The Wealthiest People in Pro Cycling, Part II

There are enough billionaires and multi-millionaires in the sport to make this in to a two part series. After yesterday’s first instalment, here is Part II which includes the only woman on the list but arguably she’s the most powerful figure in the sport.

Andy Rihs – BMC Racing
After Chet Pipkin yesterday, another tale of garage start-up. Andy Rihs is the Swiss owner of BMC and the big benefactor behind the BMC Racing team. Perhaps you’ve played in a fantasy cycling league like Velogames and wanted more credits to buy extra players? Rihs is playing for real and has deep pockets that allow him to fund the team and hire the best riders at their peak. That’s why he’s got the likes of Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and more on his team.

Yet Rihs isn’t wealthy thanks to BMC bikes and its sister brands Bergamont and Stromer. Instead his father Ernst started a hearing aid business that went from his garage to a global consumer healthcare giant called Sonova (formerly known as Phonak) and at the time of writing it is worth about US$7.5 billion (€5.5bn) and employs close to 9,000 people. According to the latest Sonova Annual report Rihs has sold down his interest in the firm, going from 8.7% to 6.3% of the business and his remaining stake is valued around $570 million (€415m) and enough to generate over $7 million (€5m) a year in dividend income alone.

He’s also got interests in watch-making, normal since the BMC factory in Grenchen is near the Breitling HQ and an area famous for its luxury timepieces. He’s also opened the new velodrome in Grenchen, a project he part-funded by donation and it’s not just an arena as the Swiss Cycling federation has moved its offices to the building.

Marc Coucke – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
Marc CoukeA pharmacist by training, Marc Coucke co-founded Omega Pharma in 1987. A cycling fanatic, he has sponsored several cycling teams and today he has the likes of Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen and Tony Martin riding, literally, in his colours. Coucke floated Omega Pharma on the stock exchange but bought it back in 2012, presumably a canny move given stockmarkets around the world have soared since. His business is growing thanks to increased sales abroad and cleverly Coucke links riders to his key markets, for example Cavendish gets his brand coverage in the UK and Sylvain Chavanel did the job in France.

Coucke’s sporting interests broadened in 2013 as he became the main shareholder and chairman of soccer club KV Oostende, with the Kustboys newly-promoted to the top division of Belgium’s league system. He is known for his loud suits and bright shirts but doesn’t always live tycoon-style. Famously tough on prices and wages he refused to meet the wage demands of Philippe Gilbert prompting the departure to BMC and in 2009 Couke gave up his Bentley for a Skoda.

Michel Thétaz – IAM Cycling
Michel ThetazMichel Thétaz is the Swiss man behind IAM Cycling. Aged 62, his wealth is reported to be around 200-300 million Swiss Francs. An estimate that Thétaz would surely frown on, first for its imprecision as he’s made a career in financial services where exactitude matters and second because it’s indiscreet to boast about money in Geneva, the city that thrives on offering discreet financial services to the wealthy.

IAM is a fund manager and Thétaz seems to be a small-scale Swiss version of Warren Buffett, the wise investor who avoids financial fashion. A proponent of “slow finance,” Thétaz has criticised hedge funds as speculation tools, bemoans the easy money made by the explosion of financial services in recent years and takes a contrarian approach to investment, buying when others sell and avoiding the herd. Similarly much of the finance industry is built around predicting the future despite little evidence of predictive ability but Thétaz avoids this, saying “I’m no Madame Soleil”, a reference to a once popular French astrologer.

He’s a cyclist who rides 5,000km a year but investing in a team for publicity with a view to selling his funds to the general public in Switzerland and beyond. He’s now got arguably the strongest Pro Continental cycling team and can reasonably expect a wild card invitation to the Tour de France in July.

Marie-Odile Amaury – ASO
Marie Odile AmauryMeet the woman who makes this the list of wealthy people rather than just wealthy men. ASO own the Tour de France and the A stands for Amaury. Amaury Sport Organisation belongs to the Groupe Amaury, a family business and Marie Odile took over the reins when her husband died in 2006. She’s been labelled the organisatrice du Tour de France but there’s plenty more to it as Amaury owns daily newspapers L’Equipe and Le Parisien, a combined circulation of over 800,000 as well as a photo agency and other sports events. She’s better known as a publisher but newspapers are expensive in France and nobody is making much money. The Amaurys consolidated their media ownership after buying back the 25% stake owned by rival media empire Lagardère. More dealmaking in 2012 saw ASO buy the Vuelta a España too.

The Amaury family is reported to be the 138th richest in France. ASO is incontournable as they say in French, unavoidable when discussing cycling. Daily administration of ASO and its stable of cycling races is left to others, you rarely see her at the Tour de France, although she was there last summer for the 100th edition. It’s said she will get involved in big decisions, including editorial line at L’Equipe. Aged 73 apparently she enjoys listening to Led Zeppelin, Guns N’Roses, Metallica and AC/DC amongst others.

Speculation of a sale of the Tour de France appears now and again in the French business press. Anything is possible if the price is right but this would be more than business deal, it could transform pro cycling and July is a socio-cultural event and geography lesson for the French so the Tour is not some commodity to be bought and sold with ease.

A mention of Marie-Odile has to include her son Jean Etienne Amaury, pictured above. He is the President of ASO. You might think Christian Prudhomme is the Tour’s patron but he’s merely an employee of J-E Amaury who has executive power and stands to inherit the business one day. Amaury trained as a software engineer and spent several years working discreetly on Bloomberg’s IT systems in London before leaving to do an MBA at Stanford University and then assume a role in the family business.

For all the billionaires in and around the sport, this places the Amaury’s as the richest people in pro cycling, not on count of money or “net worth” but because they own the sport’s prime asset. All the others on the list spend millions a year so that their team can participate in the Amaury’s event.

Gone but not forgotten
Flavio Becca has dropped off the list. The Luxembourg real estate mogul offers a cautionary tale, entering the sport with the aim of running a top team and renting out jersey space for a premium. But without a naming-rights sponsorship deal he was left with the Leopard tag on the jersey and a hefty wage bill to meet.

But what if Becca’s problem was timing? Longer term if the sport is becomes more commercial with franchise then team ownership could become an asset but for now owning a team is like a yacht, it’s fun and everyone would like one too but it actually costs a fortune.

This isn’t an exhaustive list but I’ve hopefully included the most wealthy. There are others in the sport but either these people are simply not wealthy enough or they’re not directly involved in pro cycling. Think about…

This piece isn’t about gawking at wealth. Instead I hope it explains the backgrounds of some of those sponsoring the sport, an introductory “follow the money”. Despite shared experiences of garage start-ups or Russian wealth, each story is different. Some are passionate about cycling – Rihs, Tinkov, Makarov – and others use the sport for corporate publicity – Pipkin, Seier – and their passion lies in work, politics or charity. Marc Couke seems to combine passion and publicity.

It’s great to see new money in the sport rather than go elsewhere although most of the money isn’t invested, it simply flows into rider wages. Without these people several teams would not exist but the sport would still go ahead. At the same time these sugardaddies continue to signal an absence of corporate sponsors. Despite the giant publicity generated by the Amaury’s Tour de France, teams struggle to find buyers for the naming rights and the “real estate” on the team jersey and as long as this continues the future of many teams is linked to the fortunes of a few wealthy men.

This is the second half of look at the wealthiest people in pro cycling, see The Wealthiest People in Cycling, Part I for more.

25 thoughts on “The Wealthiest People in Pro Cycling, Part II”

  1. While you can’t argue with a TdF win for Evans, unfortunately for Rihs, “hire[ing] the best riders at their peak” means that the only way forward seems to be downhill. Evans and Hushovd are 36 and 35. Gilbert’s rainbow stripes belied the actual quality of his last couple of seasons. Limitless pockets don’t seem to be paying for the results.

    In Velogames the least imaginative people, who max out their 100 points on the most pricey and ‘obvious’ riders they can get, often don’t seem to do that well. (“I’ll have Basso – he costs 12 so must be good!”).

    I’m not accusing Rihs of lacking imagination, but when the brand is ‘Bicycle Manufacturing Company’ I see a certain bluntness and lack of flair, despite the obvious passion for the sport.

  2. No Shimanos? They are likely the most powerful name on the cycling industry side of the business.

    Also, you understate ASO a bit. Yes, they own the TdF, but they also either own most of the premier cycling events like Paris-Roubaix and Roc d’ Azur.

    I was under the impression ASO cycling broadcast infrastructure was contracted out to other events as well. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

    • I tried to look up the wealth of the Shimano family and see what ownership any individual retains but didn’t see anything. I tried the same with Merida and the Zengs but drew a blank as the data was hard to find.

  3. It’s a relief for the sport that there are folk with deep pockets who have a passion for the
    sport, as this passion does not usually waver during times of economic distress, as would be
    the case with those who sponsor chiefly for financial-return motives! And as you mentioned, such
    people, e.g. Bakala, are not only passionate about the sporting activity but are also concerned about
    the sport’s future and sustainability! Whether we like these people or not, the sport does need them!

    Racing on local level in Belgium I am also aware that this sponsor-dynamic is not only to be seen at Pro level but on every level where small-medium business owners are long-term active supporters and team/club sponsors.

    As far as I can see, however, few are really interested in the products and/or services of the sponsors! The closest I have come in the years that I have been racing and following the Pro racing is that I bought a HTC smartphone last year. Other than that I couldn’t care less who the sponsors are, so long as they continue to pour money into the sport!

    Long live the sponsors!!!

    • I had a quick look at TVs the other day – since the prices were all roughly the same, I looked at the Sharp out of all the choices (sony/Panasonic/LG etcs). The brand otherwise wouldn’t have stood out to me.
      I’m sure most folk don’t think ‘I’m going to go and buy some Lampre sheeting’, but basic brand awareness is the value.

    • Are you kidding? Tax exemption for sponsoring sporting teams to spray champagne around while the situation for the poor and homeless gets worse in most countries? Good luck with that one.

      • Actually it can be a marketing expense. If you run a business you spend money on the team from the company and it’s all before tax. But this is the same whether you fund a pro team or support your local club.

  4. It can be argued that nearly all these team owners have a personal interest in their team and the sport, which has to be a good thing.

    The sport is probably worse off for not having Bob Stapleton around, who seemed to be dragging his team through the mess of doping towards the light, he had a love for the sport too.

    I would be interested in Jonathon Vaughters’ personal wealth and stake, seeing he made some connections early on within the US financial industry. Nothing spurious or condemning, just interested if an ex Pro can make serious money.

    Tinkov is a classic for his car-crash nature, you can’t look away sometimes. A deeper look into his business Tinkoff Credit shows some risky aspects that might mean he is not around long term. Tinkoff provide credit cards over the internet without any checks, riding a boom in Russia of easy credit which may go pop if run unchecked. It’ll be a fun ride though…

    Personally, I take a harsh view on the Amaury family and would argue that their ownership of the sport (le Tour, half of the Giro, etc.) has put personal interest ahead of the best interest of the sport, meaning doping was allowed to go on so long as profits from the races weren’t affected. It may be the disastrous way that Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen ran cycling, but it seemed the Armaury influence was not in the interests of the riders or the sport (faster, more mountains, more fans, more money, we don’t care how you do it…).

    Wealth and ownership should be seen as a priviledge, with an onus on you to ensure things like the sport are better off when you leave.

  5. Interesting – thanks.

    I agree with Abdu that (unless they work very discretely) it would be good to see ASO taking more of a lead with cycling’s drug problem and not letting races degenerate into farces. Demanding a more diligent and transparent process from the UCI in order to remove the black mark over their prime assets. Although it does seem they’ve been dealing with a governing body who is dysfunctional, if not actually corrupt and that isn’t easy. Nonetheless, they now have 7 TDFs with a question mark as the winner because they booted the first across the line and don’t dare promote anyone else into his spot……how does that go down in the media rights negotiations? Still, we all watch it anyway so perhaps more fool us .

    Maybe they do more than is publicly visible; I guess there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

    • Also in reply to Abdu, ASO have blown hot and cold on doping, they went to war with the UCI over the right to allow the home agency AFLD to manage testing in Paris-Nice and you might remember Pat McQuaid writing a letter to riders warning them of punishment if they rode the race. There have been other disputes and today the MPCC is backed by ASO. But it’s not always been like this and anti-doping/doping stories have been considered bad for business whether in the Tour or the reporting by L’Equipe.

      • Cheers Mr. Inner Ring. I almost missed the annual doping bust just prior to the Tour this year, it used to be like the sparrows at the start of Spring…the cynic in me says ASO required it.

        A sweeping generalisation I have is that the lack of a ‘league’ in cycling means that every event is forced to allow doping because it just wants its own event to be a good one. No single race is going to test riders when the rest don’t, it would be commercial suicide.

        The ASO owning pretty much all the races therefore means they can dictate a lot more to the riders for a uniform testing, or not.

        While you’re on the topic of topics like this, I’d be really keen to read your post on how and why bikes are selected by teams. Seems pretty obvious (the bike company outbids the others) but I’m sure there’s a lot more to it.

  6. If you picked the top executive of any company sponsoring a major sporting team or venue, I’m pretty sure they’d be worth at least $100m. The nice part about cycling is that this rich list probably has a bit more passion for the sport and many of them ride, and ride pretty well. You probably couldn’t say the same about the rich list in other more ‘major’ sports.

  7. I think one reason that the sport has had trouble attracting real sponsors is that despite the relatively cheap price for media exposure that a team sponsorship provides, the exposure is 90+% in Europe, a market that few brands are focusing on given the anemic growth there. So multinationals or companies with operations ex-Europe shouldn’t invest in European marketing when that money is better spent in areas that are growing like Asia and South America. What’s the point of building a brand in a region that has contacted over the past few years.

      • Yep, you can’t argue with cd’s economic logic.
        lest we also forget that cycling too most is something done when you are kid, with some exceptions by a few fanatics mostly in Europe, western US, and Australia.

        • Actually I can argue with that logic, and I’m not sure where you get the ‘few fanatics’ from @othersteve?

          Bikes have outsold cars in Australia for the past two years at least, and every new car ad seems to have cycling part of the lifestyle depicted. There will be a huge growth in electric bikes in those countries too, the Vespa may be popular in Europe but not in the ‘new world’ countries (as the Poms love to call them).

          In Australia, golf courses are going bust all over the place because of the uptake in cycling by the same demographic it seems (good $ spend).

          I’d argue the glass is half full and cycling is in fact a great ‘new’ market that hasn’t been tapped or done right yet.

          The Tour of China may well have had a McQuaid on both sides of the negotiations, so it might not be a truly commercial decision. It might have as well be held in North Korea, might have been more interesting too and the could have had Dennis Rodman host it.

          So too the sand races (Qatar, Dubai) are like the World Cup (soccer), artificial events that are basically ego trips for the host. The teams are paid in full to attend, and the race must lose a motza. The riders are given lots of freebies and its warmer than back home, so are happy to tweet how great the race is.

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