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Red Bull's billionaire owner hunts for hidden jewels in Austrian Alps

The 75-year-old pilot and skiing enthusiast sponsors sports like mountain-biking and paragliding to portray his energy drink as the stuff of adventure

Matthias Wabl | Bloomberg 

Representative image
Representative image

Red Bull billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz has made no secret of his love for adrenaline-fueled extreme sports.

The 75-year-old pilot and skiing enthusiast sponsors sports like mountain-biking and paragliding to portray his energy drink as the stuff of adventure. With a net worth of about $11 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the Austrian entrepreneur also owns two Formula One racing teams and the German football club, RB Leipzig.

More discreetly, he has been on a decade-long acquisition spree in the Austrian Alps, buying castles and villas from churches or aristocratic families that couldn’t afford their upkeep. His holdings include a 1908 Art Nouveau guesthouse that a steelmaker no longer needed, a remote country house on the shores of Wolfgangsee and a tavern built in 1603. He has spent millions to restore the structures, fixing frescos and stucco ceilings.

“I have a soft spot for beautiful, unique places,” Mateschitz said in an interview with Kleine Zeitung newspaper in April 2017. “I want to enjoy these places myself, but I also want to take care of them.”

Mateschitz’s purchases have been in an economically troubled region that once boasted a thriving steel industry, allowing him to buy properties for a song—he bought the centuries-old tavern for 861,000 euros ($947,000). His property investments are also minuscule set against the annual 5.5 billion euros in revenue of the Salzburg-based energy drinks company he co-founded in 1984 with Thai businessman Chaleo Yoovidhya. Mateschitz, Austria’s richest man, owns 49 per cent of the venture.

And although he has turned some properties into guesthouses or hotels to lure visitors to his Formula One track, they don’t make money. His highly seasonal Murtal region project, which includes the race track, seven hotels and cafes, for instance, lost about 30 million euros in 2016 and again in 2017.

“Mateschitz is a classic philanthropist in the sense that he cares much more about the materials, the beauty and the cultural heritage than prices or investment returns,” said Alexander Kottulinksy, the owner of Neudau Castle and president of the Austrian Historic Houses Association. “Without people like him, a lot of the specialist knowledge of carpenters, painters or conservators would get lost.”

Born in Austria’s Styria province, Mateschitz began looking for these properties when he decided to revive the country’s only Formula One race track in Spielberg, about 60 kilometers (37.5 miles) from his native village. He needed guesthouses for the big names in the business, like Bernie Ecclestone.

In 2017, he paid 15 million euros for Landhaus zu Appesbach, the historic villa on the shores of Wolfgangsee, best known as the place where Edward, the Duke of Windsor, spent time in “splendid isolation” in 1937 after abdicating the British throne. The Schuetten family sold it with a “heavy heart, but with the good conscience of having sought and found a buyer who understands this place and who will preserve it,” the hotel’s brochure reads.

Another, more modest, property Mateschitz bought last year is a wooden, three-story guesthouse on Lake Preber that had turned into a squat for nudists. The Preber Lake Shooting Association had worried a Russian oligarch would buy the house and turn it into a walled-off luxury hideaway, said Heimo Waibl, the 66-year-old shooting master at the club.

Currently, Mateschitz is renovating an Alpine inn and planning the restoration of Thalheim Castle, close to which his 27-year-old son, Mark, runs a brewery.

Local communities have welcomed Mateschitz’s investments, although many would rather the government encouraged more industry in the region, which has been in decline since the 1990s, when China and eastern Europe entered the global steel market.

“Everything is getting pretty here, the houses, the dresses, the garden fences, but we also need to make sure that companies invest and create innovative jobs,” said Peter Moizi, 84, a retired furniture designer, who lives within hearing distance of the Red Bull track.

Mateschitz is doing his bit by bolstering the tourism industry. More than 200,000 people visited the region for Formula One races over the summer and a similar number came for MotoGP, two key crowd-pullers.

“We don’t need bus loads with tourists like in Salzburg where everybody wants to see the Mozart house, but more guests would be good for the local economy and the region,” said Waibl at Lake Preber.

Mateschitz rarely visits his guesthouses. Absent from high-society events like galas or opera festivals, he and his long-time girlfriend Marion Feichtner prefer the privacy of their homes in the Salzburg region or in Styria. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

He spends parts of his summers in a small mountain hut in the region. Authorized to land in 25 spots in the area, he often plants one of his helicopters in front of a hotel or a horse stable where he breeds the endangered Trakehner race. Sometimes he stops by an inn for a glass of wine and a chat with the locals.

When he does have a meal at one of his guesthouses, he prefers classic Austrian dishes such as Marinated Styrian fried chicken with cranberries and mixed potato salad and lettuce. Guests at his mountain hut are served freshly-made coffee and Mateschitz-made Apple Strudel. The billionaire, who passed a hunting exam two years ago, supplies the inns and restaurants with deer shot by him, his guests or his rangers. Vegetables come from his farms, and beer and sodas from his brewery.

“I’m not doing all this to become wealthier; I can’t take anything with me,” he told Kleine Zeitung in 2017 about the projects. “I want to do something useful, and I want to preserve beauty.”

First Published: Fri, October 11 2019. 13:18 IST
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