Staying on top – Meet Bjørn Dahlie
”It’s been a life full of coincidences. My fellow Norwegian cross-country skier Vegard Ulvang and I made a pact we both agreed on. We were never going to open a sporting goods store at the end of our career, because that was what everyone else did.”
Bjørn Dæhlie grins as he tells the story of when Norwegian entrepreneur Øivind Tidemandsen called him about that very thing – opening a sports store.
About Bjørn Dæhlie
Lives: Nannestad, Norway
Family: Married to Vilde Falck-Ytter, two sons
Sports career: Norway’s flag-bearer at the Winter Olympics on home soil in 1994. Second most-medaled Winter Olympics athlete of all time, behind fellow countryman Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who has one more bronze medal. Eight Olympic golds, nine World Championship golds, six-time Nordic World Cup winner, and 16 national titles. Had the highest oxygen uptake ever recorded, at 96 ml/kg, up until 2012. Nominated as Winter Sportsman of the Century in 1999. Retired in 2001.
Career: Established his own investment company before hanging up his skis as a professional. TV personality from Gutta på tur on Norwegian TV 2. Successful business career, primarily within share investments and bonds, property, and clothing. Invested over NKr200 million in property via investment company Sisa Investa AS. In 2015, the company reported a pre-tax profit of NKr85 million. According to Norwegian business daily Dagens Næringsliv, Dæhlie has earned almost NKr400 million since 2001.
“That was something I couldn’t be involved in, as Ulvang and I had made a promise to each other. It was the biggest mistake of my life – it was called XXL and eventually floated for NKr13 billion, or something like that! One of my dumbest decisions, but a story I can laugh about now. Something I’m not able to think too much about today. I’ve made many mistakes and there are always things that you should have done,” Dæhlie says, having just returned from a cycle ride.
His mistakes have been few though. When he was a professional athlete, Dæhlie managed all his sponsorship agreements himself. In 1996, he decided to remove his savings from the Norwegian Ski Federation athletes’ fund to manage them himself. One of his first moves was to form his own investment company.
“Then, someone who wanted to produce a clothing collection appeared, but like the sports store idea, I was a bit negative, a bit hesitant at first. Eventually, I was persuaded and found myself in an environment in Oslo with entrepreneur Ole Anker-Rasch and others. I’ve been fortunate to be able to discuss business with such smart people, and I think I’ve always been able to speak to people and make contacts throughout my sports career,” says Dæhlie, who also credits Norwegian businessman, investor and offshore powerboat-racing world champion Bjørn Rune Gjelsten with providing plenty of good advice on property investments and the inspiration to pursue this path.
Although establishing the BJ Sports cross-country skiing brand would prove to be difficult, in 2001, Swiss-based Odlo acquired the rights to produce clothing with the Dæhlie logo, allegedly making the former skier some NKr12 million from the sale. In 2007, he found new partners in the Møller Group investment company Katalysator. However, the financial crisis hit them hard, and, in 2009, the clothing brand had a turnover of only NKr56 million, and suffered a pre-tax loss of NKr4.3 million.
‘We had a choice – give up, or spend millions on marketing’
“Those were some really tough years. We lost out by not having an established position in the market. To build the brand we needed to invest money we really didn’t have, as we were making a loss. We had a choice – give up, or spend millions on marketing. Then, the catch-up effect happened. You’re not getting anywhere, then suddenly everything comes together,” Dæhlie says, seeing similarities between top level sports and enterprise when it comes to establishing proper structures around yourself.
“You didn’t win on your own in your sport, either. If you had the best ski waxer and the best coach, you would eventually do well. Skilled people coming together in the right way. It’s partly luck, partly correct decision-making, hard work and having a good team. If most of the decisions you make are the right ones, you can afford to make the odd mistake.”
In 2011, Active Brands, whose brand portfolio includes Johaug, Kari Traa, Sweet Protection, Åsnes and Bula, bought BJ Sport AS for around NKr70 million.
“The brand had the right associations and big potential. It was solid and genuine. Many organizations and personalities have their own brands. However, not many can measure up to Dæhlie. He’s extremely dedicated and goal-oriented. A winner who demands the best from himself and everyone around him, both in sports and business,” says Øystein Bråta, Managing Director Nordic of Active Brands.
‘Turnover has doubled over the last three years’
In Spring 2013, the brand secured a wide-ranging contract with the Norwegian ski team, which ran up to the 2018 Olympic Games season and with the option to extend. In 2016, it was renamed “Dæhlie.”
“Turnover has doubled over the past three years, and “Dæhlie” is represented in 15 countries and worldwide via online sales,” Bråta says.
Even though Dæhlie’s biggest private investments are in property, the clothing brand has a special place in the former skier’s heart.
“It means a great deal to me that the clothing collection has survived in an extremely demanding sector. And that they’ve been able to prioritize putting much of the income back into the Norwegian Ski Federation, being the main sponsor. I’m in contact with today’s skiers, and it’s great to be able to give something back to where you came from.”
In his tax return for 2015, Dæhlie declared a fortune of NKr345 million, but a laid-back life of luxury is not the style of the 50-year-old who started studying economics at the end of his skiing career, but quit the course after just nine weeks.
“I told the principal I didn’t have the time. I have to train. I’m happy to do other things and I have many hobbies – hunting, fishing, going on trips and training a gun dog. Money in itself is not so important. It’s quality of life, home, freedom, holidays, travel. Being able to help our children with their education and home – that’s a privilege.”
During his skiing career Dæhlie became familiar to TV audiences in Norway via the program Gutta på tur [The boys on their travels]. The concept was based on traveling to various wilderness and winter sports locations all around the world.
“In one of the programs, we were in Kazakhstan and visited the cross-country skier Vladimir Smirnov. We saw where he grew up in in the 1970s – he didn’t exactly have a room of his own if you know what I mean, which puts the economic success we’ve had in Norway into perspective.”
‘Nothing beats stepping up onto the podium and hearing, “We love you,” on your home course’
Norwegian cross-country skiing commentator Jan Christian Bjørn thinks that Dæhlie shares several of the same traits as both a skier and entrepreneur.
“I see Bjørn Dæhlie as incredibly development-oriented with an enormous inner motivation for what he wants to achieve. His Olympic gold medal in the 50km race at Nagano in 1998 also shows an athlete who is able to dig deep to succeed. There are plenty of signs to suggest he has taken many of these same qualities with him into the enterprise sector. He will be remembered as the best skier of his era and as a smart investor and developer.”
Dæhlie, who has three legs to stand on today with his property base, clothes collection and management company, Anaxo Forvaltning, compares the feeling of creating something good in both sports and business.
“The years from 1988 to 1994 were a dream for me. That was when I was at my best and had fantastic goals to aim for. It’s teamwork that succeeds. It’s the same when you manage to put together a successful housing development project. That gives you a bit of a golden feeling, too,” he says.
But nothing beats stepping up onto the podium and hearing the national anthem of Norwayon your home course.
Text: Øystein Tronstad