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OBITUARY: Dietrich Mateschitz, founder of the Red Bull empire

Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian man who turned a caffeinated Thai energy drink into the multibillion-dollar Red Bull empire, died on Saturday October 24. He was 78.

His company, Red Bull, announced the death to employees in an email. The cause was cancer, according to German and Austrian news reports.

In the 1980s, Mateschitz, then a salesman for a company that made personal hygiene products and toothpaste, discovered the elixirs sold in Asian pharmacies as pick-me-ups for workers and truckers. He got in touch with the maker of one of them, Chaleo Yoovidhya, whose drink, Krathing Daeng, translates into English as “red bull.”

The two formed a partnership and, after three years of tinkering with the Thai recipe, Mateschitz introduced the westernised version of the energy drink to his native Austria in 1987.

Despite concerns about the drink’s high sugar and caffeine content — it has occasionally been banned in various countries, and some health officials have questioned the safety of taurine, an amino acid that is a key ingredient — the company took off, and in 2021 alone sold 9.804-billion cans of Red Bull around the world, according to its website.

But Red Bull the drink, which spawned an army of competitors, quickly became a marketing juggernaut with major investments in sports and media companies. Mateschitz reportedly sank as much as 30 percent of his profits into public relations and marketing.

The investment paid off

Through its prolific sponsorship of sports teams and athletes, both conventional and cutting-edge, he cultivated a daring and high-performance image for the drink. For Red Bull, The New York Times wrote in 2006, “sports is marketing, and marketing is sports — and the company won’t stop until the two things are one.”

Mateschitz was also known as collector of real estate, cars and airplanes. In his later years he added a media empire with television channels and magazines focused mainly on sports but which controversially included a channel that gave voice to far-right and fringe opinions.

Nearly always tanned and sporting a three-day beard, he avoided suits, red carpets and reporters he could not control. Despite his driving quest for publicity, he was private about his personal life, reportedly once purchasing a society gossip magazine to stop it from covering him.

In 2004, he bought his first Formula 1 racing team, and another in 2006. The Red Bull team became one of the best in the world, winning 89 races. The team’s star driver, Max Verstappen, won his second Formula 1 title this month, and on Sunday, the day after Mateschitz died, the team won its fifth constructors’ championship, the award for the best performance of the racing season.

“At the end of the day, it’s always about awareness and appreciation of a brand and the associated company,” Mateschitz said in a 2010 interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel. “With this philosophy, we have succeeded in making Red Bull one of the most valuable brands in the world.”

He also invested in major soccer teams — a team that remains one of the best in Germany and one in New York called, of course, the New York Red Bulls — as well as so-called extreme sports, such as surfing, motocross, mountain biking, cliff diving and windsurfing.

Felix Baumgartner’s famous jump from a balloon at the edge of space in 2012 was also sponsored, likely at enormous cost, by Red Bull.

The company even created a series of air races — initially known as Red Bull Air Race — in which stunt airplanes would race through slalom courses made out of giant pylons.

Mateschitz’s 49 percent stake in Red Bull (the rest was held by Chaleo and his son) made him one of the wealthiest people in the world. Forbes estimated his fortune at $19.4-billion this year, making him the 75th richest individual in the world.

Source: New York Times