Financial Casualty: Why Adolf Merckle Killed Himself

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Merckle / Handout / Reuters

German billionaire Adolf Merckle has killed himself. "The desperate situation of his companies, caused by the financial crisis, the uncertainties of the last few weeks and his powerlessness to act, broke the passionate family entrepreneur and he took his own life," a family statement said

Crushed by watching his life's work slip through his fingers, Adolf Merckle, the 74-year-old Swabian billionaire, walked out into the bitter cold Monday night and threw himself under a speeding train.

Though he led a quiet life, mountain-climbing being among his few personal passions, Merckle was thrust into the headlines in November as it emerged that he lost several hundred million euros when he got caught on the losing end of a short sale of Volkswagen shares. It is believed that he lost as much as €500 million. His trouble was made worse by the spreading financial crunch, which hit his corporate empire hard. (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)

"The desperate situation of his companies, caused by the financial crisis, the uncertainties of the last few weeks and his powerlessness to act, broke the passionate family entrepreneur and he took his own life," his family said in a statement.

Merckle began small, taking over a family company with just 80 employees in 1967. In the following years he transformed it into a vast corporate empire of 120 companies that generate revenue of some €30 billion, employ around 100,000 people and range in concerns from generic-drug maker Ratiopharm to Germany's biggest cement maker, HeidelbergCement. An unassuming lawyer, he was Germany's fifth richest individual and 94th on Forbes' list of the world's richest people, with a net worth estimated at nearly €7 billion ($9.2 billion).

Merckle was born in 1934, and in 1945 fled with his family from Sudetenland, a region near the German-Czech border that was inhabited by ethnic Germans and occupied by Hitler's forces in 1938. His family settled in Blaubeuren, a small town in southern Germany located between Stuttgart and Ulm.

Facing financial difficulty, Merckle appealed to the government of his home state of Baden-Wüerttemberg in November for help and was rejected. Hearing news of Merckle's death, Baden-Wüerttemberg's conservative premier, Günther Oettinger, said the state had lost a great entrepreneur. "News of Adolf Merckle's death left me deeply shaken," he said.

Merckle's investment company, VEM, owes banks €5 billion. For the past two months, Merckle had been entrenched in negotiations with some 40 banks, including Commerzbank AG, Deutsche Bank AG, Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC and public bank Landesbank Baden-Wüerttemberg, to get a bridge loan to keep VEM afloat.

He played a high-stakes game, at one point threatening the banks that he would file for bankruptcy, which would have left creditors empty-handed. Merckle seemed to have a chance of refinancing his business when at the end of December banks granted him a reprieve on loans that were due to be repaid at Christmas, pending the outcome of further refinancing talks in January. According to a report in the Finanicial Times Deutschland on Monday, banks had promised Merckle a €400 million bridge loan.

The cost of the reprieve was high, however. Banks demanded that Merckle sell his stakes in HeidelbergCement, Ratiopharm and Phoenix Pharmahandel.

It is not clear what impact Merckle's death will have on negotiations with his creditor banks. The banks say the restructuring of his assets will continue as planned.

Just as Merckle was a symbol of Germany's industrious spirit, his death may come to symbolize the way Germany is dealing with the global financial crisis. For years, German media and politicians railed against U.S. and British private-equity companies as a plague of destructive "locusts" who inflicted harm on German society. As Merckle's stock-market gamble failed, he seemed to become a homegrown locust for commentators and politicians looking for a scapegoat for the financial situation.

He never understood the criticism he faced. When chided for his VW losses, he said it was taking such risks that enabled him to build his empire and create so many jobs in the first place.

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