Dietrich Mateschitz: late bloomer gets a boost from Red Bull

It took Dietrich Mateschitz a decade to get his degree, then he moved into business. But it was a syrupy concoction in Thailand that gave him the idea that made him a billionaire. 

Dietrich Mateschitz © Vision Photos/ullstein bild via Getty Images

(Image credit: Dietrich Mateschitz © Vision Photos/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

In the early 1980s, Dietrich Mateschitz was just another businessman in Thailand trying to drum up a market for toothpaste when he "popped open a small bottle of a syrupy concoction". The drink, called Krating Daeng (Thai for red bull), was popular among truck drivers and blue-collar workers as a pick-me-up, says Maxim. It gave him his big idea.

Some 30 years on, the Austrian billionaire from Salzburg is credited with starting a global drinks revolution. After securing the rights and launching "a carbonated and eminently more drinkable version" in his home country in 1987, Red Bull became the first of a new breed of energy drinks. The blue and silver cans so painstakingly designed by Mateschitz have shot from "niche" to ubiquitous: more than 6.3 billion were sold in 2017 alone.

A recluse bent on world domination

Now in his mid-70s, Mateschitz is a maverick figure, often portrayed as a "reclusive" billionaire overseeing his drinks empire from a private island in Fiji. Worth some $20bn, according to Forbes, his empire has grown to encompass a Formula One racing team, the German football club RB Leipzig, magazine and book publishers and the Austrian TV station Servus TV. He runs it "like a feudal lord", notes Handelsblatt. But one thing everyone agrees about is that Mateschitz is a marketing genius. Having created a market where previously there was none, he remains hell-bent on world domination. Indeed, the suspicion is that he "built up a media empire" mainly to advertise Red Bull.

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Given the ball of energy he later became, Mateschitz was, professionally, a late bloomer. Born in Austria in 1944 to parents of Croatian ancestry, it took him a decade to finish his degree at Vienna's University of Economics and Business. "You know, it's a good time, so you shouldn't shorten it unnecessarily," he told The Independent in 2005. "But I picked up afterwards." Certainly, right from the start Mateschitz sought to portray Red Bull as the stuff of adventure sponsoring mountain-biking, snowboarding, paragliding and hang-gliding competitions with the simple slogan, "Red Bull gives you wings".

He takes himself and the brand he has created immensely seriously. For instance, he has never really forgiven British consumers for treating Red Bull as just a "mixer". They failed to realise that actually it's "a philosophy". As a brand, "we believe in individualism, we hate conformism, we believe in civil courage", he once observed. Philistine dilution was "the price we had to pay" for the product's success in the UK.

Mateschitz loves to build big: Red Bull's Austrian headquarters is shaped as "two erupting volcanoes" representing "energy". He also built an aircraft hangar next to Salzburg airport to house his collection of planes, which includes a DC-6B that once belonged to Yugoslav Communist leader, Marshal Tito. These days, it's open to the public and also hosts a Servus TV topical chat show, Talk in Hangar 7, advertised as airing "controversial, profound and solution-orientated" content.

Didi makes a move into politics

Of late, Mateschitz has been proving a little too controversial for some. The extraordinary rise of his football club RB Leipzig (from fifth to top division) has "outraged" some German fans, who dismiss it as "a plastic club" whose purpose is to sell fizzy drinks, says the Financial Times. More significantly, Mateschitz known as "Didi" to his friends has been making inroads into politics, says Handelsblatt. A fan of Donald Trump, in 2017 he announced plans to set up a multimedia platform, which drew comparisons with the US far-right site Breitbart, as part of "a personal crusade" to "tell the truth" to his fellow citizens. Not much has been heard about that recently. But don't rule Mateschitz out, says Investopedia. Given his "exceptional success as a marketer", he may yet establish himself as "a force to be reckoned with in the German news market".

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.