BERLIN – German billionaire Adolf Merckle threw himself in front of a train after his business empire, which included interests ranging from VW cars to pharmaceuticals to cement, ran into trouble in the global financial crisis, his family said Tuesday.
The 74-year-old's body was found Monday night on railway tracks at Blaubeuren in southwestern Germany, prosecutors in nearby Ulm said in a statement. They described the death as a "railway accident" and said there was no evidence that anyone else was to blame.
His family, which had reported Merckle missing after he failed to return home Monday, issued a brief statement saying he took his own life. A person close to the investigation, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media, said Merckle left a suicide note. Its contents were not divulged.
Merckle's holding company, VEM Vermoegensverwaltung, recently had been in talks with banks to secure credit after its business interests ran up high levels of debt, and also lost value amid the global financial crisis.
The company declined to say how much it needed, or to comment on German media reports that it might have to sell some of its interests.
In addition, the holding company recently said it had suffered heavy losses on shares of automaker Volkswagen AG, which fluctuated wildly last fall as fellow car maker Porsche SE moved to increase its stake in the company.
"Adolf Merckle lived and worked for his family and his firms," the family statement said.
"The distress to his firms caused by the financial crisis and the related uncertainties of recent weeks, along with the helplessness of no longer being able to act, broke the passionate family businessman, and he ended his life," it said.
Merckle helped turn his grandfather's chemical wholesale company into one of Germany's biggest pharmaceutical wholesalers, Phoenix Pharmahandel, in which he held a 57 percent stake.
He used his wealth, estimated by Forbes last year to be $9.2 billion, to take stakes in HeidelbergCement and Ratiopharm. HeidelbergCement shares were down 5.8 percent at euro31.39 ($43.18) in Frankfurt trading after news broke of Merckle's death.
Merckle also owned stakes in companies that made a wide array of goods from all-terrain vehicles, software to textiles.
The governor of Merckle's home state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Guenther Oettinger, said the region had lost a "great entrepreneurial personality" who built up a "business of European significance."
Merckle was awarded Germany's highest decoration, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, in 2005.
Despite his wealth and prominence in corporate Germany, Merckle mostly avoided publicity. He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and four children.