthly. I partnered with one of the most talented people in this business. Why not? I’m sure with him [Philipp Plein]  I’ll go bigger. The company will achieve results in a very short time and I’m not involved,” he says.

“I have so many businesses, at least I have one business somebody else can take care of. And he’s a fantastic guy; it’s good to have a partner if the partner is good.”

With such a trusted partner, Briatore is not worried. He says Billionaire Couture caters to a niche market that works well enough for the brand. It is the best-selling men’s label in Harrods London, selling around $6.5m each year. The revenue and the fact the store expanded from 45 sq m to 150 sq m says it all.

But how did the Italian go from dodging prison to counting millions?

“We have no finance at all,” he says, referring to bank loans.

Billionaire Mansion has lived up to its name as one of the most popular venues since opening in Dubai earlier last year.

“We don’t have even one euro of debt. So everything is financed by us. We don’t have leverage, we don’t have nothing, we don’t have interest. The only interest we pay is [on our] credit card,” he says, laughing.

“This makes you stronger, when you have your money and you pay, it makes you very strong in the market.”

But there is one place Briatore is not as strong as he used to be. Despite still managing legendary car racer Fernando Alonso, Briatore claims he has not been involved in Formula One races since his conviction for race-fixing at the Singapore Grand Prix in 2009. Despite resigning from then-Renault team, Briatore was banned by FIA from participating in any Formula One event.

By the time the ban was overturned by the French tribunal, Briatore had turned his back on the sport, stating he would never go back to racing. He went as far as to publicly share his disapproval of the event, calling it “boring” and a “PlayStation for engineers”.

Seven years later, his opinion stands.

“It’s still too boring, excluding the last race in Brazil. That was not boring — not because the Formula One people did a good job,” he says with a smirk. “The weather created a good race — nothing to do with the Formula One management.”

Asked if Formula One needed more personas like himself to revive it, he responds, “Formula One needs a shock, a change. It’s too boring.

“In the last ten years, I was pushing to have two matches in one race: A 40-minute race, 15 mins to interview the driver and other 40-minute race. At least [that would] make people interested to watch what’s going on, because the best of Formula One is the start. If you see the curve on television, the start is like that,” he says, using his finger to draw a curvy track in the air. “And after the race you go like that,” he says, making gestures referring to a straight track.

“So if the start is so good, why don’t we give two starts? Brazil had two starts. This was because of the weather. At first, people said we won’t give two starts but then it [rained] and they gave two starts. That’s how the best driver wins the race.”

Changing to a serious tone, he adds, “The driver should be a gladiator, not be in bureaucracy. This is not possible, [there’s] too much bureaucracy in Formula One now.”

Billionaire Couture operates 25 stores across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Yet like most Italians, Briatore admits racing is still a part of him.

“Formula One was part of my life for 20 years. I know everybody. I’m very happy. I handle so many races; I’m involved in the management. We are the promoters of the races, we create the race in Baku, Azerbaijan. I’m not involved in any of the teams, but the rest is completely different,” he says, softening his serious tone at the thought of his participation in the races.

Considering it was Briatore who helped legends like Schumacher become the youngest two-time World Champion in Formula One, one could understand the Italian’s soft spot for the sport.

While Briatore’s notorious background, controversial career and a series of young supermodel partners can hardly be forgotten, it has been nearly a decade since he settled down with 36-year-old model wife Elisabetta Gregoraci and their six-year-old son Falco, in a life largely away from the headlines.

But that did not mean living outside the fast lane.

Retirement for Briatore? “No. Still too boring,” he says.

And why would he? In the span of one week, the retail mogul jetted off to mega cities London, New York, Mykonos and Monte Carlo, either to launch new restaurants, beach clubs or secret projects he is “not allowed” to talk about.

While it might not be clear what Briatore is up to next, it is safe to say whatever the Italian does will be anything but boring.

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