Teenage tycoon earns a place in German legend

LOCAL HEROES: 2

IMRE KARACS

Bonn

In a land where conformity is a virtue and life is reduced to a steady progression along a carefully mapped-out career path, Lars Windhorst is something of a prophet. Even the German business press, enthralled by the wunderkind's fabulous talent for making money, cannot resist a few jibes. "Barbie doll in a pin-stripe suit", was how one magazine described the 19-year-old tycoon who has turned his father's garage into the nerve centre of a global empire.

But among his peers in German industry, the teenager is a living legend. Myths abound of the boy who perused the stock market reports instead of comics at junior school. By 10 he is said to have started dabbling in shares, at 14 he began tinkering with computers. Soon he was writing software and building computers in the family home in the small town of Rahden in northern Germany.

That was when he discovered the limitations of the domestic industry and globalised his operations. When he was 15 he flew to China to buy cheap computer components, which were then assembled by his school-mates and sold in his father's stationery shop. A year later he dropped out of school and went into business with a Chinese enterpreneur based in Germany.

At first the local banks refused him credit. His father had to persuade bank managers that Lars was a serious proposition, and had to sign all the cheques, a task forbidden under German law to those under 18.

Despite the credit squeeze and all the bureaucratic hurdles, the cottage industry mushroomed within three years into a world-wide concern, with offices in New York and Hong Kong, interests in real estate, computers, advertising and business consultancy, and an annual turnover of DM250m. The Windhorst empire's centre is now shifting from Rahden to the Far East. In Vietnam, there are plans in Ho Chi Minh City for a 55-storey Windhorst Tower, destined to be the emblem of this "one-man economic miracle" - as he is described in the Hong Kong press.

His knowledge of the Far East scene has earned him guru status, so much so that when Chancellor Helmut Kohl recently toured the region, Lars was the leading luminary in a government delegation packed with captains of industry. He is the sort of young enterpreneur Germany needs, Mr Kohl said: "Eighteen-, nineteen-year-olds who don't count on their pensions, but follow their dreams, take risks and go out into the world."

The Chancellor and the German business world are expecting great deeds from their teenage enterpreneur. This week he is due to meet Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, who had the monopoly on precocious capitalism before Mr Windhorst came on the scene. There is talk of a link-up between the two, provoking jibes from the press about the dawn of a "nerds' world".

Whether German youth would emulate him, as Mr Kohl hopes, is doubtful. Mr Windhorst's social skills with people of his own age seem somewhat limited and, it is rumoured, he dilutes his beer with Coke.

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