As the boss of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone has travelled the world. Races take place in 19 countries every year and Ecclestone travels to almost all of them. The 82-year-old has been running F1 for nearly 40 years and has amassed an estimated US $4 billion fortune, so when he travels, he does it in style. Private planes and presidential suites are usually the order of the day, but when it came to buying a hotel, his choice was far from obvious.
Instead of taking over a glitzy well-known grande dame favoured by celebrities, Ecclestone and his business partner Marco Piccinini bought the small Hotel Olden in the picturesque ski resort of Gstaad.
The Olden started life as the Pinte Inn in 1690. In 1895 it was the victim of a huge fire in Gstaad; a total of eight houses burned down and only four were rebuilt in stone. The Olden was one of them. Following reconstruction, it continued to be operated as an inn and was purchased in 1924 by the Müllener family.
The hotel first became famous for having an in-house family orchestra, since Hedi and Nelli, the two daughters of the hotel’s owner Marie Müllener, were gifted yodellers. In 1952 the Olden was sold again, this time to Fausto Donizetti, who significantly elevated the reputation of its restaurants, a reputation that stands to this day.
When Ecclestone and Piccinini took over they completely renovated the rooms, restaurants and kitchen. It was long overdue: “It was a hotel that needed saving. I got involved with it because I had been going there for a long time, and it was up for sale. It was a spontaneous purchase,” says Ecclestone.
Piccinini was a useful business partner. The Italian ran Ferrari’s F1 team in the 1980s and from 1998 until 2009 he was a board member of Société des Bains de Mer (SBM), the Euronext-listed management company that runs hotels and casinos in Monaco, including the renowned Hôtel de Paris and Hôtel Hermitage. In contrast, the Olden is a much more homely hotel that wouldn’t look at all out of place on a picture postcard of Gstaad.
Its roof is in the classic Swiss chalet A-frame style, while window boxes brimming with brightly coloured flowers adorn its façade. Its interior is furnished with wood, of course, and the only thing missing is a cuckoo clock. With just 16 rooms the Olden is a David among Goliaths: the Gstaad Palace and the Grand Hotel Bellevue, which both have more rooms and a spa, as well as the recently opened The Alpina, Gstaad.
“We draw people to our hotel because it is more or less in the middle of town and has been there for 108 years, so it has got a decent history. It has got probably the best restaurant around and is a warm, cosy hotel,” says Ecclestone.
A cosy hotel may seem to be out of place in the turbocharged world of F1, but in fact it perfectly fits Ecclestone’s personality. Although he is a billionaire, he doesn’t lead a typical tycoon lifestyle.
Son of a Suffolk trawlerman, Ecclestone epitomises the rags to riches tale. “I’ve always been a bit of a dealer. During the war I used to go into the bakery, buy the limited amount of cakes on offer and take them to school in a case. I sold them in the break-time,” he recalls.
Leaving school at 16, Ecclestone established one of the UK’s biggest car dealerships while dabbling in professional driving. In 1958 he entered two F1 races, but gave up on this career when he failed to qualify on both occasions.
At that time, F1 races ran as ad hoc, almost amateur events. Each team made separate deals with the event promoters, and television coverage was sporadic since races could be cancelled at the last minute if there were not enough cars to fill the grid. Ecclestone bought the Brabham team and although he won two championships with it, he had his eye on a bigger prize.
Ecclestone realised that F1 could generate significant income from television stations if its coverage was consistent. This would benefit the sport overall, so he decided to focus his efforts on taking control of F1 instead of Brabham.
“I had a choice to make,” he says. “Do I look after my team and let Formula One splutter on in a very amateur way, or do I look after Formula One? I really couldn’t do both properly.”
He convinced the teams to sign a contract committing them to race and took it to TV companies who could then guarantee coverage. His company Formula One Promotions and Administration (FOPA) negotiated the deals and took a share of the proceeds, with the remainder going to the teams and F1’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). The rest, as they say, is history.
Unlike other billionaires, Ecclestone doesn’t have an army of bodyguards, and he hardly has any personal retinue at all. Until he was mugged in 2010, he rarely even used a chauffeur. Despite his age, he still works from 9am to 6pm five days a week, and even lives above the shop.
Ecclestone’s pad in London is a modest penthouse above his office, which faces the famous Hyde Park. True to his working-class origins, he has bottles of milk delivered to his doorstep every day. Holidays are infrequent and he says that when he travels on business, he looks for familiarity.
“I don’t like staying in hotels but I have to,” he says. “The alternative isn’t so good. Normally I stay in the same hotels and they give me the same rooms, so I know where I am. It is not like an adventure as it was in the early years.”
Ironically, despite F1 being one of the world’s most cutting-edge sports, Ecclestone is not overly tech savvy. For example, he keeps the telephone numbers of his closest business contacts printed on a list taped to the back of his mobile phone rather than in a digital address book. In a nod to one of his favourite films, Ecclestone had his ring tone changed to Ennio Morricone’s famous theme tune to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
With this in mind, it is perhaps easy to see how the Olden fits into Ecclestone’s life, and he certainly has a soft spot for it: “I’d like to take that hotel wherever I go to stay in,” he says.
“I don’t have any favourite hotels particularly, but all the hotels in Asia are good. It is hard to find a bad hotel there.”
When Ecclestone visits the Olden he is often seen taking care of little details such as straightening up the picture frames hanging on the walls. One regular visitor to the hotel says that “attention to detail, typical for all of Bernie’s enterprises, can be felt in every corner of the hotel. There is a deeply-rooted, authentic atmosphere about the hotel and also about the food.”
Ecclestone says he isn’t looking at adding to his hotel collection and is not personally involved with the management of the Olden. It probably isn’t enough to keep him occupied. “Hotels are very straightforward compared to F1. In the end it is all down to turnover and how efficiently you run the place.” It is a formula he has honed down to a fine art.
What: Hotel Olden Gstaad, 3780 Gstaad, Switzerland
Tel: +41 33 748 49 50
Price: from CHF 580 (US $640) for a double room in low season