Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- German billionaire Adolf Merckle committed suicide by throwing himself under a train, “broken” as his business empire crumbled under a growing burden of debt, his family said.
The 74 year-old businessman was hit yesterday evening near his hometown of Blaubeuren, 44 miles southeast of Stuttgart, a police officer said in an interview. His body was found on the tracks at around 7:30 p.m. about 300 yards from his home and a suicide note had also been found.
Merckle, whose holding company owes banks about 5 billion euros ($6.7 billion), owned stakes in HeidelbergCement AG and drug wholesaler Phoenix Pharmahandel AG. He had been seeking emergency financing for more than two months from a group of more than 30 banks led by Commerzbank AG, Deutsche Bank AG, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc and Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg.
“The dedicated family businessman was broken by his inability to handle the situation and he ended his own life,” his family said in a statement today. “The distress at his companies caused by the financial crisis and the resultant uncertainty of the last few weeks” contributed to his death, the family added.
Merckle, whose estimated $9.2 billion fortune put him 94th on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, was hurt by bets on Volkswagen AG, a drop in the value of HeidelbergCement stock and increasing debt. The family’s spiraling debt threatened holdings including its VEM Vermoegensverwaltung GmbH holding company, which owed the bank about 5 billion euros, people with knowledge of the matter said last month.
“His empire was falling apart,” said Stefan Mueller, managing partner at Proprietary Partners AG in Frankfurt. “This was his last desperate act.”
Merckle’s empire spanned the cement, machinery and drug industries. VEM said today Merckle’s death would have no effect on the restructuring. Merckle was to get more than 400 million euros in bridge loans to rescue VEM, Financial Times Deutschland reported yesterday, citing unidentified bankers.
“News of Adolf Merckle’s death left me deeply shaken,” Baden-Wuerttemberg Prime Minister Guenther Oettinger said. The state “lost a great entrepreneur.”
In November, the state government signaled it would not assist Merckle after he sought a bailout. His companies employ more than 71,000 people, including 46,000 at HeidelbergCement.
Merckle hired insolvency lawyer Eberhard Braun and threatened to initiate bankruptcy proceedings for VEM unless lenders provided him with restructuring capital, two people familiar with the situation said Dec. 10.
The Merckle family may have to sell stakes in HeidelbergCement, Germany’s biggest cement maker, Phoenix Pharmahandel, a drug wholesaler, and Ratiopharm GmbH, a generic drugmaker as part of a deal with banks, people familiar with the matter said on Dec. 15.
HeidelbergCement fell 8.2 percent to 30.60 euros in Frankfurt trading. The Heidelberg-based company declined 70 percent last year, a fall that led the banks to seek additional financial guarantees from the billionaire.
Born in 1934, Merckle fled in 1945 with his family to Blaubeuren, a city with about 12,000 people in southwestern Germany, from the Sudetenland, the historical border region of the Czech Republic long inhabited by ethnic Germans and seized by the Nazis in September 1938.
Merckle’s grandfather founded a company called Drogen und Chemikalien en gros in 1881 and his father expanded the company after taking the helm in 1915. The company was seized during the Nazi era.
Merckle, a lawyer whose only luxury was climbing in the mountains, took over the family company in 1967 at a time when it had 80 employees and 4 million deutsche marks ($2.5 million) in sales.
There was no suspicion of foul play and police are certain Merckle committed suicide, a police officer in Ulm said. The suicide note didn’t give any reason for his decision, according to the officer. Ulm prosecutors are investigating as a matter of routine, a step done in any suicide case, he said.
Merckle leaves behind his wife Ruth. He had three sons, Ludwig, Philipp, Tobias and a daughter, Jutta.
VEM was caught in a so-called short squeeze after betting Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen’s stock would fall. Merckle lost at least 500 million euros on the bets on VW stock, people familiar said on Nov. 18. VEM lost “low three-digit million euros” on VW stock, the company said in November.
Commerzbank expressed its deep sympathy to Merckle’s family, according to spokeswoman Simone Fuchs in Frankfurt today. She declined to comment about potential implications for talks on a financing deal. RBS had no comment, a company spokeswoman in Frankfurt said. Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg spokesman Christian Potthoff in Stuttgart also had no comment.
New York based money manager Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet, 65, who may have lost client funds invested with Bernard Madoff, apparently killed himself in his Madison Avenue office, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said on Dec 23.
Kirk Stephenson, who helped start Luqman Arnold’s investment company Olivant Ltd., committed suicide, a U.K. coroner’s court judged last month. Stephenson, 47, jumped in front of a train on Sept. 25 at a railway station in Taplow, 28 miles west of London.
To contact the reporters on this story: Aaron Kirchfeld in Frankfurt at firstname.lastname@example.org
; Sheenagh Matthews in Frankfurt at email@example.com
Last Updated: January 6, 2009 13:10 EST