German braking systems maker Knorr-Bremse said its majority shareholder Heinz Hermann Thiele, who shaped the company since buying it from his then-employer in 1985, has died unexpectedly at the age of 79.
Thiele was also a major shareholder in Lufthansa, becoming a highly visible public figure last year when he was portrayed as the main obstacle to the state bailout the airline needed to survive the coronavirus crisis.
“The Board of Directors and the Supervisory Board mourn the loss of a global and visionary entrepreneur who has been shaping the global rail and commercial vehicle industry for decades,” Munich-based Knorr-Bremse said in a statement on Tuesday.
His unexpected death adds to uncertainty over succession at the company, whose chairman Klaus Mangold is due to step down this year.
Under Thiele’s stewardship, Knorr-Bremse grew into the global market leader in braking systems for trains, trucks and tractors, making him immensely wealthy. It now employs around 29,000 people in over 100 companies.
He was an aggressive competitor, entering a bidding war with rivals to stop them taking control of Knorr’s Swedish rival Haldex, and defying sceptics by successfully taking control of rail technology company Vossloh.
Forbes estimated his fortune at $15 billion, placing him 91st on their list of the world’s richest people. His abrasive style led to repeated senior departures from the company and rows with unions.
In talks over Lufthansa’s government bailout, Thiele went almost to the brink, with the airline’s management warning that the deal could fail unless he dropped his objections to the carrier taking on a government stake, which he said would make it harder to carry out a painful restructuring.
In this, he was defeated. Germany now holds a 20% stake.
On Tuesday, Knorr-Bremse reported free cash flow of around 700 million euros, topping forecasts, and expected sales at the upper end of a forecast corridor of 5.9-6.2 billion euros.
Thiele floated the company in 2018 in a move that raised some 3.9 billion euros for him and his daughter Julia Thiele-Schuerhoff and was seen as part of the company’s succession management process. The family owns 59% of the company.
“It is Mr. Thiele’s desire that professional investors get a voice and that the company becomes independent from individual people,” then-Chief Financial Officer Ralph Heuwing said at the time.
Though Thiele left the supervisory board in 2016, he returned last year as its deputy chairman, continuing to keep a close eye on the company he joined in 1969 as a legal clerk.