No one expected Germany's Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis to become a brilliant financial manager when her husband, Prince Johannes, died suddenly in 1990. The onetime waitress, who used to be known as the "punk princess" because of her wild clothes and hairstyles, was left in charge of managing a $1.4 billion inheritance for her son, Albert, who is now 18.
But Gloria rose to the challenge. She taught herself business and tax law. Then she ditched many of the late prince's financial advisers, sacked a large number of staff at her 500-room palace in Regensburg, in southern Germany, and sold heirlooms to clear $350 million in debts.
That was just the beginning. In recent years, the princess, now 42, has restructured her son's holdings, which included the family-controlled T&T Bank, a handful of Mittelstand companies, and Europe's biggest private forest. She sold off poor-performing assets, including the bank, a brewery, and investments in the financial-services industry. And she successfully floated TTL Information Technology, a family-controlled Internet-services company, on the Neuer Markt, just before the tech bubble burst.
Since then, Gloria has focused the conglomerate on real estate and forestry. She explains her investment decisions in plain terms. Asked why she chose to sell off the family silver rather than a chunk of real estate to pay her son's inheritance taxes, Gloria says: "Albert can buy a new tureen anytime he needs one, but he can hardly go out and buy a forest."
Thanks to that conservative approach, the Thurn und Taxis fortune came through the recent economic slowdown unscathed, which is more than can be said for a lot of German businesses. Analysts estimate that the family conglomerate, which lost money before Gloria took over, is now generating a return of about 10%. Not a few German bankers must be envious.