Page last updated at 18:14 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

German billionaire kills himself

Adolf Merckle
Mr Merckle had lost heavily on Volkswagen shares in 2008

German billionaire Adolf Merckle has committed suicide after his business empire ran into trouble in the global economic slowdown.

In a statement his family said he had been "broken" by the financial crisis, and had taken his own life.

Mr Merckle ran up losses of about 400m euros (363m;$535m) last year due to wrong-way bets on Volkswagen shares.

He was ranked as the world's 94th richest person in 2008, and his family controls a number of German companies.

The 74-year-old's body was found on Monday near railway tracks in southern Germany. Officials said there was no evidence that anyone else was to blame.

Volkswagen losses

His family, which had reported him missing after he failed to return home, said in a statement: "Adolf Merckle lived and worked for his family and his firms."

"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."

Phoenix Pharmahandel, drugs wholesaler with annual sales of 21bn euros
Heidelberg Cement, cement firm with annual sales of 11bn euros
Ratiopharm, generic drugs firm with annual sales of 1.8bn euros
Kaessbohrer ski slope equipment firm with annual sales of 183m euros
VEM, bought in 1997, includes three engine makers with annual sales of 280m euros

Mr Merckle's business interests included the generic drugs maker Ratiopharm and the cement maker Heidelberg Cement.

In all, his business conglomerate has about 100,000 employees and in 2008 reported 30bn euros in annual sales.

His holding company had recently been in talks with banks to secure credit after it ran up high levels of debt amid the global financial crisis.

The holding company said it had suffered heavy losses on investments in shares of the carmaker Volkswagen, which fluctuated wildly in value late last year as rival car company Porsche moved to increase its stake in VW.

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

He used his wealth, estimated by Forbes magazine last year to be $9.2bn, to take stakes in Heidelberg Cement and Ratiopharm.

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

He is survived by his four children.

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