Adolf Merckle, 74, was ranked as the world's 94th richest person in 2008, according to Forbes magazine.
Mr. Merckle was found dead Monday night on railroad tracks near his villa in the southern German hamlet of Blaubeuren. German authorities in the nearby city of Ulm confirmed the death, saying there was no sign of foul play.
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 handle the situation, broke the passionate family businessman, and he ended his life, the family said in a statement.
Forbes put Mr. Merckle’s fortune at $9.2 billion in 2008. A native of Dresden who made his way to the West after World War II, Mr. Merckle parlayed a family business in chemicals into one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Ratiopharm, a maker of generic drugs that nonetheless became a recognized brand itself, became the pride of the family.
Other businesses included Phoenix, a pharmaceutical wholesaler, and HeidelbergCement, a building materials supplier that in 2007 acquired a British rival, Hanson, to become a leading global player.
The financial crisis began taking its toll on HeidelbergCement last year as the debt incurred to buy Hanson became more burdensome. Standard & Poor's lowered the company’s credit rating as liquidity became scarce thanks to global market convulsions.
But Mr. Merckle’s dalliance with Volkswagen shares, more than any other single investment, caused the distress that apparently led to his death. Caught in the “short squeeze” that also cost many hedge funds dearly, Mr. Merckle lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and was facing the breakup and sale of his business empire.
See also my post "A German Billionaire".