Walter Haefner, World’s Oldest Billionaire, Dies at 101

Swiss Walter Haefner, World’s Oldest Billionaire, Dies at 101
Billionaire Walter Haefner also was a breeder and rider of thoroughbreds. Source: Amag Automobil und Motoren AG via Bloomberg

Walter Haefner, the world’s oldest billionaire, who gained his riches from importing cars to Switzerland and then becoming the biggest shareholder of U.S. software-maker CA Inc., has died. He was 101.

Haefner died on June 19 “after a long and fulfilled life,” according to a statement on the website of Amag Automobil und Motoren AG, the Swiss car dealership he founded.

Haefner was the oldest person with a net worth exceeding $1 billion and the third-richest Swiss, with $4.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine. His death makes David Rockefeller, 97, the U.S. banker and grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, the eldest billionaire, with $2.5 billion.

An entrepreneur, Haefner sold wood-gas-powered cars during World War II. After shifting his focus to software in the 1970s, he acquired what became a 24.8 percent stake in Islandia, New York-based CA, the world’s second-largest maker of mainframe-computer programs.

He “saw the promise in a digital future,” Sam Wyly, the Dallas-based businessman who built a fortune in technology and retailing, wrote about Haefner in his 2008 book, “1,000 Dollars and an Idea: Entrepreneur to Billionaire.”

Haefner also was a breeder and rider of thoroughbreds. One of his horses, Go And Go, won the 1990 Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. He owned a share of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, William Nack wrote in his 1988 book, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.”

Scholarship Student

Walter Haefner was born in Zurich on Sept. 13, 1910. He was raised with his six siblings by his mother Elise, while his missionary father August Wilhem spent much of the time in Tibet. Haefner enrolled in the University of Zurich and the University of Lyon in France with the aid of a scholarship from the City of Zurich, according to Bilanz magazine.

Haefner founded Amag in January 1945 on Zurich’s lakefront. The company grew to become Switzerland’s biggest car dealership and main importer of Volkswagen, Seat, Skoda and Audi vehicles, according to its website.

In the early 1960s, Haefner moved Amag’s accounting and payroll to an International Business Machines Corp. system and then started Automation Center AG, a computer services firm, Forbes reported in 2000. He got into the U.S. computer services business in 1976 with the purchase of a majority stake in Dallas-based Wyly, which later renamed itself Uccel Corp.

Computer Illiterate

CA, then known as Computer Associates International Inc., bought Uccel in 1987 and Haefner received a chunk of its stock. His CA holdings, described in a June 10, 2011, proxy statement on the company’s website, were worth $2.4 billion in August 2011. He never learned basic computer skills, according to Forbes.

Haefner developed a passion for thoroughbreds after his first ride on a racehorse in Paris in 1959, Nack wrote in “Secretariat.”

“I loved it, the sensation of speed on a horse,” Haefner said, according to the book.

In 1962, he won the European cup for amateur riders, according to Forbes. That same year he bought Moyglare Stud Farm in Ireland.

Haefner had a daughter, Eva-Maria Bucher, and a son, Martin Walter Haefner, who became chairman of Amag’s holding company Careal Holding AG.

The senior Haefner lived with his fourth wife, France, in a six-bedroom house in Kuesnacht, outside Zurich, that he bought in 1948, according to Bilanz.

“I’m a simple man, who has simple pleasures,” he told Forbes.

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