The incredible story of the world’s oldest billionaire
Monday, July 2, 2012/
In 2010, legendary Irish trainer Dermot Weld brought a horse out to Australia called Profound Beauty to try to win the Melbourne Cup for the third time.
The horse was owned by a man called Walter Haefner, a Swiss billionaire who had met Weld in a Dublin hotel by chance in 1962. After a few whiskies, Haefner ended up as the owner of the famous Irish breeding operation Moyglare Stud, with Weld as his head trainer.
Haefner and Moyglare bred 2002 Melbourne Cup winner Media Puzzle, but at the tender age of 98, Profound Beauty was Haefner’s first runner in Australia’s biggest race.
In the end, it wasn’t to be. Profound Beauty finished a disappointing 17th in the race, beaten by 19 lengths.
Profound Beauty was promptly retired after that race and her owner died peacefully in Switzerland last week. At the age of 101, Haefner was the world’s oldest billionaire, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $4.3 billion.
Much of Haefner’s notoriety in the wealth world came from his age. But his incredible career crisscrossed a range of sectors, from information technology to automotive to racing and philanthropy.
Payroll and paydirt
Haefner was born in September 1910 in Switzerland, one of six siblings and the son of a missionary who travelled regularly, spending much of his time Tibet.
He studied at university in Zurich and Lyon in France (the latter thanks to a scholarship from the City of Zurich) before starting work in the 1930s selling charcoal to heat houses. He soon took a job with the Swiss subsidiary of General Motors as a field liaison with dealerships. It was the beginning of a lifelong affinity with the car industry.
After a stint in the Swiss army during the years of World War II, Haefner moved to England and started his first car dealership, importing vehicles backed, according to a 2000 Forbes article, by a loan from Swiss bank UBS.
In 1945 he returned to Switzerland and established his private company Automobil-und Motoren AG (AMAG), setting up a Volkswagen dealership in Zurich. AMAG would become the biggest importer of cars in Switzerland and turns over $3.5 billion.
As his business grew, he became interested in ways to improve efficiency and in 1957 he took a step that must have been revolutionary at the time: he implemented a computerised accounting and payroll system from US computing giant IBM.
By 1964, the success of Haefner’s payroll systems had Haefner thinking about a new business.
“Other dealership owners kept asking me if I would be able to help them with their payroll on my computers,” Haefner told Forbes. “So I finally decided to start selling computer services.”
Taking on the giants
That year Haefner started Zurich-based computer services firm Automation Center AG, selling accounting, payroll and statistical services to car dealerships and other retailers.
“IBM was our largest competitor at the beginning, and after a few years there were at least five or six other companies offering computer services in Switzerland,” he told Forbes.
The business expanded throughout Europe and, by 1976, Haefner switched his eyes to a bigger prize: North America.
“We were already successful in Europe, and we knew that if we were ever going to grow fast we would have to take our computer services business to the US.”
Automation Center acquired a majority stake in a US computer services firm called Wyly, which soon changed its name to Uccel.