Johanna Quandt, who oversaw a controlling stake in BMW AG, has died at the age of 89. Considered one of the 100 wealthiest people on the planet – and among the richest women – her passing could raise challenges for the Bavarian automaker.
The daughter of one of the Nazi regime’s most powerful industrialists, the Quandt family emerged largely unscathed from World War II, turning the money it made into a 46.7% stake in BMW – the rest now publicly traded. Two of her children, both members of the maker’s supervisory board, will inherit the stake that was directly in the hands of their long-widowed mother.
In a statement, former BMW Chairman Norbert Reithofer described Quandt as warm and uncomplicated, adding that, “She actively led the development of BMW for many years.”
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Uncomplicated, perhaps, but her strong will – executed through children Stefan and Susanne – continued to steer BMW long after executives years younger retired. Whether the two heirs will continue to pull together, indeed, whether they will wish to retain the family’s large stake in BMW is unclear.
For the carmaker, that family control has provided a level of stability that few major, publicly traded corporations can enjoy. Perhaps the closest example in the auto industry is Ford Motor Co. The Ford family actually holds a smaller stake but has disproportionate voting power due to its unique class of stock.
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Born Johanna Maria Bruhn, Quandt’s fortune was estimated at nearly $12 billion. She was a major benefactor of a number of charities, including both medical research and business journalism.
Johanna Quandt took a seat on the BMW board in 1982 when husband Herbert died. She remained there until 1997, in later years serving as vice-chairman. After stepping down, she largely retreated from public view but did attend occasional BMW functions. She had a high-profile presence during the grand ceremony marketing the opening of the automaker’s assembly plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
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The source of the Quandt family’s fortune and influence has been a source of controversy, particularly after the release of a recent documentary that revealed the company the Quandts controlled during World War II made extensive use of slave labor to product munitions and other goods for the Nazi war machine.
After initially denying its record, the family responded by opening up its records to the public.
Quandt herself was the daughter of Berlin art historians and originally went into the medical field before the start of the war. As the country began to rebuild from the ruins she went to work for Herbert Quandt, eventually becoming his personal assistant. She became his third wife in 1960 – about the time the family increased its stake in BMW to fend off an attempted takeover by Daimler-Benz.
Herbert’s family had deep ties to the Nazi regime. His father, Gunther Quandt, was named Wehrwirtschftsfuhrer, or Leader of the Armament Economy, responsible for overseeing the business side of the war. His own companies made out well, though at a high cost, the documentary revealed, with an average 80 slave laborers dying each month. Following the war, Gunther was arrested and interned, but he was released in 1948.
At one point, Gunther was married to Magda. After their divorce she married the Nazi regime’s propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
At her death, Johann Quandt was listed at 77th on the Forbe’s magazine list of the world’s richest individuals. She personally held a 16.7% stake in BMW, with son Stefan Quandt holding 17.4%. Daughter Susanne Klatten, who held 12.6% before her mother’s passing, was actually listed slightly ahead of Johanna as the richest woman in Germany.
Quandt died at her home in Bad Homburg, near Frankfurt, Germany.
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