Dietrich Mateschitz: Raging bull

Dietrich Mateschitz is very pleased with himself. And with good reason: the soft drink brand he dreamt up one night in a Tokyo bar has made him a billionaire. In his first British interview, he tells Sholto Byrnes how his flight of fancy went supersonic

" I'm going to see Dietrich Mateschitz," I tell the taxi driver as we skid along the icy road from Munich to Salzburg. "Have you heard of him?" He nods. "Mr Red Bull," he replies, his eyes bulging. "He's very rich."

Yes, Dietrich Mateschitz is fabulously rich. A billionaire from his invention of the energy drink that's packaged in the slim chrome, red and blue can. He's so rich that as well as possessing the normal trappings of the super-wealthy, such as the Haflinger horse stud, he also bought a society magazine, Seitenblicke, partly to ensure that he wouldn't appear in it. And he's rich enough to dismiss the millions he paid to purchase the Jaguar Formula One racing team as a mere bagatelle.

We've arranged to meet at "Arnie's Cigar Room", named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, like Mateschitz, hails from the Styria region of Austria. The room is in an aircraft hangar next to Salzburg airport. Built specifically to house Mateschitz's collection of airplanes, Hangar-7 includes a DC-6B that once belonged to Marshal Tito, and is now open to the public along with its restaurant, café and two bars. Mr Red Bull, a tall, grizzled figure clad in chunky black jumper and jeans, lopes over and fills an armchair. He's agreed to give a rare interview - his first to the British press - because of his takeover of the Jaguar F1 team. "You know, I have always said that the cheapest thing in Formula One is buying the team," he explains. "The responsibility and the expenditure comes afterwards. The purchase price? Well, I have read that I paid unbelievable amounts in one of your British papers: £60m. Maybe the journalist should not estimate at all." He smiles heavily. "Or change his profession."

Although Mateschitz is perfectly pleasant, I get the impression that I am being endured. "In Austria everyone knows that I don't do any television or radio because I like my privacy," he says. "For me, privacy is quality. I don't want to be recognised by everybody." When I check that his son by a former girlfriend is aged 13, the guard instantly goes up: "There is no reason to tell your readers that I have a son who's 13."

What Mateschitz is happy to talk about is Red Bull: its philosophy, its marketing, its health-giving properties, its involvement in sport. Listening to him spouting about his plans to develop his company's headquarters in such a way that they will represent the "energy" of Red Bull (the buildings will be shaped as two erupting volcanoes with a herd of 4m-high bronze bulls raging forth), it's easy to forget that all this is based on a sickly, caffeinated drink that just happens to have been marketed spectacularly well. A total of 1.5 billion cans were consumed globally in 2003. It has, however, been banned in France and Denmark, and rumours abound that one can contains as much caffeine as 14 cups of coffee. Not true, says Mateschitz. "One can is the same as one cup of filter coffee. Red Bull is a detoxifying, dietetic and functional food, which improves your endurance, your concentration." But if its progenitor gets a little carried away by its properties, perhaps he can be forgiven; these little cans of fizzy liquid have been his life for the last 22 years.

It all began in 1982, when Mateschitz, then the marketing director of the German cosmetics company Blendax, was sitting at the bar of the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong. Musing on the popularity of "tonic drinks" in the Far East, the idea came to him of selling something similar in the West. He formed a partnership with a local colleague who was already producing a drink called "Krating Daeng", or Thai water buffalo, and Red Bull was born. From the start, Mateschitz had an enormous amount of confidence both in his product and his ability to sell it to the world. "There exists no market for Red Bull," he said at the time, "but we will create one."

Red Bull launched in Austria in 1987 and was linked to sports events. "In the very first year we started by sponsoring mountain-biking, snowboarding, paragliding and hang-gliding competitions," he says. "Gerhard Berger was our first opinion-leader sportsman drinking Red Bull. He survived on it." Through such effective marketing the drink rapidly took off, soon spreading to neighbouring Hungary. The German launch ended in disaster, however, when Red Bull ran out of cans a few weeks into the campaign. "We had no idea that there could be a bottle-neck in aluminium cans around the world," says Mateschitz. "We needed one million cans a day, but we simply couldn't get a single can extra and ran out."

Red Bull returned to Germany six months later, but the incident continues to prey on Mateschitz's mind. "We got back 70 to 80 per cent market share, but I still believe that our per capita consumption in Germany is lower than it would be without that critical year. But life goes on. Sometimes you simply have to fight and win."

Conquering the British market came with another set of problems. "The UK was a bit of an exception because of Lucozade," says Mateschitz. "For generations children grew up drinking Lucozade when they didn't feel well, and unfortunately this remedy was called an energy drink. So for the British market we didn't call Red Bull an energy drink but a stimulant." Although pleased by how quickly it took off in the UK, its founder is dismayed that so many British drinkers fail to appreciate its wholesome qualities. "The development was quite fast but the disadvantage was that Red Bull became a mixer because it was mainly sold in bars and clubs. And this is not the position of the product at all. This misconception was the price we had to pay."

British consumers have failed to realise that Red Bull is more than just another soft drink. To Mateschitz, it is a philosophy. "We believe in individualism, we hate conformism, we believe in a civil courage. We believe you have the responsibility to make up your own opinion." This extends to the corporate structure of Red Bull. "There are terrible words in business like 'chain of competence'. When three intelligent people discuss a matter, why do they need a line of command? We are not in an army court. Most of us came from multinationals and we escaped from all those rules."

Hence, when Mateschitz came up with company titles, he looked to the American football system. "Instead of having presidents, directors and chairmen, we had a defensive line, an offensive line, coaches and quarterbacks. All this sounds better than directors and a board. In our company, we have almost no control system because we believe in self-motivation and responsibility. Of course, you have to be able to handle this freedom." He must have a lot of trust in people, I say. "But if you don't trust in people, what else shall you trust?" he replies. "We are not a political party. We are a family, the Red Bull family. Within Red Bull you can always say the truth. If someone is an idiot, you should call him an idiot. You should have the possibility to tell everybody what you believe is right and wrong."

So he says, but I wonder how much dissent is tolerated in the Red Bull family. When I raise how Red Bull started in Britain and mention the early sacking of the UK staff - information that was provided to me by his company - he tells me I'm wrong, and sounds deeply disappointed that I have made an error. And for all this talk of freedom and individualism, I notice that the two minders from the Red Bull press office are, like Mateschitz, decked out in identikit jeans and jumpers.

For someone so focused, Mateschitz took his time joining the rat race. He completed his degree at the University of Commerce in Vienna only after nearly a decade as a student. Why so long? "I changed universities a lot of times," he says. "You know, it's a good time, so you shouldn't shorten it unnecessarily. But I picked up afterwards." What changed? "That's easy. When you are a student and you are a tour guide in the summer and a skiing instructor [in winter], this is OK when you are 23, 24, 25. But a student ski instructor at 28, 30? It's not so funny any more. Sooner or later you have to decide what you are going to do. So I decided to finish as quickly as possible."

He seems to be on the defensive, so I say that I was not trying to be critical. "You can, I don't mind. I could have done it quicker, no doubt. Actually, I didn't have too much time to study in those days." What was going on? "Life!" He leans back and chuckles.

In the past Mateschitz, who has never married, has been quoted as saying that friendship and eroticism are "what's really important". And when he was named Man of the Year by the Austrian magazine Trend in 2000, he was described as a man who "has never been without a woman for more than a couple of days in his adult life". He certainly looks good for 60, and if he pursues his personal pleasures with the same drive he brings to business, I don't doubt that's true. When I ask about his personal life philosophy, he goes back to Red Bull. "We believe in creativity, we believe that everything can be questioned. Taking a few risks doesn't matter because as long as you are healthy, you have a clear mind, bright eyes, and two arms and legs, what can happen? We have a saying that 'There are more mothers with good-looking daughters'." This, it turns out, is the Styrian version of our "plenty more fish in the sea".

Eventually, he admits two sources of inspiration. "In my generation, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is of course a cult," he says, "and maybe I was a little bit influenced by everybody who went hang-gliding 20 years ago and had the music in their ears." The other is the concentration-camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. "He has taught me that life can be various, but everybody has to look for his personal sense."

Mateschitz clearly has his "personal sense" worked out, but his brand of individualism doesn't seem very open to opposition. Of France's ban on Red Bull on health grounds, which continues despite an attempt by the European Commission to lift it, he says: "They don't care about the Common Market. It's protectionism. There is no reason not to allow it. But we have a saying in German: 'the situation is serious but not hopeless'. We turned it round for France, so we say 'the situation is hopeless but not serious any more'. They can survive without Red Bull, we can survive without France. But sooner or later, legally, they will have to give up."

Just before I leave, Mateschitz tells me about the opening ceremony for Hangar-7. "We had an airshow where you didn't know if it was art or an airshow. We had composed our own music, and we did scenes from Greek mythology where the roles were played by planes and helicopters. We look for a complexity, which makes things unique to fit with the product and the brand. All this communicates Red Bull."

Red Bull may have given Dietrich Mateschitz wings - but for flights of fancy, perhaps. As I walk out of his lair into the Salzburg snow I wonder how many of Mr Red Bull's employees ever stop and remind themselves that behind all the grandiloquent monuments and statements of high intent lie one simple fact: it is, after all, only a fizzy drink.