Alinghi win puts wind in billionaire's sails

Ernesto Bertarelli hopes to lead the Alinghi team to victory in the America's Cup.

Ernesto Bertarelli has come a step closer to fulfilling his dream after his Alinghi team made it through to the America's Cup last weekend.

This content was published on January 20, 2003 - 17:18

A lifelong yachtsman, Bertarelli divides his time between yachting and running Europe's biggest biotech firm, Serono.

Originally seen as a young, rich kid on the block, Bertarelli worried some investors when he took over the family-run group in 1996, aged 31, when his father was suffering from poor health.

But the young heir quickly proved himself an able CEO, expanding Serono's brand in 45 countries, and cementing its place as the world's third biggest biotech company after US firms, Genentech and Amgen.

In 2001, Serono's net income totalled $317 million (SFr434 million).

Smooth sailing

Bertarelli started at Serono as a salesman at the age of 20. But five years later, he suddenly found himself temporarily in the CEO's chair after his father was diagnosed with cancer.

When Fabio was well enough to return, Ernesto took exception to being demoted to his father's "deputy".

"A chair next to my father was obviously very nice, but I was a bit frustrated and looked to get away to do my own thing," he said.

Ernesto headed off to Harvard to study for an MBA in 1994. The day after graduating, he flew to Geneva and was installed as CEO.

Pulling the ropes

Bertarelli's love of sailing was kindled when, as a seven-year-old, he was enrolled in a junior sailing programme at the local club at Morges on Lake Geneva.

But he quickly became bored and told his mother he would give up sailing unless he could sail "something more exciting".

She turned to a Swiss sailing champion, Pierre Fehlmann, who took Ernesto out for a brief ride, after which, Bertarelli said, he became completely hooked.

After years of racing ever-bigger yachts, he launched an extravagant $70 million (SFr96 million) bid for the 2003 America Cup, a move which cost him a large part of his inheritance.

"The America's Cup is extremely motivating for me," he said. "If Alinghi can inspire people to achieve greater things and test themselves, then I think that I will have been successful."

Skipper poaching

He set about recruiting some of the top names in sailing, including the legendary skipper, Russell Coutts, the Kiwi who steered defending champions Team New Zealand to the previous two America's Cup victories.

Bertarelli reeled in Coutts by hiring some of the best designers for his two yachts, a talented staff and by setting up a high-tech base in Auckland harbour.

The base is home not just to the syndicate's two yachts, but also houses offices, workshops, a gym and even a physiotherapist's clinic.

Coutts has been given a free hand over the past three years, putting together the Alinghi syndicate in Switzerland, including other members of Team New Zealand.

Ocean challenge

Bertarelli's passion for sailing has drawn comparisons to the American railroad heir, Mike Vanderbilt, whose wealth and drive kept the America's Cup firmly bolted down.

But the ultimate challenge is still to come, when Alinghi sets sail alongside Team New Zealand on February 15.

Should Bertarelli's team triumph, Switzerland will win the honour of hosting the next America's Cup series - a mean feat for a landlocked country.

There is nothing in the rules saying the competition must take place at sea, but sailing's most prestigious race might look a little out of place on Lake Geneva.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

Key facts

Bertarelli's Alinghi team made it through to the America's Cup last weekend.
He also heads the Swiss biotech group Serono, which he took over from his father in 1996.
His love of sailing began at the age of seven on a junior sailing programme on Lake Geneva.
He has invested $70 million (SFr96 million) in his bid to win the 2003 America's Cup.
The Alinghi team contains some of the biggest names in sailing, including top New Zealand sailor, Russell Coutts.

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