There’s a mystery buyer at Williams, with the possible initials of BCE. Could it be Bernard Charles Ecclestone?
There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned mystery to get people excited. And while I might write quite easily, this month, about the Concorde Agreement, or Lewis Hamilton’s continuing domination of the F1 season, I’m much more interested in the sale of Williams.
A few days before the news broke, I was chatting with a very savvy F1 business person – with all the right connections. He was of the opinion that there was not going to be any sensible buyer for the team.
'They have too much debt,' he said. 'Who’s going to buy a team with that much debt? You’re never going to make that money back, even with the new Concorde Agreement. And they are running out of money… Still, there is a signing bonus of $5 million for the Concorde Agreement, so that should keep them going for a bit.'
We were both astonished when the Williams news broke, literally hours after the Concorde Agreement was announced. And it still doesn’t really make any sense to me.
Williams is the third-longest standing Formula 1 team, having started in its current form in 1978. Sir Frank Williams has been running F1 teams since 1969, although Frank Williams (Racing Cars) Ltd, his original company, was started in 1966 when Williams began preparing Formula 3 cars for his friend Piers Courage. That company survived until 1976 when Frank was forced to go into partnership with Walter Wolf. He finally decided to leave his own business in 1977 and start another team… in league with designer Patrick Head. The pair began running an old March chassis for Belgian driver Patrick Neve from an old carpet warehouse in Didcot. That was 725 races ago and only Ferrari and McLaren have done more. Williams has won 114 Grands Prix and collected seven Drivers’ titles and nine Constructors’ Championships, but the last two titles were in 1997 and, nowadays, amazingly, Williams has been largely unsuccessful for longer than it was a success. It is 22 years since the team last won the title, and eight years since its last victory, which was a huge surprise.
The team has run into increasing difficulties in recent years, since Frank Williams stepped back from an active role in 2012, leaving his daughter Claire to run things. The team found itself with debts of at least $36 million after a restructuring and, with revenues falling, things were looking bleak. But, despite this, came the announcement that the team had been sold for $132 million – with an additional $47 million being paid to satisfy creditors. It’s expected that, once the sale is completed, the company will be taken off the stock exchange and go private again.
But what is really interesting is that no-one has a clue about who the buyer is. Sources in the finance community in the US say that little is known about the firm, although it is based in New York. It is generally believed to be a European-backed operation. What is very clear is that whoever is behind the deal does not wish to be identified.
The buyer is a company called BCE Ltd, which is described as 'a fund which is managed by Dorilton Capital Management LLC, a private investment firm that operates out of New York.'
Dorilton is a family office that represents the interests of one ultra-high-net-worth family, although the family is not named anywhere in Dorilton literature. The firm invests in small to medium-sized businesses across a range of industry sectors and prefers to partner with existing management – but wants full control of the firms. Its particular targets in the past have been involved in testing and inspection, industrial services, healthcare services, business services and niche manufacturing.
Dorilton is run by a British citizen Matthew Savage who has led the company since it was set up in 2009. Prior to that he worked with the Rothschild investment bank for 22 years, after a BA at Oxford, followed by an MBA at Wharton.
Savage says that there is no plan to change the management, which must be seen as an odd thing to do given the lack of success in recent years, in spite of having Mercedes engines.
The initial conclusion was that someone was either doing Williams a favour or is acquiring the team as a long term investment with a specific purpose in mind. This could be a wealthy individual who wishes to control an F1 team in order to have a seat available for his offspring, in the recent tradition of Lawrence Stroll.
It’s very difficult to discover more details, but it is interesting to note that the investment vehicle chosen is called BCE Ltd, although it is not even clear where this is registered. It does not appear to be in the obvious tax havens, or at least has not yet appeared in the official records.
The thing that has got people talking is the name BCE. Is it a coincidence that these are the initials of Bernard Charles Ecclestone, a man with an interest in F1, a long-time friendship with Williams and no shortage of money to spend. One can imagine that this would be an amusement for Mr E as he approaches his 90th birthday.
The other possible reading of the situation is that it is someone else who has carefully chosen Ecclestone’s initials to throw people off the scent.
There has been some speculation that Dmitry Mazepin was the man most likely to buy Williams and indeed has tried in the past to do so. He also tried to acquire Force India a couple of years ago, when Stroll bought the business. Mazepin, who controls the vast Russian chemical company Uralchem, has been funding the career of his son Nikita, currently racing in Formula 2, and is the force behind Hitech Grand Prix, through a Cyprus-based holiday company. If Mazepin is involved it’s safe to assume that Hitech’s boss Oliver Oakes will be involved, if the plan is to take over Williams.
Until there are more clues available it’s difficult to make further guesses.
'This is the end of an era for Williams as a family-owned team, but we know it is in good hands,' said Claire Williams. 'It ensures the team’s survival, but importantly provides a path to success.'
We will see…
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for 30 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.