Frank Stronach, the 80-year-old Austrian billionaire who made his fortune selling car parts and running horse-racing tracks, today began a political campaign to rule the Alpine Republic when citizens vote next year.
“Team Stronach” wants to drop the euro, cut the country’s debt by reducing government spending and lower taxes in the nation of 8.4 million, Stronach said.
“I’ve been contemplating for a couple of years how to bring a new party forward,” he said at a press conference in Vienna’s historic Schoenbrunn Palace, adding that the specific points of the platform aren’t complete. “Some of my friends ask me ‘Frank, why are you doing this?’ But I don’t think it’s dumb. It’s my duty.”
Stronach amassed his wealth at Magna International Inc. (MG), North America’s biggest car-parts maker that he founded after emigrating to Canada in 1954. Worth about 2.35 billion euros ($3 billion) according to Trend magazine, Stronach has previously used his riches to mix in politics. He funded the ascension of his daughter, Belinda, inside Canada’s Conservative Party. Leaders ranging from the late Austrian nationalist-politician Joerg Haider to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have courted the billionaire.
The campaign unveiled a political advertisement with prominent international celebrities supporting Stronach. In the spot, former U.S. President Bill Clinton told the candidate he was “proud of our friendship.” Former CNN television talk host Larry King called Stronach a “mensch.”
Voters ‘Fed Up’
Austrians disillusioned with Europe’s currency woes and frustrated by corruption investigations among the nation’s leading parties may be drawn to Stronach, said Peter Hajek, a Vienna-based polling and public-opinion consultant. Traditional protest blocs such as Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party have the most to lose.
“Frank Stronach scores well not only with voters who are politically fed up but he also massively poaches from Freedom Party voters,” Hajek said in a statement today.
Stronach may win the support of about 9 percent of Austrian voters who will go to the polls to select a new chancellor by October 2013, according to the latest Gallup poll of 400 voters. He trails the ruling Socialists, with 27 percent, the Austrian People’s Party, with 22 percent, and the Freedom Party, with 21 percent.
Stronach ran and lost a campaign for Canadian Parliament in 1988 under the slogan “Let’s be Frank,” biographer Wayne Lilley wrote in his 2006 book “Magna Cum Laude: How Frank Stronach Became Canada’s Best-Paid Man” (McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 376 pages). He developed a reputation for off-beat ideas.
“Toeing the party line, any party line, had not historically been Stronach’s long suit,” Lilley wrote. “He was more inclined toward contrariness with respect to tradition and ideals that he hadn’t initiated.”
Stronach’s contrarian approach to solving the euro-area debt crisis -- by instituting alternative currencies across the 17-nation union -- rankled European Central Bank Governing Council member Ewald Nowotny earlier this week.
The proposal “amounts to the simple destruction of the euro zone,” Nowotny said in a Sept. 26 online chat. “This would have massive negative effects, especially for the Austrian export industry, not least in the automotive industry.”
‘Doesn’t Do Humility’
Stronach, who remains honorary chairman at Magna, ceded control of the auto-parts supplier in 2011 for about $970 million in cash and shares. The Stronach Group of companies owns U.S.-based horse-racing tracks including Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. His Adena Springs horse farm is second on the Breeder’s Cup money list, earning $7.8 million.
Austria must amend its constitution by including a so- called debt brake that would cap the amount of deficit spending governments could use, according to Stronach’s platform.
“Every business person knows that if your business spends more money than it brings in, the company will go bankrupt,” according to the Oberwaltersdorf, Austria-based Frank Stronach Institute’s website. “Austria is over-governed, over- bureaucratized and over-administered.”
It is a lesson that Stronach learned at Magna, according to his biographer. After his first parliamentary run in 1988, his company found itself on the verge of bankruptcy because poor earnings caused it to break credit covenants.
“Stronach, who doesn’t do humility well, was forced to swallow hard in dealing with debt-holders in order to save the company that had been his life’s work,” Lilley wrote. “He’d irritated enough people through his career with his pious hectoring on the benefits of his fair enterprise credo that his and Magna’s predicament generated more schadenfreude than it did sympathy.”
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