Sailing with the FT: Ernesto Bertarelli

Sailing is much more than a hobby for Ernesto Bertarelli. Even on a Thursday afternoon, the Swiss pharmaceuticals billionaire is not wearing a business suit or presiding over meetings in his Geneva office to discuss biotechnology investments or philanthropic projects in Africa. Dressed in trainers and lightweight sailing clothes and sporting a chin full of stubble, he is speeding over Lake Geneva at the helm of a $400,000 red and black catamaran.

Bertarelli gazes upwards at the trim of the high-tech, thermo-moulded sails, makes almost imperceptible adjustments to the tiller and quietly exchanges instructions in French with his expert crew (including Coraline Jonet of France, a champion dinghy sailor).

In these practice races for a weekend regatta, Bertarelli looks as though he is enjoying himself far more than he ever did when making public appearances as the head of Serono, the company he inherited, developed and then sold to Merck for $13bn nearly four years ago.

But then sailing is a passion he developed in childhood. “I got into it before I really knew how to walk,” he tells me, as we perch on the trampoline stretched between the two hulls of the carbon composite boat­ (a Décision 35, built for racing on the lake). “My father was a sailor and our summer vacations were always on a sailboat. I had a little boat before I had a moped.”

It was during these childhood holidays in Italy that Ernesto and his younger sister Dona invented the name “Alinghi” for an imaginary friend. That is the name Bertarelli now gives to his sailing boats – including those that won the America’s Cup in 2003 and 2007, and the giant catamaran, Alinghi 5, that lost this year’s title to Larry Ellison, the Oracle software tycoon, in a bitterly personal contest.

I ask if it is unfair to accuse him, as some critics did, of spending too much time on sailing and not enough on business. “I don’t think that’s right,” he retorts amiably. “I started working for Serono when I was 26 [he is now 45], so I really gave a lot of my time and the best part of my life to that company and the company did well.”

Bertarelli does not believe that managers improve simply by spending more time at the office. “I always thought that it’s important to have other things, not just work, and I often even suggested my managers take some time off and come back fresh and ready to fight again,” he says with a smile. “You can’t always be behind your desk.” He certainly took his own advice and headed for the water whenever he could.

“You can’t change who you are, but you can change what you have in your head, you can refresh what you’re thinking about, you can put some fresh air in your brain. Sailing does that because you’re out there in the sea and the wind.”

Another race is about to start and Bertarelli bounces back along the trampoline to his perch at the tiller on this ultralight, overpowered D35 racing machine – an example of a “one-design” model of identical boats that he and other Lake Geneva sailors developed to create a level playing field. The idea, he says, was to end an arms race of yachting technology that Bertarelli himself had won so comprehensively that races became boring for the winner as well as the losers.

With the Alps on one side of us and Coppet, home of the 18th-century author and socialite Madame de Staël, on the other, we cross the start line ahead of the other boats. The only sounds apart from the rushing of the lake water past the twin hulls are the terse comments of the crew as they seek the best wind and adjust the boat’s sails and rig: “Two degrees more on the mast”; “Good angle”; “Ernesto, go about in 30 seconds.”

We finish third this time (Alinghi goes on to finish second in the 2010 Challenge Julius Baer series on Lake Geneva; the team had previously won three years in a row). Bertarelli says he likes cruising with his family on yachts but it is obvious that his real passion – one he shares with other prominent entrepreneurs – is the teamwork and tension of competitive racing.

“If you have a life which is adrenaline-charged all week long because you’re a powerful CEO or you have responsibilities and you’re committed to the people you look after, it’s very difficult on weekends to sit around the garden,” he says. “So you probably look for something which gives you the same sort of adrenaline buzz.”

Bertarelli, expert in the light-wind sailing on Lake Geneva, says it’s a “great mistake” for an owner to allow himself to be shoved into the back of the boat and deprived of the helm. He tells the story of his sister Dona, who owns Ladycat, a bright pink boat also racing today, and how she became the first woman to win Lake Geneva’s Bol d’Or race after he persuaded her to steer the boat instead of grinding the winches.

Unsurprisingly he cannot hide his lingering frustration at the loss of the trophy this year to Ellison, in a contest between billionaires that degenerated into exactly the kind of tech-and-money power struggle that Bertarelli says he now deplores. The row lasted nearly three years and ended in a two-boat race, excluding other competitors, after an ugly series of legal challenges and insults.

“Larry decided to use his money to win,” says Bertarelli, referring to the giant wing-sailed trimaran that propelled Ellison to victory in Valencia in February. He says he will not compete again until the America’s Cup once more becomes a competition about skill rather than money.

As the afternoon draws on, the sky clears and the sun is shining on the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc on the far side of the lake. “I really enjoy sailing on Lake Geneva because I can just look at the shore and see my wife having a barbecue with the kids,” says Bertarelli. “It’s fantastic. And then you turn around and look at where you’ll be skiing in the winter.”

Bertarelli is a lucky man. He is handsome. He is fabulously rich. He has three children. His wife Kirsty is a former Miss UK who is now a singer-songwriter. What is more, he can go sailing during office hours on a Thursday afternoon. And, for all his wealth, he is normal enough to enjoy it to the full.

Victor Mallet is the FT’s Madrid bureau chief

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