Profile: Hansueli Brand in the driver's seat

Wed, 20. Aug. 2008

Known as the local Land Rover man, Hansueli Brand races cars, has traveled the world, and holds grass ski-racing titles. An adventurer, a philanthropist, and a local businessman, Brand philosophizes on life, family, traditions, work and how he sees his homeland changing.

By Diana Oehrli

Not knowing anything about the world of car racing—or even cars for that matter—we asked Hansueli Brand, 48, the most naive of questions: “Have you done any Formula One racing?” A laugh creased across his face as he replied: “No not Formula One, that’s my handicap. I’m too big and too fat. You have to be under 60 kilos and measure no more than a meter 60.”

Fat would probably be the last word to describe Brand, who is tall, fit and tan. With a certain ease and joviality, Brand, gave us a tour of the Gstaad Automobile Club house in Feutersoey. President and co-founder of the by-invitation-only society of car hobbyists, Brand pointed to the member trophy windows, containing classical car racing plaques which he and club members have won over the years. Names such as the Tour Auto Lissac that Brand won in 2005 with Alex de Lesseps figure alongside the Transafricaine and Paris-Dakar rallies. Most recently, this past June Brand and his partner, Stanislas de Sadeleer, won third place in the regularity category in the Transorientale Rally, a 10,000 km-race starting in St Petersburg Russia and ending in Beijing China (click here for day-by-day race coverage).

The longest rally in the world, with a course stretching almost halfway round the globe in just over two weeks, the Transorientale took participants through such unforgiving territory as Kazakhstan and the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert and was marred by the deaths of two competitiors. Describing the conditions as terrible, Brand said he does not expect to participate in this rally again. “We came to the limit as non-professionals. I won’t do it again. I don’t like to see people suffering or losing competitors, even if I didn’t know them personally.”

However, Brand’s eyes start to twinkle when he spoke about the money he and his race partner, have been raising for Gstaad’s children’s shelter home, Chinderhuus Ebnit. With the use of video footage from the rally, Brand and de Sadeleer have been organizing fundraisers. “So far we’ve raised SFr 10,000,” Brand said proudly. The funds will be transferred to Chinderhuus at the end of August. “When I’m racing, I’m focused on two things: winning and helping kids. Every time I have a rally, money goes to helping people. It’s nice to share.”

Above, Brand (right) and de Sadeleer at the opening of the Gstaad Autmobile Club house in Feutersoey.

Brand is a native Gstaader who cares about tradition and the mountains. “Brand is a name that dates back to 1234,” he explained. “My mother was a von Grünigen, also a very local name.” Born and raised with his two brothers, Michael and Peter, in Gstaad’s Gschwend neighborhood, Brand says he inherited his passion for the mountains from his father, who worked as a mountain guide and ski teacher. He credits his father for giving him his traditions, character, identity and friends. Sadly Brand’s father died of a heart attack at the age of 49 when Hansueli was just nine years old. Since then Brand’s hobbies have largely been mountain-oriented, including mountain-biking, hiking, looking for mushrooms (boletus and chanterelle), skiing (snow and grass), the latter of which he claims to be of the “nicest sports.”

Does he have a wish? Brand says the excessive way people are working in Saanenland cannot continue at the current pace. He would like to see mountain traditions remain and people getting together as they did in the old days. “We need more time to sit together,” he said. “We need to realize what’s going on in order to protect our traditions, nature and beauty. What leaves me most sad is that there are no places to meet in Gstaad anymore.”

At this point, de Sadeleer, who had just walked in the room, chimed in: “It used to be nice before; what a pity we don’t have the Olden’s Stübli anymore. At least, we still have the Stübli at the Posthotel Rössli.” The Olden’s Stübli used to be a place where guests and locals came together; where stories were exchanged; where friendships were made. “I’m really sad sometimes when I see what is going on at home,” Brand says. “We are selling things we shouldn’t sell. For over 600 years we’ve had a relationship with our countryside. People were born here and people died here. The changes are too fast, too rushed. Saanenland is the most beautiful place in the world. But people are working like crazy. We need less pressure, and then we will start to think. We will have more time for life. I’ve been all over the world. It's when I am there that I am able to see where I’m from.”

Having a worldly view is important to Brand, which is one of the things that attracted him to his Austrian wife, Beate, whom he married when he was 27. He had just returned to Saanenland from a holiday in Africa, when they met. She had lived in Paris for two years, and he figured she had seen a bit of the world. “I sold my skis and became a father,” Brand said. “In our valley, here, we don’t plan a baby. It’s a simply a situation of natural love. You wish for a child but you don’t plan it.” As it turned out, Brand would become father of two boys, whom Brand describes as “fantastic”. Interestingly, although they were not born in the same year, they share the same November 1 birthday. “I respect the hours for the family,” Brand explains. “Every day I sit with my family at lunchtime. It has always been like that.” Brand says he is not willing to compromise his traditions.

One local tradition he says is very important is the positive relationship between locals and guests. He advises locals to stay true to themselves and not forget where they are from. He also does not want to sell his history. “Say what you feel,” Brand advises. “Don’t say what you think they want to hear. The people like it as you are.”

This philosophy stretches to his work. In 1988, he and his partner and distant cousin Bernhard Lammers took over Ledi Garage in Feutersoey, where they had both worked as car mechanic apprentices. “He’s the best partner,” Brand says of Lammers. “We have been partners for 28 years, 20 of those with Ledi Garage. We are different, yet we complement each other. I’m the accelerator, he’s the brake. He makes me think; makes me realize I don’t have to risk everything.” Of the 34 Land Rover dealers in Switzerland, six including Ledi Garage are privately-held, something which gives Brand and his partner the freedom to sell as many Land Rovers as they want, and being located near Gstaad, they sell, well, a few.

Above: Brand (right) and de Sadeleer (left) with the team from Ledi Garage in Feutersoey before the start of the first Transafricaine Rally in 2006.

What gave Brand the courage to start a business? “I was in my 20’s and had nothing to lose,” Brand said. “If you listen to yourself, there’s a lot of power; you get a good feeling for things. You don’t have to be clever.” Being his own boss is not always easy and can be stressful at times, he says. “You have to know what you want and what your limits are. Every day you get new offers. It’s easy to get pulled in different directions. You have to be strict. I don’t want to make promises that I cannot deliver. Life is too short.” What helps is that cars are Brand’s passion; “A car is more than just a car,” Brand says. “You have to feel a car. A customer gives a character to a car. I talk to them. For me they are not just cars, they are people.”

Brand’s Land Rover brand sponsors a polo team each year at the Gstaad polo tournament. “We won two years in a row,” Brand proclaims proudly. Why polo? Brand explains that Land Rover has a long-standing tradition of sponsoring events such as polo, which he believes to be a good fit for the brand. “Polo is a good platform for Land Rover,” Brand said. “After all, you need a 4x4 to pull a horse-trailer.”

Brand does, however, remain tight-lipped about certain things, such as the number of cars he sells, the number he garages, and the cars and members at the Gstaad Automobile Club. “Here in Gstaad we have the most beautiful cars,” Brand acknowledges. “But they need to move. Cars need to run. If you have a hobby, you might as well do it together."

Regarding his racing partner, Stanislas de Sadeleer, Brand was a bit more open. “He’s a fantastic guy,” Brand says. “I met him on the racetrack when his car broke down. I kept thinking: why does it always happen to him? I wanted to help him get to the finish line.” Brand says that de Sadeleer approached him and suggested becoming race partners, a partnership that would prove to be highly successful. “We've had a lot of loses,” Brand says. “It’s a balance. As long as you know how to lose, you are able to win. I say: go for it. Set your own goals.” When we asked Brand and de Sadeleer how they got along now after sitting together 15-16 hours per day for three weeks during the Transorientale, the two said in unison: “No problem.”

An example Brand used was Kobi Reichen, the extreme mountain guide/climber who has attempted Mount Everest three times without oxygen. “I tip my hat to him,” Brand says. “I think it’s totally cool what he does." When asked what his next big challenge will be, Brand laughs and pulls a card out of his wallet; “Can you believe it? I have a Chinese driver’s license!” And he said he wouldn't go back...

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