Robert Louis-Dreyfus: Businessman who helped resurrect Olympique Marseille football club
Friday 17 July 2009
As befits a scion of the wealthy and secretive Louis-Dreyfus family, the Franco-Swiss billionaire businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus had a wide range of interests and a deserved reputation as a troubleshooter with an uncanny ability to turn companies around. From 1989 to 1993, he served as chief executive officer at Saatchi & Saatchi and restored the fortunes of the advert-ising agency before rescuing the German sporting goods maker Adidas. For the last 13 years of his life he was the majority shareholder at Olym-pique Marseille football club, the team with the biggest fan-base in the French league, and helped steady the ship after the departure in 1993 of the controversial Bernard Tapie, who coincidentally had controlled the Adidas company before him.
Known as RLD, he was also a minority shareholder at the Belgian football club Standard Liège and chairman of the international sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media which managed the media rights to the 2006 World Cup. He returned to the family firm in 2000 and acquired 55 per cent of the still privately-owned Louis-Dreyfus Group in 2007.
Born in 1946, RLD was the great-grandson of Léopold Dreyfus, who began buying and selling wheat in the Alsace region a century earlier. RLD failed his baccalauréat twice but excelled at poker, winning considerable amounts from his rich friends at the posh Lycée Janson-de-Sailly in Paris. "Cards in hand, I came alive," he said. "I forgot all my hang-ups."
In 1967, he spent time on a kibbutz, was involved in the Six Days War, then secured a place at Harvard with a presentation about his experiences. He spent the rest of the 1970s working at various outposts of the Louis-Dreyfus Group. He met the City banker Siegmund Warburg, who became a mentor. "Every decision I take, I ask myself what he would have done," he later reflected.
He developed a maverick streak and in 1982 joined IMS, the US pharmaceutical research company. By the time IMS was sold for $1.7bn in 1988, his $400,000 investment had grown more than 20-fold. Despite never having worked in advertising, he quickly justified Maurice Saatchi's hunch that he was the right man to turn around an over-extended company.
RLD invested his own money in Saatchi & Saatchi, negotiated with the banks, restructured the management, focus-ed on big clients like British Airways and Toyota and attracted new business. He proved equally visionary when asked to take the helm at Adidas in the 1990s. He put his recently-acquired advertising know-how into practice, concentrated on marketing, streamlined the product line, reintroduced classic designs and added the Salomon ski-wear and golf-club company to the group.
When the Marseilles mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin asked him to get involved in the OM team in December 1996, the club had hit rock bottom following a match-fixing scandal involving a League game at Valenciennes four days before the European Cup final against Milan in Munich in May 1993. The club had been stripped of their 1992-1993 league title and demoted to the Second Division, where they spent two seasons. The club kept the European Cup but were banned from all European competitions for a year.
He saw the logic in the deal, with Adidas and the telecommunications company Neuf – which he had helped set up – sponsoring the team; sales of shirts rocketed. RLD spent a reported €200m and went through 19 coaches but, while the team reached two Uefa Cup finals, in 1999 and 2004, and two French Cup finals, in 2006 and 2007, and finished runner-up in the League three times, the sole trophy during his tenure was the Intertoto Cup in 2005.
However, he fell prey to the "Marseille disease" and was investigated for €22m worth of illegal payments made between 1997 and 1999 during the transfers of players including Laurent Blanc, Ibrahima Bakayoko, Claude Makelele and Fabrizio Ravanelli. Diagnosed with leukemia around the same time, he showed remarkable fortitude when given a suspended sentence of three years and a fine of €375,000, commuted to 10 months and €200,000 on appeal. He resolved to sell his majority shares in the club but a proposed deal with the Canadian entrepreneur Jack Kachkar in 2007 fell through when the prospective buyer tried to use falsified bank documents.
RLD lived in a lakeside villa in Zurich but did not flaunt his wealth. He drove a Smart car, and often wore casual clothes while puffing on a cigar and listening to opera. "What spurs me on is the absolute desire to be a free man," he told biographers. According to Sneaker Wars, Barbara Smit's history of Adidas, he dated Kim Basinger before marrying his wife Margarita. He became a Swiss citizen in 1995 to minimise his tax liabilities. He was a cousin of the American actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played the role of Elaine Benes in the US sitcom Seinfeld.
The OM coach Didier Deschamps said of him: "He was genuinely passionate about sport and football in particular. He loved sportsmen and considered them as heroes. Despite his position in the business world, he was very humble and accessible, which is rare enough to be underlined."
Robert Louis-Dreyfus, businessman: born Paris 14 June 1946; married (three sons); died Zurich 4 July 2009.
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