Walter Haefner: Businessman and philanthropist


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Walter Haefner, the world's oldest billionaire, was an industrialist and philanthropist who made his fortune in the post-war car industry and the burgeoning world of computers. He remained, however, an unshowy man – despite an interest in horse-breeding and his later ownership of the successful Moyglare Stud Farm.

Haefner was born in the Zurich suburb of Wollishofen, in 1910. He was one of seven children of August Wilhelm, a protestant missionary, and his wife, Elise. August spent much time in Tibet, while Elise struggled at home to keep the family finances in order – Walter was only able to complete his secondary education thanks to a scholarship from the city. He went on to study business economics in Lyon and Zurich, worked briefly for Shell, then joined the Swiss arm of General Motors.

Haefner saw the Second World War as a business opportunity. Due to the shortage of fuel, new cars became unsalable. He took over AMAG (Automobil-und Motoren AG), an ailing company which had previously imported Chrysler and DeSoto. He started adapting cars to be powered by wood gas. There were several thousand of them in Switzerland and many more elsewhere in Europe.

After the war's end in 1945, Haefner looked around for a new opportunity. He found it at first importing the British cars Standard and Triumph, but by 1948 the market was changing. Using his excellent English, he got in touch with the British military administrators, who had restarted production of Volkswagen. Haefner introduced this modest vehicle into Switzerland – and in 1948 he imported 1,680 Beetles. His business was very successful and his involvement with Volkswagen was such that, for many years, he was the only foreigner on its board. His family still owns AMAG, Switzerland's main importer of Volkswagen, Seat, Skoda and Audi.

By the early 1950s, Haefner had diversified into white goods and apartment-block construction. In 1960 he established the Automation Center AG in Wettingen. At first, the aim was to process the mass of data from his own businesses. This led to an expanding interest in computers. Haefner became the largest individual shareholder of IT software maker CA. He sold the data-processing firm in 1968 to University Computing, which was eventually bought by Computer Associates.

The other side of Haefner was his great interest in horse breeding and charitable works. He owned and bred many top-class horses, including Princess Highway, the impressive winner of the Ribblesdale Stakes at Royal Ascot 2012. According to a statement issued on behalf of the Haefner family and Moyglare Stud, "A delayed flight, a chance meeting in a Dublin hotel, a few Irish whiskies and Haefner went home with an Irish stud farm. That was 1962, and Moyglare Stud was born."

From the start of his involvement with horse breeding, he worked closely with stud manager Stan Cosgrove, and built one of the world's most impressive operations. He had a deep and abiding love for the breeding of thoroughbred racehorses and the techniques of racing. Advised by his doctor at a relatively late age to take up riding, Haefner chose amateur flat racing and pursued this with energetic dedication, winning the Fegentri Champion Amateur Championship in 1963.

Haefner was deeply involved, from 1967, with the charity Swiss-Ski – and his other conduit for charity was the Walter Haefner Stiftung. Its aim is to support the arts and sciences and to improve the lives of children both in Switzerland and abroad. Haefner gave his home town of Zürich – as a "thank you" for the scholarship he was awarded in his youth – 12 paintings, among them five Magrittes, three Monets, one Van Gogh and one Degas.

Although he was among the top ten richest Swiss, Haefner remained a very modest man. A sign of this was his preference for an old Volkswagen Polo, which he would park on the path beside the office, and just slip in the side door. He avoided costly displays and continued to live in the six-roomed house that he bought in Küsnacht in 1948. Yet according to Forbes, "Haefner's net worth was $4.3bn in March (2012), making him the 248th richest person in the world before his death." His son, Martin, took over the running of his main business and his daughter, Eva Maria, took over his Irish horse-breeding interests.

David Childs

Walter Haefner, businessman and philanthropist: born Zurich 13 September 1910; married four times (one son, one daughter); died Zurich 19 June 2012.