Ten things to learn from Bernie Ecclestone

by Charles Orton Jones

He's the supremo of Formula One. A billionaire. He's on first name terms with presidents, prime ministers and royalty in every developed economy. CEOs of corporations like Canon and Vodafone are desperate to get half an hour with him. To his friends and to his enemies he is just known as Bernie.

I spent three years working for Bernie, and in that time observed many of his peculiar habits. So if you want to do business the Bernie way, here's his method:

1. Meetings begin after 0.1 seconds

Normal people start meetings with handshakes, small talk about children, pets etc. The Bernie way is to fire off a question the split second you walk into a room. Follow it up with more questions. Keep blasting away for five minutes until your fellow meeting participants are gasping for breath. Then tell them what you've decided. Exit.

2. Treat your best customers like royalty

Some businesses think that they can make the customer “king” by offering ten percent discounts. Lame, lame, lame. When Bernie wants to impress he lays on private jets, champagne, supermodels and super-yachts. Look at the F1 paddock before a race and you'll see P Diddy talking to Prince Albert of Monaco, whilst behind them Heidi Klum talks to the CEO of Sony. They turn up because no-one can throw a party like Bernie.

3. Think big

There's a line in the Italian Job when the aristo crime-lord tells Michael Caine: “Big? You couldn't even spell 'big'.” Dismally true for 99.9 percent of us. Not Bernie though. When Singapore offered to build a night-circuit, the health and safety guys said no way. Bernie approved it. When races were suggested for Abu Dhabi and China it looked impossible. Now they are amongst the highest grossing fixtures on the calendar. By contrast the English Premier League is still dithering about hosting a single game in Dubai five years after it was proposed.

4.  Never blink

A few years ago Bernie was negotiating the future of the British Grand Prix. The negotiators from the British Racing Drivers' Club believed Bernie would never consider cancelling the British race. It is, after all, the home race of the sport. When the deal making dragged Bernie turned up the heat by demanding his demands be met in 12 days or else the race would be cancelled. It was clear he wasn't kidding. Bernie soon got what he wanted.

5.  Build a tight team

Bernie is served by an inner circle of lawyers, financiers and lieutenants numbering no more than two dozen. They are unswervingly loyal to him. In return he rewards them handsomely. By using such a small team to run his global empire Bernie ensures he has personal control over every aspect of it.

6. Do business face-to-face

Bernie may be 80 but he still puts in more air miles than most transatlantic pilots. If he wants to talk to his contacts in Brazil he gets in his private jet and flies to see them. He takes off from Biggin Hill airport, to the South of London. As he points out: “I can go and see two of three countries in one day.” Compare that to lazy executives who can't be bothered to catch a taxi to see a contact who works twenty minutes away.

7.  Use shell companies

Bernie's holdings are kept in a baffling series of shell companies. Individual brand assets are kept in their own entity, as are license agreements and subsidiaries. The idea is to isolate assets from each other. This technique means an asset, such as a trademark, can be sold or re-licensed without affecting other assets. Most corporate lawyers will be able to explain the merits of shell companies. Yet most entrepreneurs never think to investigate the merits of shell companies.

8.  Be invaluable

Bernie is always referred to as the "F1 Supremo". And it's true. The sport could barely function without him. This is because of his knowledge and charisma. It goes way beyond any legal control. In fact, at times Bernie has sold controlling stakes in F1 so he had very little economic oversight. But he is the one single guy everyone can depend upon. He achieves this by attending more meetings than anyone else, fostering personal contacts with all the major figures in the sport and always delivering what he says he will. Tough to emulate.

9.  Mix with billionaires

How did Bernie come to buy QPR football club with Flavio Briatore and Lakshmi Mittal? It was essentially a deal cooked up by three friends. It's the same with all Bernie's investments. He hangs around with the global elite. If a business proposition emerges he's got an unbelievable team of co-investors standing right beside him. When he wanted to sell QPR he simply asked his friends who wanted to buy. Tony Fernandes, owner of F1's Team Lotus, stepped up. That's what happens when you move in elevated circles.

10.  Be nice

Bernie? Nice. Well, er, yes. He's extraordinarily well mannered. Calm. Cheerful. The idea that he's some sort of Monty Burns is absurd. If you want people to stay loyal to you and do business with you then being affable and predictable is essential. He even has a sense of humour. Just look at this Hublot advertisement he did after being punched in the face whilst being mugged. It's the perfect picture of Bernie: even when he's taking a bruising he can keep his composure.
is the former editor of EuroBusiness magazine and 2006 PPA business journalist of the year.
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