Image: German billionaire Adolf Merckle
Matthias Hiekel  /  EPA file
Billionaire Adolf Merckle, a German billionaire industrialist who suffered huge losses when share price bets he made went wrong, has committed suicide, his family said.  Merckle, 74, threw himself under a train.
updated 1/6/2009 4:01:27 PM ET 2009-01-06T21:01:27

German billionaire Adolf Merckle committed suicide after his business empire ran into trouble in the financial crisis, throwing himself in front of a train near his home, authorities and his family said Tuesday.

The 74-year-old’s business interests ranged from pharmaceuticals to cement, and its troubles had recently been compounded by losses on shares in auto maker Volkswagen AG.

Merckle’s body was found Monday night on railway tracks at Blaubeuren in southwestern Germany, prosecutors in nearby Ulm said.

His family, which had reported Merckle missing after he failed to return home Monday, issued a brief statement saying he took his own life. Prosecutor Wolfgang Zieher said a suicide note to the family was found, but its contents were not divulged.

Merckle’s holding company, VEM Vermoegensverwaltung, recently had been in talks with banks to secure credit after its business interests ran up high levels of debt, and also lost value amid the global financial crisis.

The company declined to say how much it needed, or to comment on German media reports that it might have to sell some of its interests.

In addition, the holding company recently said it had suffered millions of euros in losses on shares of automaker Volkswagen AG, which fluctuated wildly last fall as fellow car maker Porsche SE moved to increase its stake in the company — leaving some investors out of pocket.

“Adolf Merckle lived and worked for his family and his firms,” the family statement said.

“The distress to his firms caused by the financial crisis and the related uncertainties of recent weeks, along with the helplessness of no longer being able to act, broke the passionate family businessman, and he ended his life,” it said.

Merckle’s business interests included generic drug maker Ratiopharm International GmbH and cement maker HeidelbergCement AG.

Merckle helped turn his grandfather’s chemical wholesale company into one of Germany’s biggest pharmaceutical wholesalers, Phoenix Pharmahandel, in which he held a 57 percent stake.

He used his wealth, estimated by Forbes last year to be $9.2 billion, to take stakes in HeidelbergCement and Ratiopharm. HeidelbergCement shares sank on news of Merckle’s death, closing down 6.2 percent at euro31.26 ($43.00) in Frankfurt.

Merckle also owned stakes in companies that made a wide array of goods from all-terrain vehicles, software to textiles.

The governor of Merckle’s home state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Guenther Oettinger, said the region had lost a “great entrepreneurial personality” who built up a “business of European significance.”

Merckle was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, in 2005.

Despite his wealth and prominence in corporate Germany, Merckle mostly avoided publicity. He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and four children.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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