Mopeds No, Zodiacs Yes: Chatting with Ernesto

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By Kimball Livingston

Early this month, Ernesto Bertarelli made a whistlestop USA tour—as whistlestops go via private jet—and I spent enough time with the America's Cup defender, over a two-day period, to chat about matters other than the controversies dragging us toward the courts of New York. The legal battle looms large in every Cup aficionado's mind, but Mr. Bertarelli is going to be the defender for some time to come, no matter the next turn of events. Why not lead a conversation or two in another direction? How else would we learn that he first walked on board a boat, and that his two sons also first walked while aboard. Of particular interest, and shading the popular image of Bertarelli cagily scouting and raiding Team New Zealand for its brightest and best, he claims that Russell Coutts came to him.

First, some background.

Ernesto Bertarelli was still in his twenties and only a few years beyond a Harvard MBA when he was called upon, in 1996, to take the reins of Serono, the family-controlled business. Rather than merely continue down the profitable road of pharmaceuticals, he accelerated a shift to biotech and in six years doubled the revenue. Serono was founded in Rome, but the headquarters was moved to Switzerland in the 1970s, when Ernesto was a child. Today he holds Swiss citizenship and speaks fluent Swiss (as in French, Italian, English, Spanish, German, etcetera).

Ten years after he took over Serono, Bertarelli—CEO, Deputy Chairman, and third-generation captain of the company—sold it to Merck KgaA of Germany in an all-cash deal. This month, stopping in New York and San Francisco, he brought with him the American helmsman of Alinghi, SUI 100, Ed Baird. Together they laughed about the tensions on the boat in Valencia in America's Cup 32 as Alinghi lost Race Two, and then Race Three, and their Team New Zealand opponents threw up a protest over the defender's mainsail-dropping system, and Bertarelli on the way home from the race course exclaimed, "I sold my company to get away from stress!"

Perhaps the motive for the sale was more complex, but it's a good line.

In a sea of American sailors, Bertarelli stands out. The look is different. At Alinghi's lunch program at the St. Francis Yacht Club, you have your business suits rushing into the YC from their downtown offices. You have your blazer-look folk, dressed for lunch at the club. And you have Ed Baird at the microphone in his own double-breasted, and beside him looking boyish and almost-vulnerable-but-not-quite and smiling broadly is The Man Who Holds the America's Cup, wearing a suit that would look at home in a Chanel model shoot, and 99 percent of the women in the room have at least a passing thought of rubbing up against that luxurious fabric . . .

 

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AND SO WE BEGIN

Mr. Bertarelli is comfortable in speaking upon most topics, and expanding upon a thought, and needs only a little prompting. He responded as follows, to the simple-minded question, What made you think you could win the America's Cup in the first place?

"My father was a hardworking man. He had been through World War II, and I knew he had suffered as a prisoner of war, first of the Germans and then of the Russians, but he did not want to talk about that. I had a difficult time getting in touch with who he was. The man had spent his entire life building the company, and I knew only his talent and leadership, his charisma as an entrepreneur and CEO, which later I tried to emulate. The one thing he would talk about was the time that he had spent sailing on a yacht and racing it. And he would take the family sailing. He believed in that. He resisted giving me a moped but didn't mind giving me a Zodiac and watching me take off in it.

"When I was five years old, my father told me that one day I was going to be running the company—that can make quite an impression on a little kid—and that was the bulk of my relationship with him. But our emotional relationship was built on the water and around the water, through his stories about sailing, and the freedom he provided me on the water.

"When I came back [to Geneva] from university I went to work, and I was looking for something to do to break the week. I bought a boat, a multihull, got crew, and started winning. My father came to the races. We enjoyed our company in that fashion, and from one thing to another I wound up winning the America's Cup."

Silence.

Pause.

Ernesto, that's quite a jump.

"Okay.

"Growing up, I always had dinghies, no big deal, and when I came back to the company I bought an X-119 and decided to take the employees yacht racing. We did the Bal d'Or [a popular all-comers race on Lake Geneva, sponsored by Bertarelli's Socit Nautique de Genve, which holds the America's Cup]. Then one day (a certain fellow) wanted to get rid of his 40-foot multihull. He told me he would sell me the boat for one Swiss franc if I would promise to maintain the team and the sailors. That same year we finished the Bal d'Or upside down; around the lake it's a famous picture.

"Then my father said that I should build a new boat. That was surprising because he was a humble man; he didn't like extravagant things. But I built a new boat and kept on winning.

"Later, Pierre Fehlmann, who had won the round-the-world race with UBS, came to me and talked about an opportunity to build a one-design fleet, but that didn't work at the time because it didn't have sponsorship going forward. As a result of that disappointment, I called my friend Michel Bonnefous, and told him, 'We're going to go watch the first race of the America's Cup.' This was in 2000. So, over the weekend, we jumped on a plane—a commercial flight—and spent 48 hours getting to New Zealand.

"Paul Cayard showed us around, and thanks to Paul, we watched the racing first hand from North Star, [that's the North Sails yacht that carries a TV crew at Cup races] and met Russell Coutts, who didn't speak to me. I was introduced to Patrizio Bertelli and then to Team New Zealand. Peter Blake was very friendly, but Russell Coutts was rushing to his boat for the first race.

"After that trip to Auckland, people knew a little of my interest in sailing. Then I was back in Switzerland, and one afternoon I was about to start a squash match, and I was told that I had a phone call from Russell Coutts. I took the call because Russell was already pretty famous, so there he was on the phone saying that he was traveling to Europe, and he wanted to talk to me because he had a business proposal . . . "

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