Who Really Owns Williams?

Who Really Owns Williams?

Unravelling the sale of Williams Grand Prix Engineering is not easy.

“This is the end of an era for Williams as a family-owned team, but we know it is in good hands,” says Claire Williams, currently team principal and the daughter of team founder Sir Frank Williams.

“It ensures the team’s survival, but importantly provides a path to success.”

Right now, Williams is right at the back of Formula One, despite its position as the third-oldest Grand Prix team – only behind Ferrari and McLaren – with 725 race starts since 1978.

In recent years the team has been in increasing difficulties with a lack of success leading to financial woes and increasing debt.

This led to the decision earlier this year to look for someone to buy into the team but, with $US36 million ($A50m) of debt, this proved to be a challenge.

Still, a buyer was found and the purchase price is $US132 million ($A183m), with an additional $US47 million ($A65m) being paid to satisfy creditors.

The money paid will be split between the Williams Family (52 per cent) and other shareholders and it is anticipated that the company will be taken private once again, as a result of the transaction.

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.

It 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.

What is clear is that Dorilton is run by a British citizen called 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 completing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Oxford University, followed by a Master of Business Administration at Wharton in the USA.

Sources in the finance community in the US say that little is known about the firm and it is generally believed to be a European operation.

However, it is clear that whoever is behind the deal does not wish to be identified.

It also shows that, for the moment at least, the investor is happy to keep the same management, which some consider an odd thing to do, given the team’s recent track record.

It is a surprising deal as the levels of debt involved were considerable and earning that back, particularly in the current economic climate, is unlikely.

So the initial conclusion is that someone is 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 a team in order to have a seat available for his offspring, in the recent tradition of Lawrence Stroll, who boosted his son Lance through Williams and into Racing Point.

It is difficult to discover more details, but it is interesting to note that the investment vehicle chosen is called BCE Ltd, although it is not clear where this is registered. It does not appear to be in the obvious tax havens, or at last has not yet appeared in the official records.

But BCE are the initials of Bernard Charles Ecclestone, a man with an interest in F1, a longtime friendship with Williams, and no shortage of money.

One can imagine that this would be an amusement for Mr E as he approaches his 90th birthday, if he is not too busy changing nappies for his newly-arrived son, Ace.

The other possible reading of the situation is that it is someone else who has carefully (and cleverly) used 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 he has tried in the past. 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, who is currently racing in FIA Formula 2, and is the force behind Hitech Grand Prix, through a Cyprus-based holiday company.

If Mazepin is involved, it is 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 is difficult to make further guesses.

Dorilton says it has no plans to move the company while Savage says Dorilton will be “carrying out a detailed review of the business to determine in which areas new investment should be directed”.