Next gens aim for Formula One glory

By David Bain

When it comes to next generation business leaders, it doesn’t get much more heavyweight than John Elkann and James Murdoch.

Elkann, scion of one of Europe’s best known business dynasties, chairman of Fiat and chief executive of the Agnelli family investment company Exor, as well as Campden FB’s top family business leader, is one of the most watched business leaders anywhere.

Murdoch, the heir presumptive of one of the biggest and most influential media groups in the world, News Corporation, is as scrutinised by the business and celebrity media as his four-year younger Italian counterpart.

So when the two announce that they have teamed up to do a deal, the business world gets understandably excited – and even more so when the deal in question involves the Formula One racing franchise.

The seriousness of their bid for the iconic racing business was made clear in a statement released by Exor in early May, which said that it, along with News Corporation, are “in the early stages of exploring the possibility of creating a consortium with a view to formulating a long-term plan for the development of Formula One in the interests of the participants and the fans.”

The emphasis is on “early stage”, and much needs to be agreed and tied up before an official bid is made, let alone the purchase is finalised. But Murdoch might be especially interested in making such a deal work, given that he is no doubt keen to prove his deal-making acumen to News Corp management, shareholders and the wider business community.

Unlike his father, James’s acquisition skills still need some sharpening up, say analysts. They point to his decision three years ago to acquire a stake in Premier, a German pay-TV channel, and pour huge amounts of money into trying to acquire subscribers, as evidence of this. Premier, which is now Sky Deutschland, hasn't quite  lived up to its potential.

Nor is the teaming up of scions of family business empires always successful. The Murdoch family knows this first hand.

Back in the 1990s, Rupert Murdoch’s eldest son Lachlan teamed up with James Packer, son of one of Australia’s best known businessmen, the since deceased Kerry Packer, to back a telecoms company called One.Tel. The telecoms group collapsed in 2001, losing both James Packer and the Murdoch empire millions.

Lachlan and James Packer were referred to at the time in much of the media as “rich brats”. James Murdoch and Elkann will be hoping that moves to acquire Formula One won’t lead to similar media opprobrium in the years ahead.