Tycoon-politician Stronach aims to put enterprise into Austria

OBERWALTERSDORF, Austria Mon Apr 22, 2013 1:01pm EDT

1 of 2. Austro-Canadian businessman and billionaire Frank Stronach listens to his phone during an interview with Reuters in the village of Oberwaltersdorf April 22, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

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OBERWALTERSDORF, Austria (Reuters) - "The government is the management team of a country and unfortunately that management is made up of politicians."

Like many others disillusioned with party politics in a recession-hit European Union, Austrian-Canadian car parts tycoon Frank Stronach promises to shake up the cozy political establishment in his native Austria. But unlike most disaffected groups, he promises more business-style government, not less - and he has the cash to make his voice heard.

The fact that he is 80, and has alienated many in the conservative Alpine republic by exploding into public life with his moneyed transatlantic brashness, bothers him not at all.

"If we don't create wealth there's nothing to distribute - it's as simple as that," he said in an interview in Oberwaltersdorf, where Magna International (MG.TO), the global car-parts empire he founded as an Austrian immigrant in Canada, has its European base.

"People are raised on the milk of the state," added Stronach, looking out over a golf course towards the house where he lives during his stints in Austria.

Now retired, Stronach returned last year to the country he left after the Second World War as a 21-year-old toolmaker to head a new party that will run in a parliamentary election due by September.

With its pro-business, eurosceptic agenda of citizen empowerment, "Team Stronach" has set itself firmly against the consensus politics and entrenched patronage of the Austrian establishment.

Stronach speaks of the need to run Austria like a business, citing his own entrepreneurial experience in contrast to the career politicians who, he says, know nothing of the real world and care only about their own re-election.

He has already poured 10 to 12 million euros ($13 to $16 million) into his campaign for a national election, and says he expects that figure to double by the time the vote is held.

PRESIDENTIAL STYLE

That means his presidential-style campaign will have outspent the big establishment parties by at least three to one - still only pocket money to a man with personal wealth of $1.2 billion, according to Forbes' Rich List.

Such ostentatious wealth and business success are rarely seen in Austria, and Stronach's pride in his business achievements have earned him a reputation in some quarters for brashness and throwing his money around. His heavily accented German adds to his oddity.

Yet voters in the province of Carinthia were impressed - perhaps refreshed - enough to give Team Stronach 10 percent of the vote last month, contributing to a rout of the far-right Freedom Party in its heartland.

If he repeats that at national level, as opinion polls currently suggest he will, he might prevent the big beasts of Austrian politics - the centre-right People's Party and centre-left Social Democrats - renewing their current 'grand coalition'.

While most of his votes have so far come at the expense of the Freedom Party, he shares only its eurosceptic stance, not its anti-immigration agenda.

The Freedom Party has made an issue of Stronach's age, and some Austrian media have found him an aggressive interview subject. In person, though, he is surprisingly softly spoken, in a hybrid accent not quite at home either in his native German or in the English of his adopted Canada, where he ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate for parliament in 1988.

LIKE JOHN WAYNE

For all his self-confidence, Stronach is clearer about what he is not than what he is. He is not a politician, he does not want to become chancellor or join a coalition government - but neither does he want Team Stronach to be pigeon-holed as a protest party.

"We're not leftist, not rightist - we're not extreme in any form or shape. We just want to make sure that the economy functions and there's a fair distribution of wealth," he said.

Broadly, he wants to strengthen the "real" economy of exportable manufactured goods over the "paper-pushing" financial economy; he wants the euro - an "absolute stupidity" - effectively abolished; and he wants ordinary citizens to sit in a slimmed-down parliament.

Contemptuous of career politicians, and mindful of his own age, as well as financially independent, he feels no obligation to suggest that politics is his whole life.

"The money is relative," he says. "Even though I feel very young and I have a lot of energy ... it's the time (it takes).

"I still want to live. I worked hard for so many years. I know better things to do."

He even sometimes seems slightly bored when reaching for well-rehearsed answers to political questions, but becomes animated on the topic of horse racing, a passion since his first visit to a racecourse aged 30.

He says he does not ride as much as he used to - "It takes me longer to get up if I fall down" - but keeps fit by skiing, playing tennis and working out every day.

Stronach is also the founder and owner of Magna Entertainment, which owns U.S. race courses including Pimlico and Santa Anita, supplies betting technology and breeds thoroughbred horses.

"After I had a little bit of money in the bank, I figured it would be nice to have a horse. I always liked cowboy movies," he said. "I figured I'd get myself a horse and after work I'd ride out into the sunset like John Wayne."

($1 = 0.7644 euros)

(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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