Sunday, February 5, 2017

'Oh Yeah': The Incredible Foundation for a $175 Million Fortune

By John Letzing

Dieter Meier has never seen “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

That alone might make Mr. Meier unusual. Legions of fans made the 1986 comedy a breakout success for Matthew Broderick, who played Ferris, a charmed teenager navigating a complicated day of hooky on the streets of Chicago.

For Mr. Meier, the film had an equally enduring effect: It launched the Swiss artist and entrepreneur’s quirky techno tune “Oh Yeah” into rarefied commercial territory, giving him seed money to help amass a fortune in investments in such things as the trains that take tourists to the Matterhorn and the firm that prints currency.

“I think once I saw this one famous scene when the guy, I think he opens the garage for his father’s Ferrari,” Mr. Meier said, casually referring to the character Cameron’s ill-fated introduction of his pal Ferris to his dad’s pristine 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California.

“I never saw the whole film,” Mr. Meier added. He said he doesn’t tend to dwell on things he has done in the past.

For more than three decades since it accompanied Ferris and Cameron as they sped off in the Ferrari, “Oh Yeah” has been on a relentless, profitable path through American pop culture.

After “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” it scored a limousine seduction in 1987’s “The Secret of My Success.” In 1989 it was heard as a teen daughter frolicked in “She’s Out of Control” and as a dog romanced a poodle in “K-9.” It played as a kid plans a keg party in 2001’s “Not Another Teen Movie,” and as a woman checks out a racy magazine in 2004’s “Soul Plane.” It was in the videogame “Gran Turismo 4,” and the TV shows “Glee,” “South Park” and a recent episode of “Saturday Night Live.” It’s been in eight episodes of “The Simpsons.”

That doesn’t include advertisements using the song to sell products including Twix bars and Hondas.

The beginnings of “Oh Yeah,” released in a 1985 album, weren’t promising. Boris Blank, Mr. Meier’s partner in the band Yello, crafted sounds and gave them to Mr. Meier to add lyrics. He eventually wrote the lines, though initially he wasn’t feeling it: “I said, ‘Boris, I think I have no inspiration’.” Yello’s record company didn’t want to release it as a single.

That changed thanks to the Ferris Bueller effect.

The song, in addition to “Oh” and “Yeah,” has just a handful of other lyrics interspersed with a thudding beat: “The moon, beautiful”; “the sun, even more beautiful”; and, of course, its signature “chicka chickaaa.”

That simplicity may be the key to its lasting popularity. David Temperley, a professor of music theory at the University of Rochester, noted that people often say music should be “not too complex and not too simple.” Regarding “Oh Yeah,” Mr. Temperley said, “That could be relevant here.”

“These advertising and movie guys…to create a certain mood, they need that song,” said Mr. Meier, a 71-year-old who favors ascots and wears his gray hair nearly to his shoulders. “They always come to us.”

He said he doesn’t know exactly how much the song has earned. “Not double digit millions,” he ventured, before adding, “several million,” and then considering further: “A lot of money.”

As the simple tune began to make real money, Mr. Meier proved to be a sophisticated investor. Mr. Meier’s banker father offered advice. A growing middle class in Asia, he said, meant more Asian tourists would be coming to see the Matterhorn in southern Switzerland. So Mr. Meier bought a large stake in a railway company, BVZ Holding AG, that now takes them there.

Another piece of fatherly advice: “As long as Switzerland exists, we will always print our own money.” So Mr. Meier obtained a stake, which FactSet now values at about $37 million, in Orell F├╝ssli Holding AG, the company that prints Swiss francs. He is the firm’s second-largest shareholder, behind the Swiss National Bank.
He invested in Swiss luxury watchmaker Ulysse Nardin, which was sold to the French firm Kering SA in 2014 for an undisclosed amount—before a decline in Swiss watch exports. “It was very good timing,” Mr. Meier said.

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