Swiss hot chocolate: Things turned sticky for the Swiss confectionery firm Lindt & Sprungli after its aged patriarch married a cosmic cultist with a grand design

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FANNY GANTENBEIN likes to recount how her daughter Heidi had a premonition that one day she would live in a grand house. The girl from Appenzell - the Swiss canton that only recently gave women the vote - claimed at an early age to enjoy a gift for knowing things others could not. Her present abode more than fulfils the ambitions of those childhood presentiments. A noble villa on the exclusive Forch hillside outside Zurich, looking over the splendid Greifensee, it is in the style of a Spanish mansion, with two turrets and three flags, Zurich and Swiss, fluttering in the garden. An imposing wall suggests only the select few are welcome.

Acquiring this exquisite residence was a stroke of luck. Just 16 months after 38-year-old Alexandra - a name Heidi had adopted as more suited to her new aspirations - had married an ailing 77-year-old industrialist, Max Burri, he died. There is no evidence that she played a decisive role in drawing up the contract, six days after the marriage in January 1986, which disinherited the elder Burri brother, Fritz, and left everything to her. None the less, the reputed SFr4.5m ( pounds 1.77m) inheritance enabled the widow Burri-Gantenbein to fulfil her premonition.

There is little to suggest that little Heidi had also foreseen that she would share her dream villa with another wealthy septuagenarian. For the past two weeks, however, she has done just that. And not just any old man. For the latest love in her life is Rudolph Robert Sprungli, 72- year-old patriarch of the maker of fine chocolates, Lindt & Sprungli. More than a successful business, Lindt&Sprungli is an institution, a bastion of tradition now in its fifth generation of Sprunglis. Its shares, the second most expensive in Switzerland (after the Kuoni Travel group) are few in number, and represent one of the classic inheritance gifts in fine Zurich society. A blue-chip investment - the company has never missed a dividend since its first payment as a public company in 1899 - and a repository of dignified Swiss values: a revered combination.

Until two weeks ago, that is. For on 31 July, four months after leaving his wife of 45 years, Rudolph Sprungli secretly married Alexandra Gantenbein, freelance preacher, occasional member of the weird American sect I Am, photographic model, waitress and social climber extraordinary. Most recently, she has taken to holding meditative seminars at Zurich's finest hotels. Hers was a fairy-tale success, but one which, to the conservative noses of Zurich's gilded salons and banking houses, stank to the high heaven with which Alexandra Gantenbein claimed to be so closely in touch.

Upon learning of the clandestine marriage, the L & S managing director, 50-year-old Ulrich Geissmann, 12 months in the job and widely credited with having stopped the drift at the company, stormed out. 'The situation had become impossible for me,' he said. 'The basis of trust was so badly damaged that I simply could not continue.' His private remark was blunter: 'The whole thing will blow up like a bomb,' Mr Geissmann warned.

Mr Sprungli's personal public relations adviser, Walter Senn, obviously thought so too, for he cleared out as well. Armed with photographs and reports from Mrs Gantenbein's eventful past, he had sought vainly to cool his boss's ardour. A stunned board of directors were helpless spectators. 'This business is horribly tragic,' moaned board member Martin Hurlimann, who admitted to toying with resignation, 'because Sprungli says nothing to me any more.' It was all too much for the market. L & S shares plunged 15 per cent in days, the fall only slowed by strong buying by the company's house bank, Credit Suisse, ostensibly on orders from Mr Sprungli himself. Overall, the shares lost 20 per cent since May, when it first became clear the couple's relationship was about more than sharing a cosmic energy plane.

At the end of last week, the shares were boosted somewhat by takeover rumours. There are obvious candidates. Nestle and Philip Morris / Jacobs Suchard in Switzerland, Cadbury Schweppes, which is looking to improve its Continental position, and a stronger contender, Hershey Foods of the US, which has declared Europe as a priority. Once this flutter passed, however, the shares continued to sag. Analysts who weeks previously had been recommending L & S as a good buy could suddenly no longer see the turnover for the leg-over. 'What does the woman want?' asks Roger Birrer of Bank Julius Baer 'Everyone wonders, no one knows. We all feel so powerless.' A top private banker is less reticent. 'It's dangerous. I would not touch it with a bargepole.'

Dangerous - simply because a single-minded septuagenarian falls for a fascinating, attractive woman 28 years his junior? A more charitable view might have been that the liaison proved the old man has more sprungli in his step than many had imagined, and that this must be good for the company, which has prospered under his autocratic leadership. Although underperforming its potential, in the view of analysts (it has a price / earnings ratio of around nine, instead of the 15 seen in the best food companies worldwide), L & S has internationally been highly regarded as a solid, more-than-respectable business. Cash-rich, with a strong market position, the company has grown in recent years by purchasing outright its licensees in France and Germany. Net sales last year amounted to SFr765m, an increase of 9 per cent.

It did have its problems however, which is why Mr Geissmann's departure is causing such alarm. A former top food manager with the giant Swiss retailer Migros, he was appointed last year to take firm control of a galleon that had gone gently adrift. Too little attention had been paid to costs. The atmosphere was wrong. Mr Geissmann's departure at the beginning of this month left L & S without an operational head for the fourth time in six years. Too many senior managers had left or been discarded.

Rudolph Sprungli, who had, since the Seventies, carefully worked himself into a position where he exercised control with an estimated 40 per cent of the company's shares, was debited with increasingly eccentric decisions. It is no coincidence, insiders say, that things got worse from the time Alexandra Gantenbein appeared on the scene early in 1990. She impressed the patriarch sufficiently to become his 'special personnel adviser'. Mrs Gantenbein's influence is rumoured to have played a key role in the stormy break-up between Rudolph Sprungli and his elder son, 41-year-old Rudolf K, forcing the latter to leave the company last year. Not only did it cause deep dismay in the company, it led ineluctably to the elder Sprungli's divorce in March this year.

It was this troubled atmosphere that Ulrich Geissmann entered, under the clear condition that his authority would not be undermined by other influences. He set about restructuring, slimming the product line, reducing costs. Analysts were enthused. 'He was doing a fine job,' says Rene Weber of Vontobel bank, 'which is why his departure was felt to be such a blow.'

The marriage had confirmed Mr Geissman's worst fears: that Alexandra Gantenbein's mariage certificate was going to prove more powerful than his managing director's contract. This was what the private banker had been referring to when he described events at L & S as 'dangerous'. As a company so strongly in the grip of one man, it is also particularly exposed to his vagaries. 'It does not take much, in such a case, for total control to become out of control,' says Mr Birrer of Julius Baer.

Alexandra Heidi Burri-Sprungli-Gantenbein's involvement with a religious sect and her impressive ability to improve her station in life, thanks to elderly male benefactors, gave, in the eyes of many, a rather more sinister shade to what might otherwise have provoked little more than a knowing smile.

'Is she a legacy-hunter?' wonders Roger Birrer, asking the question on everyone's lips. The analysts are not just acting nervously, they

are traumatised. For they fear that tragedy may be about to repeat itself. The Movenpick affair is still fresh in their minds.

It, too, began as a love story. The 52-year-old Ueli Prager, owner of the Movenpick food and restaurant chain, met 25-year-old Jutta Bergus, a secretary at a building society, while he was in hospital with a broken leg. They married, and the youthful wife enjoyed an exhilarating rise up the company ladder to become managing director. The internal ructions were enormous, as senior staff fled the falling masonry. Eventually the marriage collapsed. But by then, so too, had Mr Prager's grip on Movenpick. In February of this year, he sold out ignominiously to the Munich-based entrepreneur August von Finck.

Whenever the analysts say Gantenbein, their nervous lips suggest Movenpick. 'Some similarities are already there,' says Rene Weber. 'The old man takes a much younger wife; her influence grows in the company; the managing director leaves.' It would be the next theoretical step that the market cannot bear to think about: Alexandra Sprungli-Gantenbein becoming managing director of L & S. 'That would be a disaster,' says Roger Birrer. 'It would not be tolerated.'

It was in an effort to staunch such speculation that Rudolph Sprungli went to the unusual length, nine days after the wedding, of issuing a public statement. It said that 'there never was and is today no discussion about giving my wife, Alexandra Sprungli-Gantenbein, operational responsibilities in the firm.' He dismissed the rich panoply of revelations and speculation about his wife's past as 'calumny'.

Since the wedding, Alexandra Sprungli- Gantenbein has not ventured from her gilded fortress, complete with bronzed American bodyguard. Her husband, by contrast, shows every sign of being on top of the world, driven to work each day with a broad smile on his face. After all, he has done what he likes doing best - getting his own way. This is the man who, when the local Rotary Club failed to elect him president, started a rival branch on the other shore of the lake. Rudolph Sprungli did not need to be bewitched in order to ride roughshod over the wishes and opinions of others.

It was in such a defiant mood in May this year that, two months after separating from his 68- year-old wife, Elisabeth Sprungli-Halter, Mr Sprungli announced to a stunned Zurich society that he was to wed Alexandra Gantenbein. The couple then left for a pre-nuptial honeymoon in the US. The horrified board of directors sought to use this respite to prepare its defences. Upon returning to Zurich, Mr Sprungli was somewhat surprised to find his PR adviser urging him to stay on the plane, while his bride-to-be was whisked away in a limousine. Then, in the VIP lounge, Walter Senn went through everything he had collected on Mrs Gantenbein's past.

The patriarch was moved. He faxed his bride- to-be, announcing that the wedding was off. Alexandra Gantenbein no longer held her post as 'special personnel adviser'. But if the visibly relieved management of L & S thought that the old man's new obsession could be so easily exorcised, they were badly mistaken. Rudolph Sprungli withdrew in on himself, not turning up to Rotary Club meetings, avoiding close friends. He hired a new driver, who had nothing to do with the company, so keeping his movements to himself. For his contacts with Alexandra Gantenbein had not been broken off.

In the company itself, he directed an independent accountant, KPMG Fides, to investigate the allegations that Lindt & Sprungli had been infiltrated by members of the I Am sect. And he instigated another private investigation, into Mrs Gantenbein's past. The KPMG Fides report, produced before the board in late July, dismissed all the wilder allegations. It found no evidence of I Am infiltration. It did find that Alexandra Gantenbein exerted 'weight and influence in decisions concerning managerial appointments'.

None the less, the relief all round was palpable. Not only had the marriage been averted, the distinguished company had escaped any cult influence. The rejoicing was short-lived. For Rudolph Sprungli felt vindicated. Two days after the board had approved the KPMG Fides report, without informing anyone in the company, Mr Sprungli revived his original plan and married Mrs Gantenbein at the civil register office. Two anonymous witnesses were present.

Rarely can such a modest nuptial have caused such commotion in Zurich. The better society, resorting to the most potent insult it could think of, accused the Sprunglis of behaving like the British Royal Family.

For the curious, there is still a chance to sign up for Alexandra Sprungli-Gantenbein's preaching sessions, which begin again in the autumn. There, if past form is any guide, participants will be treated to discourses on the correct consistency and proper aroma of human excreta, along with various teachings from the philosophy of the I Am sect. Founded in the Thirties in the US by Guy Ballard, a mining engineer, it believes in reincarnation.

Cult members claim to have secret powers drawn from a field of pure energy, known as the 'Beloved Mighty I Am Presence', which hovers above their heads. At its peak in the late Thirties, the cult was reckoned to have between a million and three million members, but it dwindled after the death of Mr Ballard (who was supposed to be immortal) in 1939, which was closely followed by an indictment of other leaders for fraud. Nevertheless it still has some life, and there are believed to be about 200 members in Switzerland alone.

The rather more down-to-earth analysts, meanwhile, are looking for less ethereal signs that all is not lost at L & S. The first and most important move will be the appointment of a new managing director. Only the brave are likely to be tempted to take on the challenge. For the new man may be dealing not merely with a company at odds with itself, but possibly with cosmic beings as well . . .-

(Photograph omitted)