German tycoon Adolf Merckle commits suicide

BLAUBEUREN, Germany (Reuters) - German billionaire Adolf Merckle has committed suicide, in despair over the huge losses suffered by his business empire during the financial crisis, his family said on Tuesday.

The media-shy billionaire, whose family controls some of Germany’s best-known companies, was hit by a train on Monday evening, local officials said.

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

State prosecutors from the southern city of Ulm said Merckle, 74, left work on Monday and died after being hit by a train near the town of Blaubeuren. He left behind a suicide note to his family, they added.

There was no sign of anyone else being involved, they said.

In 2008 Merckle was ranked as the world’s 94th-richest person and Germany’s fifth-wealthiest by Forbes magazine.

On Tuesday pale blood stains still dotted the snow along the railway track where he died. The area looked deserted apart from a police car nearby.

Merckle, a father of four, inherited the basis of his fortune from his Bohemian grandfather, but went on to build up the chemical wholesale company into Germany’s largest drugs wholesaler.

The passionate skiier and mountain climber assembled a business conglomerate with about 100,000 employees and 30 billion euros ($40.45 billion) in annual sales.

His family controls a number of German companies including cement maker HeidelbergCement and generic drug company Ratiopharm.

But the empire was rocked last year by wrong-way bets made on shares in Volkswagen after a surprise stakeholding announcement from Porsche sent the VW share price rocketing as short sellers scrambled to cover their positions.

Banking sources had told Reuters the family lost hundreds of millions of euros on investments, with about 400 million euros lost on Volkswagen shares alone.

Since then the family has been in talks for weeks with banks to renegotiate loans. Banking sources said on Tuesday his death was not expected to affect loan agreements with the family.

Shares in HeidelbergCement fell as much as 12.5 percent following the news of Merckle’s death and ended the day down 6.2 percent at 31.25 euros.

“Some investors are afraid that there will be no one to lead negotiations during this sensitive situation for the company,” one trader in Frankfurt said.

Psychologists and other mental health experts have said suicide rates could creep up as a result of the financial crisis.

Last month Frenchman Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, 65, a co-founder of money manager Access International, was found dead in a New York office building, reportedly distraught over losing up to $1.4 billion in client money to Bernard Madoff’s alleged fraud. He slit his wrists with box cutters.

Reporting by Frank Siebelt, Maria Sheahan, Ludwig Burger, Andrea Lentz, and Eva Kuehnen; Editing by Greg Mahlich