Walter Haefner: Businessman and philanthropist

 

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.

Suggested Topics
Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Web developer (C#, MVC4, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Jquery)

£30000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Senior Automation QA Engineer (Java, Selenium WebDriver, Agile)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Senior A...

Web developer (C#.NET, ASP.NET, MVC3/4, HTML5, CSS3, JAVASCRIPT

£35000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment