Formula One boss, reality TV star, stockbroker, restauranteur, international playboy, football club chairman and self-made millionaire—Flavio Briatore is a man who can claim many titles.
The Italian entrepreneur is also the founder of Billionaire Life—a concept so brash, only a man steeped in Briatore’s brand of success and excess could have come up with it.
Having already targeted the region with his Billionaire Italian fashion chain, with shops in Dubai and Riyadh, Briatore is preparing to launch the Billionaire Mansion Dubai this month. A sprawling new box complex in the Taj Dubai will combine a lounge, nightclub, karaoke, Italian grill and Sumosan sushi bar and add a new party hotspot to his global empire, which includes Turkey, Kenya and Sardinia.
“The name is a little bit arrogant,” admits Briatore over the phone from Monaco. “I was arrogant when I started because at the time there were not so many billionaires. Now there are too many.”
One could say the name is aspirational. The 65-year-old’s own fortune is estimated to be just $150 million. “I am not a billionaire [but] I am enthusiastic,” he says. “I want to be one day.”
Originally founded in Sardinia in 1998 as a playground for the rich and famous and with Billionaire Clubs in Turkey and Kenya, the venture takes Briatore back to his very first experience of being an entrepreneur, when he was the boss of a short-lived restaurant. Growing up in the Italian Maritime Alps while working as a ski instructor, the young Briatore founded Tribula with colleagues.
“I was managing it myself because all my friends preferred partying to working,” he says. “It was one season, then finito.”
After stints as a door-to-door insurance salesman and later trading on the Italian stock exchange, it was a fortuitous meeting with the businessman Luciano Benetton which led to Briatore making his fortune. Appointed to import the Italian fashion brand to the US, Briatore opened 800 stateside stores between 1979 and 1989, banking a cut from each. On the back of his success, Briatore was parachuted in to manage the new Benetton Formula One team in 1990 with no motorsport experience, where his first stroke of inspiration was to hire the young Michael Schumacher.
Briatore has not seen his former prizefighter since the tragic skiing accident in 2013 which left the seven-times F1 champion with serious long-term injuries. “All we can do is pray, nothing else,” says Briatore. “It is so sad.”
When Renault acquired Benetton in 2001, it hired Briatore, whose greatest discovery was Fernando Alonso. However he was forced out of the team and the sport in 2008 following a race-fixing allegation, later overturned by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).
Briatore’s public profile perhaps reached its peak during the three years he co-owned UK football club Queens Park Rangers alongside billionaires Bernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal. “I was a little controversial because I fired six or seven managers but they got fired because they weren’t good enough,” he says.
Controversy is a word Briatore knows well. In the mid-1980s he fled to the Virgin Islands after being sentenced to more than four years in jail for fraud, only returning to Europe after an amnesty was granted.
“When you start from nothing there is a lot of jealousy and mean people. It does not mean anything,” he says. “I am lucky. I have had a very good life. If life was so simple, so clear, so smooth, it would be no fun at all.”
And fun it certainly has been. Whatever he might claim, it is clear Briatore gains immense fulfilment from his public profile. Why else would he have hosted the Italian version of The Apprentice in 2010, playing the role of Alan Sugar? Then there is Force Blue, the $24 million 12-suite superyacht which he uses to entertain the ultra-rich every summer. That also caused Briatore a spot of bother when it was seized in 2010 due to unpaid taxes, a matter still to come up in court. “The whole accusation of fraud has gone completely,” he says. “Now we are still working with [tax inspectors] but I am sure we will find a solution.”
And there are the women, who have attracted just as much attention as his financial affairs. Briatore has a string of supermodel ex-girlfriends, including Elle Macpherson, Naomi Campbell and Heidi Klum, with whom he had a daughter Helene shortly before she married the musician Seal.
It was Wonderbra model Elisabetta Gregoraci who finally tamed him when they married in 2008 (Alonso drove the wedding car).
“I am not a playboy. I was dating a lot, now I am married,” he says. It is unlikely Briatore will disappear from the public eye anytime soon. His brother, a farmer, died at the end of last year. With his 66th birthday on the horizon, his own mortality is preoccupying Briatore.
“[My brother] led a very healthy life, waking up at six o’clock, was outdoors every day and he died of a heart attack,” he says. “So whatever the doctor tells you, it is difficult to believe. You could be dead in 10 minutes. And money? You don’t take anything with you when you go.””