Billionaire Merckle Died Within Sight of Factory He Founded

By Jana Randow

Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) — German billionaire Adolf Merckle committed suicide by stepping in front of a train a few hundred yards from the factory he founded 36 years ago.

Merckle, who was 74, died as snow fell on the tracks last night at the station in the southern German town of Blaubeuren, where he had a home. The town of 12,000 people is also the site of his family’s Ratiopharm GmbH drug company. By 8 p.m. local time today, firefighters and police officers had cleared the scene of the suicide.

“There’s a lot of sympathy for this man,” Georg Fuhrmann, a spokesman for the town’s fire brigade, said in an interview. “He’s an icon.”

Merckle spent the last weeks of December negotiating with banks as he battled to save his empire, which he built from a pharmaceuticals company employing 80 people into a group of businesses with a combined payroll of more than 70,000.

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 and a 70 percent drop in the value of HeidelbergCement AG, which is controlled by the family.

“He was very down to earth,” said Peter Luckner, an employee at the Hotel Forellenfischer in Weiler, a hamlet next to Blaubeuren. “He didn’t show his billions.”

Merckle’s body was found by a railways worker, who was alerted by the driver of the train that killed the businessman, according to Fuhrmann. Visibility was “very bad” at the time because of the snowfall, he said. The temperature was freezing.

After taking over his grandfather’s business, Merckle created Phoenix Group, Germany’s largest drug wholesaler, and in 1973 started Ratiopharm, a maker of generic drugs.

“The family’s influence won’t continue if their problems are as big as reported,” said Karl-Heinz Irgang, a member of the Blaubeuren city council. Merckle was a “citizen of honor,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jana Randow in Blaubeuren on
Last Updated: January 6, 2009 17:11 EST