Ernesto Bertarelli is a successful business executive, passionate yachtsman, generous philanthropist and devoted family man. In 1996 Bertarelli became CEO and deputy chairman of Serono SA, a global biotechnology firm that he inherited from his father.
Bertarelli led Serono through a significant period of growth before selling to Merck KGaA of Germany in 2006 for $13.3 billion. In 2003, Bertarelli’s yachting syndicate, Team Alinghi, won the Louis Vuitton Cup and beat Team New Zealand to win the America’s Cup. Bertarelli served as navigator aboard Alinghi in 2003 and as an afterguard runner and grinder on the boat in 2007, when Team Alinghi secured another America’s Cup victory over New Zealand in Valencia, Spain. According to Forbes, Bertarelli ranks as the 75th wealthiest person in the world and the wealthiest in Switzerland. He currently serves as Chairman of Kedge Capital Partners Ltd., an investment management firm specializing in hedge funds and private equity portfolios. Since 2002, he has served as a director of UBS AG.
You have had a great deal of success recently. You sold your company, Serono, to Merck in 2006. You won the America’s Cup yacht race last year for the second straight time. What is your next challenge in life?
My next challenge is to be as successful in the second half of my life as I was in the first half. I used to play soccer when I was at HBS and whenever we had a good score at halftime, the question was, do we try to be conservative and protect our lead or do we keep playing aggressively? I think my success has come from being more aggressive, and I would like to continue that. I would like to further pursue my principal professional interest in healthcare. I am also interested in financial services, specifically managing money. So I would like to combine the two by perhaps starting a PE fund focused on healthcare.
In addition, since graduating from HBS, I have become a father of three young kids, and spending quality time with them is obviously very important. I would also like to continue sailing, which I really enjoy.
You are also very involved with philanthropy. What are your primary goals?
Yes, I serve on a number of boards, such as the Harvard Medical School, and I am involved with helping some foundations in Switzerland. I also created a foundation with my sister to help couples who face difficulty having children. My company was involved with the clinical and medical aspects of fertility, but we also wanted to address some of the social and psychological aspects of assisting couples.
You graduated from HBS in 1993. In looking back on the last 15 years, what do you take away from your time at HBS that most impacted the way you conduct business?
Attending HBS gave me the confidence in my ability to compete with the very best. I was surrounded by so many smart people at HBS and being able to succeed in that environment helped build that confidence. I also think about all the many industries and issues we addressed in the cases and how much I learned from that. I look back at my experience at HBS as a time of happiness and opportunity.
Where did you gain the most from your HBS experience – was it more from course content, personal relationships or other activities?
The contact with other students was very important. Class participation during case discussion forces people to take chances, express opinion and think through issues. You needed to take a firm view and make relevant points. I also gained from understanding the views of others and hearing the facets of how people look at problems in ways I had never considered.
Was there something about your time at HBS that gave you the confidence to believe that you could lead a sailing team from a small landlocked country to one day win the most prestigious international yacht race in the world?
HBS gave me the confidence to succeed in business, which was similar to what I applied to sports. It’s important in either case to have a clear vision, set key objectives, provide a clear understanding of what is expected of people, and to delegate responsibility and reward people appropriately. The structure of commitment and hard work is the same that I carried to work, and then to sports.
After graduating, I came to work at our biotech company and shortly thereafter became CEO. I implemented what I learned at HBS. It worked, and I thought it could work in sports as well. What’s most important are the vision, setting objectives, aligning people and giving them a framework to succeed along with the right reward system. Underlying all of this is having the right values, such as respect for others, appreciation for diversity, hard work and having fun.
Do you have any advice for current students or new graduates of HBS as they look toward their futures?
When I was at HBS, a few particular professions were in fashion. Many people were attracted to them because they seemed like the right place to go. First it was consulting, and then it became the Internet, whatever it happens to be. These fashionable jobs, however, tend to go into recession right when most graduates are going in those directions. What I have found from the people I went to school with is that the people who are the most successful and the happiest in life are those who went for things they really wanted to do. My advice is to not just take a job because it seems like the right thing to do, but to really follow your instinct and do something that you will truly find fulfilling.