Kohl's 'Wunderkind' takes a risk too far

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The Independent Online
An unpaid telephone bill for 10,375 Hong Kong dollars (pounds 885) and a flurry of bouncing cheques have punctured the reputation of Germany's most successful young entrepreneur, the "Wunderkind" held up by Chancellor Helmut Kohl as the ideal role model for the nation's youth.

Lars Windhorst, 19-year-old founder of a trading company spanning the globe, was described by Mr Kohl earlier this year as the kind of teenager Germany needs: "Eighteen-and nineteen-year-olds who don't count on their pensions, but follow their dreams, take risks and go out into the world."

Mr Windhorst has certainly done that, setting up offices in the Far East, competing with the Asian Tigers in their own jungle. He has taken risks, too, and, it seems, some liberties. According to reports in the German press, Mr Windhorst's DM300m (pounds 131m) empire may be no more than a Potemkin village, constructed out of flimsy balance sheets that have masked the true value of his holdings.

Mr Windhorst, under investigation for his accounting practices, denies he is experiencing cash-flow problems. Failure to settle the phone bill of his Hong Kong office was an oversight, he says; the dishonoured cheques the result of a mix-up. But Stern magazine, which carries the photograph of a bank statement revealing the lamentable finances of the Far East subsidiary, reports that the account has been dipping into the red since March. "Has the Windhorst bubble burst?" the German press wonders, and has Mr Windhorst been entirely truthful about his company's finances? One thing appears certain: the 55-storey Windhorst Tower, to be erected in Ho Chi Minh City, has not yet received planning permission from the Vietnamese authorities - a fact Mr Windhorst omitted to mention when he touted the project in Bonn in January.

Whether Mr Windhorst is an innocent victim of the deteriorating terms of trade or, as the German press suggests, a hype-merchant finally exposed, the controversy is highly embarrassing to Mr Kohl. Mr Windhorst was the star of a trade delegation that accompanied the Chancellor on his Far East tour last November. He was the young man everybody wanted to meet: a living proof of the spirit of free enterprise nurtured by the conservative government.

Mr Windhorst had the sort of CV budding tycoons could only dream of. The son of a shop-keeper, at the age of 10 Lars was reading the business daily Handelsblatt. He launched his career in high finance by investing his pocket money into shares. By the age of 14 he was building computers and writing software in his father's garage in the north German town of Rahden. A year later he flew to China to buy cheap computer components which were then assembled by his schoolmates and sold in his father's stationery shop. At 16 the boy dropped out of school and went into business with a Chinese entrepreneur based in Germany.

In the past three years the cottage industry has mushroomed into a world- wide concern, with offices in Wall Street and Hong Kong, interests in property, computers, advertising and business consultancy, and an estimated annual turnover of DM300m. He had become, in the words of a Hong Kong fan, a "one-man economic miracle".

Or maybe not. If the Windhorst empire collapses, many Germans will draw the depressing conclusion that economic miracles no longer happen in their country, and Mr Kohl might have to start advising young people to stay put and keep paying those pension contributions.