Founder Interview – Frederic Bortoloni
This week we’re back again with another one of our Founder Interview series, which gauging by our newsletter open rates, is becoming massively popular with you all. Our guest this time is Mr. Frederic Bortoloni, founder of Eighty8capital.com. Honesty dictates I disclose Frederic is not only one of my dearest friends here in Bangkok, he’s also one of a small circle of people I go to for advice and guidance.
We sat down for the interview in Frederic’s home, tastefully decorated with gorgeous art, designer pieces, and various knick knacks collected over a lifetime of travelling. Frederic has just recently returned from a month long trip to France dedicated to his two passions – his family, and his cars.
Born a Week Before the Moonwalk
Frederic was born in Gascony, in the south of France on Bastille Day of 1969. “Just seven days before Armstrong walked on the moon” he says. His family had fled Udine and Mussolini’s Italy a generation before, to seek work on the region’s farms, which were still facing hardships following the manpower shortages the First World War had created. The family, disgusted with Fascism, denied its Italian heritage completely, and raised the children to be proudly French.
About those early years Frederic, in a heavily French accent, says: “My Father was an electrician on the world’s largest semi submersible oil rig, in the south of England – “Pentagon 81”. Around the time I was born he was working four-on-four-off, and it was my mom who raised me, and my sister.
When I was just three months old Dad piled us all into our trusty Renault 16, and we moved to the South of England, where he was stationed, because my mom wanted to keep an eye out on him. This is why I say my accent must be genetic, because during those formative years, I was actually growing up in the UK!”
From “Expat Brat” to “Man of the World”
As is the case for many petroleum families, as the father’s career progressed, the family found itself traversing the globe pursuing opportunities. From England to Finland, then Iraq, Nigeria, Oman, and finally Singapore. “It was a good life and full of experiences. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein I remember my mom home schooled us, as there was no other option. Generally speaking I did poorly in my studies. I never got what school was about. I loved the experience and the social side of it, but the academic aspects held little interest for me until we reached Singapore”.
Frederic believes he owes his teacher, and “Ecole Francaise de Singapour”, for his late found academic achievements – “The system worked for me, as did the influence of the surroundings. I changed, in a good way, and started to realize I needed an educational background. Singapore was where I started this process of transforming from an “Expat Brat” into a “Man of the World”. It opened my eyes to the opportunities inherent in Globalization, and it’s also where I fell in love for the first time…”
A Business Career Born of Love & Chutzpah
Frederic credits globalization, love, and the glorious French army, to his earliest business venture – “It’s a funny story – I was supposed to join the army, but I didn’t want to do military service because I didn’t want to leave my girlfriend in Singapore, so I took advantage of an option that allowed folks to replace military service, with voluntary national service as a company intern in an expat station. The twist was that I created my own company, and had myself stationed with it. They didn’t know what to think of me. It had never been done before!”
His first company was a branch office for Lyon based Marga international. The concept was to develop export markets for SMEs in the East of France. “We specialized in acting as an export entity for companies that dealt in professional kitchen appliances. We were selling a service – facilitating business for them. About 50% of the business we did was with a company called Santos that manufactures coffee grinders.”
After two and half years of developing that business Frederic suffered his first defeat -“There was no internet at the time and all communications were Fax based. I stupidly send a fax describing my latest party exploits to my boss, instead of my friend. It didn’t end well…hahahahah. I was twenty six years old, had broken up with the girlfriend for whom I’d taken all this trouble, and I absolutely felt it was time for something new…”
Frederic’s next venture involved working for a company that held the contract to provide professional supplies to governement operated hotels in Burma – “It was a fantastic gig, and being in Yangon in those years was an experience that defies description. I remember we were using military planes as our logistics backbone, and despite having a significant workload, I still somehow found the time to develop Yangon’s first supermarket properties under the “Asia Light” brand. We were supplying all the everyday goods for the French Total people there”.
In 1997 the gravy train came to a halt, as did all Southeast Asia’s economy, and Frederic went on a 6 month binge in Bali, after which he collected himself and returned to France. “Paradoxically, I had a hard time finding a job. My background was hard for a French company to understand – I was over-experienced and under-aged – they couldn’t fit me into any box they were comfortable with. Meanwhile, my parents moved from Saudi Arabia to Dubai, and so in September of 1998 I took a one way ticket to join them there.”
From Zero to 50 Million in 12 years
In Dubai, Frederic eventually started working with his father, who had since retired and set up a representative company for an American valve company that specialized in servicing the oil and gas industry. “We started from a small office with one computer, and over the next 12 years we built together a $50,000,000 business. At that point I decided I had enough, sold out, got married, and had three kids.”
Currently Frederic, since divorced, lives in Bangkok with his three kids, and is working on turning his passion for cars into a viable business.
For the Love of Cars & Deregulated Markets
“How did you get into this business?” we ask.
“There are two way stations in my life that led me to where I am now with Eighty8capital. The first was when I was nine years old, and saw my first sports car. It was nicknamed the “Batmobile” – the BMW e9 3.0 CSL. I fell in love immediately, and that love has only grown stronger in the thirty eight years that have gone by since. The second was my experience at the Harvard’s Owner and President Management Program, where I came to an understanding about the nature of luxury markets. You see, at the high end, markets for tangible luxury items, like wines, art, and cars, are heavily regulated by an interior model that creates and protects the value of the assets. I believe there’s a huge opportunity for making profit by extending that interior model below the top percent of the market, into the middle range of existing assets, which is far less tightly regulated. A deregulated market, like the one represented by classic European cars from the 1970’s and 1980’s is primarily a passionate market, so it’s much more prone to the creation of margins via a conscious drive to inflate value. And that’s what excites me”.
We ask Frederic if this isn’t similar to the inflation of stock values, and he answers truthfully that indeed it is “But that’s exactly the allure of this deregulated market – It’s perfectly OK here, and if I can pull it off, there’s no reason for me not to.”
It’s All from the Gut
When we probe further and ask Fredric how he validates his assumptions, he smiles triumphantly and replies – “It’s simple – By acquiring moderately, but “the right” cars, I’ve already doubled the value of the fund, so I must be onto something.”
“What’s your secret for purchasing?” we ask, hoping for an insight we might ourselves capitalize on. “It’s all from my gut” replies Frederic, and adds – “I follow my instinct and that works very well for me. It’s about understanding the history of the car, and the technological breakthroughs it represents. Classic cars are contemporary art, and I’ve dedicated my life to learning everything I possibly could about them. If I had to synthesize that into a single idea, I’d say that people want to drive; to feel what they have. I want to give them the car that takes them back to a memory they cherish, and I want them to receive that car in a condition on par with what it would be had they driven it out of the showroom the day it was built.
I remember like yesterday when my cousin took me for a ride in his Lancia HF Delta Integrale. It was the Rally version – blood red with white wheels. He took me in that car, and in the space of that ride I understood what Horse Power was all about. If I were to buy that car, it would be for the love of that memory, for the opportunity to relive that moment.”
You Are Your Own Greatest Challenge
“How do you handle day to day operations?” we ask next, and Frederic’s reply is laconic and amusing, as they are often when he has little patience or prefers not to reveal his hand – “As well as I can” he simply says.
Despite the quip we still try to extract something more, and ask “What are the biggest challenges you face?”. “Myself and the others” he begins, “My fear is not being able to pursue this dream. It’s a fear of failure, but it’s not a debilitating panic. It will be an experience. I have failed before and come to the conclusion that ultimately it boils down to how you want to live your you life. For me, I just want to be at peace with myself, and I’m not yet there. Life is a path – You take some chances, and don’t take others. The momentum of your previous life is heavy, but you cannot be linear in your life. It’s not how it works. Change is a fact of life and ultimately you must embrace it.”
Try for a plan that’s longer than your nose
As the interview comes to an end we ask Frederic what inspires him and what tips he would share with others going down the path of entrepreneurship. “What inspires me are autodidacts and innovators. My favorite auto designer is the tragically short lived Alfredo Ferrari – Despite never making it to his 25th birthday he’s the one who deserves credit for the stunningly beautiful 750 Monza. If I have anything of value to share with other entrepreneurs it’s this – Always plant a seed, always achieve your milestones, and try to have a plan that’s longer than your nose…”