Billionaire with wings

Along with the ever more popular tins of Red Bull which quickly made him rich, he also sold an urban lifestyle, he invested heavily in sports

AP/ANDREAS SCHAAD  -   The Austrian billionaire, co-founder of the Red Bull energy drinks company and founder and owner of the Red Bull Formula 1 team, died on Saturday 22 October 2022. He was 78 years old

Dietrich Mateschitz was one of the richest people in Austria – according to Forbes magazine, worth 25bn €. He died on October 22th at the age of 78 of cancer. His career resembled a bit the dishwasher-turns-millionaire-myth. In the 1980s, as a smart trade-representative working for a toothpaste company, he got to know the energy drinks market in Thailand and showed his genius for marketing. Together with Thai partners from the Yoovidhya clan, he helped the Red Bull drink, which contains a lot of caffeine and sugar, achieve worldwide success. The start was not easy but he counted on truck-drivers who should stay awake after consuming a tin or two. So Red Bull was sold first mainly at highway-rest-stops. And he sent employees out to buy the drinks in order to create higher demand artificially. This trick worked.

Along with the ever more popular tins of Red Bull which quickly made him rich, he also sold an urban lifestyle. He invested heavily in sports projects that also promoted his drinks: a successful Formula 1 racing team, spectacular air shows, an Austrian soccer-team, daredevil athletes who jumped off the famous bridge in Mostar. In 2012, the Austrian extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner even dared to jump out of the stratosphere – a sporting and advertising success broadcast worldwide. His slogan “Red Bull gives wings” became known worldwide.

In addition to buying and renovating old hotels and restaurants mainly in his native Austria, Mateschitz also founded a media company with the TV station Servus TV, Magazines like Carpe Diem, Terra mater, the research platform Addendum, and the Red Bulletin. Recently he sponsored the political magazine “Pragmaticus” together with the Prince of Liechtenstein.

As a media mogul he proceeded with ruthless determination, in the manner of British media tycoons.  When a works council at Servus TV was to be formed at the station in 2016, “Didi” (as he was known) immediately threatened to close it down. After the staff surrendered, broadcasting continued. Mateschitz also shut down the media platform Addendum without warning.

PHOTO/AFP - Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz

In 2017, the otherwise media-shy Mateschitz gave a rarely granted interview to the Kleine Zeitung, in which he outed himself as a right-winger and Trump admirer. He criticized the “opinion dictates of the politically correct” by an “intellectual elite,” which he naturally located on the left. 

He was harshly critical of the “failure to cope with the wave of refugees” in 2015. And although he profited handsomely from the EU single market – the EU Commission even pushed for the approval of Red Bull in France, where the secret formula was deemed a health hazard – he spread plenty of EU scepticism through his media.

Servus TV, also known for spectacular nature films, became the biggest private TV-station. But it also gave a platform to right-wing radicals. It recently devoted much airtime to vaccination sceptics and conspiracy theorists. Servus TV director Ferdinand Wegscheider presented his right-wing views in his weekly program Der Wegscheider. And Martin Sellner, leader of the far-right Identitären movement with a modern touch and figurehead of the New Right in Germany, was also a frequent guest on Servus TV talk shows.

AFP/ALFREDO ESTRELLA - Red Bull Racing's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (C) celebrates on the podium with Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (L), in second place, and Red Bull Racing's Mexican driver Sergio Perez, in third place, after the Formula One Mexican Grand Prix at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City on October 30, 2022.

Mateschitz had completed his economics studies at the Vienna University for world trade only after 20 semesters, but liked to cultivate a homely touch: He despised business suits and usually appeared in jeans and T-shirts. He bought and renovated old hotels and inns – for example in the Ausseerland region or around the Formula 1 circuit he revived in Zeltweg (Austria)  which was of course named after the energy drink.

As CEO he showed a social conscience: His known charitable payments include the Wings for Life foundation which he co-founded in July 2004 after Hannes Kinigadner‘s tragic motorcyle accident to fund world-class research into treating spinal cord injuries, a number of which resulted from spectacular Red Bull stunts.

The private TV Puls 4, his rival in private tv, recalled in its obituary a strange threat made to the Profil business journalist Michael Nikbakhsh. When the latter proposed to write his biography and had a phonecall with his mother, an angry Mateschitz told him that he would no longer be safe “as long as a perforated kneecap costs 500 dollars from Moscow hitmen”. The billionaire later apologized, but the threat suggested a certain way of doing things.

AFP PHOTO / SPORTSANDNEWS/HELMUT TUCEK - A file image shows Austrian extremist skydiver Felix Baumgartner during a practice flight over England on 30 July 2003.

Journalist Wolfgang Fürweger, who wrote the first biography, “The Red Bull Story. The Incredible Success of Dietrich Mateschitz”, was banned from the company despite his positive reportage:  “Mr. Mateschitz couldn’t control the content, and a lack of control just doesn’t sit well with him and his people.” Most recently, he made a secret of his serious illness. He is said to have refused a chemotherapy against cancer as he had trust in alternative medicine.

After his death the 51-percent shareholder in Red Bull -the Thai family- will have to decide on the future of the drink-company. It is unclear if the Thais want to continue the extensive sponsoring activities in sports and Formula1.

The Austrian part of the fortune – including a lot of castles, houses and a whole island near Tahiti will be shared by his 39-year-old partner Marion Feichtner and a 29-year-old son from a previous relationship. Since inheritance tax has been abolished in Austria, they can look forward to a tax-free inheritance.

Otmar Lahodynsky, AEJ honorary president