The Glock Family Feud: Founder's Ex-Wife and Kids Speak Out for the First Time
Helga Glock and her adult children are gathered in a private lounge of the elegant Hotel Palais Hansen Kempinski on a stately boulevard in central Vienna. Dressed in a tasteful gray suit and pearls, Helga, 78, has bright copper-red hair. She sits on an easy chair that’s upholstered in white leather. Her daughter, Brigitte, and two sons, Gaston Jr. and Robert, perch knee-to-knee on an adjacent couch. China cappuccino cups clutter the coffee table between us. Speaking in German via a translator, and with a lawyer listening from a seat a few feet away, they’re discussing how their lives changed in 2011. That’s when Gaston Glock Sr. cut all ties with Helga and his sons and daughter.
The four have an agenda. Helga is locked in bitter litigation against her ex-husband. She accuses him of hiding hundreds of millions of dollars of the family’s money outside Austria and cheating her out of a substantial ownership share in Glock GmbH, the company they built together. At stake, apart from an awful lot of money, is the future of one of the best-known brands in the world.
From the beginning, Helga says, Glock was a collaborative enterprise. By the late 1960s she had three children, a full-time job with the family metal shop in suburban Vienna, and a husband who expected hot lunch and dinner served every day. “I still ask myself how I managed this,” she says. In the company’s early stages, she and Gaston Sr. manufactured curtain rods and other house fittings. Her husband assured her that one day they’d be rich, and on that promise, at least, he kept his word.
An Austrian engineer with no experience in firearms, Gaston redefined the handgun market in the 1980s. The Glock semiautomatic black plastic pistol, with its reliability and large ammunition capacity, became a favorite of American police officers and mass murderers, Hollywood directors and gangsta rappers. Glock firearms are used by two-thirds of U.S. police departments, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and special-operations units of the Pentagon and militaries worldwide. Since 1982, Glock has sold 10 million pistols. “The Glock” made Herr Glock a billionaire.
As soon as the children were old enough, they joined the family business. “We shared a common goal,” says the eldest, Brigitte. “There were no problems, no fights,” agrees Gaston Jr. “Definitely,” concurs Robert, the youngest. There’s a family von Trapp quality to their seemingly rehearsed, serial response. “We were doing it for them, the next generation,” says their mother.
For years the company generated enviable financial results, and it has continued to do well without the family. In 2013 its revenue increased 28 percent to €385 million ($501 million). Private by instinct, the family had a reputation for secrecy about its internal dealings. But in 2008, Gaston Sr., then 79, suffered a severe stroke. As he recovered, he switched allegiance to another woman 50 years his junior. He fired Helga, Brigitte, Gaston Jr., and Robert from paid positions and amended family trusts to exclude them from possible ownership. He divorced Helga, married the younger woman, and reemerged as a leading Austrian philanthropist.
Gaston Sr. declined to be interviewed for this article because of the pending divorce-related lawsuits, Peter Zoechbauer, an attorney for Gaston Sr., wrote in an e-mail. In court filings over document disputes in the U.S., Gaston Sr. has said that he bears Helga and their children no ill will. Financially they’ve been amply provided for, he has said. He denied wrongdoing of any kind. In a 2010 letter making these points and excluding Helga and their children from any operational role in the company, Gaston Sr. demanded “appreciation, compliance, and acceptance and the respect I deserve as a father.”
From his estranged family’s perspective, Gaston Sr.’s idea of appreciation and compliance is for them to go away and never bother him again—to content themselves with what spoils they’ve been given and forget about their life’s work and their relationship with their father. The mystery is what happened to Gaston Sr. that would cause him to do this to his kin. He’d never been a warm or demonstrative patriarch, they say, but his children thought they had a tacit deal: obedience in exchange for their eventually taking over. Helga had lived mostly apart from her husband for years before their definitive break, but she assumed that any divorce would be fair in material terms and wouldn’t deny the children their legacy. Gaston Sr.’s reticence makes it difficult to know precisely what he—or the people now around him—may be thinking.
This isn’t a new topic for this magazine. We first reported in 2009 how the Glock empire included a latticework of shell corporations in Panama, Luxembourg, and other jurisdictions known for low taxes and light financial regulation. That article led to my 2012 book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. Now, as part of their legal struggle against Gaston Sr., Helga and their children are talking publicly for the first time.
Given Gaston Sr.’s advanced age—he’s 85—the disposition and potential tax liability of Glock assets would be of concern to any potential acquirer of the gun business. Helga and her children are demanding to play a role in the corporation’s future. “I want to be able to direct the company with my children,” Helga says, “as we always did.”
Helga Unterreiner grew up in a prosperous family in Bavaria, Germany, attended a Christian boarding school, and landed a secretarial job at a German insurance company. In the summer of 1958 she joined her parents for a lakeside vacation in the state of Carinthia in southern Austria. It was there she met Gaston Glock of Vienna. They swam, water-skied, and played table tennis. “He had eyes only for me,” Helga recalls.
Her suitor had a serious demeanor and a sinewy build. “I was very impressed, especially by his appearance,” she says. She didn’t mind that he was from “a simple family.” His father worked for the Austrian state railroad; his mother, for the Vienna streetcar service. During the long-distance courtship that ensued, Helga visited Gaston in Vienna, where “he always treated me to luxury hotels and nice places.” He was rising through the ranks at a large metal fabrication business and intended to start a company of his own in the same field. Eventually she “gave up a very good job in Munich and moved to Vienna to a furnished room.” The next day, Gaston handed her car keys, a map of the city, and a pile of machine-gun ammunition belts. Her mission: deliver the gear to an Austrian army installation.
Gaston and Helga married in 1962, just as they launched the family business. Brigitte arrived soon after. Gaston Jr. was born in 1965, and a year later, Robert. While raising the children in Deutsch-Wagram, outside Vienna, Helga also handled invoices, tax records, and wire transfers. Once, as a little boy, Gaston Jr. rolled a toy car through his mother’s papers. “I ruined everything,” he recalls, and there was hell to pay.
Gaston Sr. acquired a secondhand Soviet metal press and diversified his product line of home fittings to include high-grade steel knives. After school the children worked in the garage shop, says Brigitte. As a teenager, she yearned for a moped. Her father said he’d buy her one if she sharpened 10,000 knife blades on order from the army. She got the moped.
Gaston Sr.’s membership in the Socialist Party, which dominated Austrian politics in the 1970s, improved his entree at the Ministry of Defense, Helga says. At home, though, he discouraged any childish militarism, forbidding even water pistols. This changed in 1980, Helga says, not long after she received an urgent phone call. “Prepare something to eat,” her husband instructed. Important guests were coming for lunch. Helga made noodle soup, Wiener schnitzel, and her famous Bavarian plum cake.
From conversations at the Ministry of Defense, Gaston Sr., then 50, knew the army needed a new sidearm to replace the antiquated Walther P-38. He’d even interrupted two colonels he’d heard discussing the matter to ask whether he could bid on the contract. The colonels chuckled. The maker of curtain rods and knives would design a handgun? That was exactly what Glock was proposing.
One of the attendees at the Wiener schnitzel lunch, Friedrich Dechant, the colonel in charge of army weapons procurement, told Gaston Sr.: “You are as crazy as I am. I will tell you what I want, and you will design it,” according to Helga. On a paper napkin, Dechant sketched a futuristic-looking pistol with an outsize ammo capacity. “I remember that as if it were yesterday,” says Brigitte. To her father, she says, “a gun was nothing more than another machine.”
Dechant described a side arm with a consistent, light trigger pull for fast firing and fewer than 40 parts for reliability. Gaston Sr. hired experienced technicians and got to work. Gaston Jr. recalls the first test: a shot fired into the dirt in the backyard in Deutsch-Wagram. His father held the prototype with his left hand, fearing it might explode and injure his right, which he used for drafting. “One bang, and that was it,” Gaston Jr. says: The 17-round Glock 9 mm was born.
Helga and her children emphasize that Gaston Sr. didn’t dream up the innovative gun himself. He did refine it and mass-produce it, however. Among his brilliant decisions: using corrosion-resistant injection-molded plastic rather than the traditional wood and steel. Glock’s pistol was also distinctive for its lack of a traditional external safety, which makes it easy to learn to use but potentially more dangerous in the hand of an untrained shooter.
Glock had shortcomings as a marketer, his reluctance to mingle not least among them. In May 1982, when the time came to deliver samples to the army for a final round of testing, a nervous Gaston Sr. sent his wife. “He didn’t want to hear ‘no,’ ” says Helga, who was the only woman among a crowd of representatives from Beretta, Sig-Sauer, Steyr Mannlicher, and other established European manufacturers. Not long after, an official-looking letter arrived at the Deutsch-Wagram residence. Helga, who handled all the mail, held the envelope for several minutes before she dared to tear it open. The Defense Ministry wanted 20,000 Glock pistols. That night, she and Gaston Sr. opened a large bottle of Champagne.
From Austria, Glock pistols spread swiftly to the militaries of other European countries. Gaston Sr. built a highly efficient computerized factory in Deutsch-Wagram and priced his durable product below the competition. Helga says—and my reporting over many years confirms—that Gaston Sr. was hesitant at first about expanding to the U.S., the world’s richest gun market. He spoke almost no English and feared the upfront costs. Smart German-speaking sales representatives convinced him otherwise, Helga says. Glock had the enormous luck to arrive on American shores in the late 1980s, just as crack-fueled gun violence was overwhelming big-city police departments. Police chiefs were looking to upgrade from six-shot revolvers to larger-capacity semiautomatics. A revolver holds ammunition in a revolving cylinder; a pistol has a faster-to-reload magazine that snaps into the grip. Oblivious to the opportunity, Smith & Wesson, the main U.S. supplier of revolvers, slept while one after another, police departments in Dallas, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, and San Francisco adopted the Glock. Civilian gun owners soon emulated the police.
With extraordinary speed, the Glock pistol penetrated American popular culture. Gaston Jr. recalls seeing the 1990 Bruce Willis movie Die Hard 2: Die Harder, dubbed into German. At one point the Willis character, a hard-boiled cop, says to a colleague: “That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me! You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. It doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines, and it costs more than you make here in a month!” Nothing Willis said was correct. The gun was Austrian, called the Glock 17; made from plastic, not porcelain; and did show up on X-ray machines. No matter, says Robert: “It was cool, the fruits of our hard labor.”
Back in Deutsch-Wagram, Helga and her children met with Gaston Sr. every day over lunch to discuss the growing flow of orders from the U.S. “Both parents told us, ‘We are doing it for you,’ ” Brigitte says. “ ‘You will be taking it over one day.’ ” The children never considered careers other than the family trade. Brigitte had joined in 1983 after graduating with a business degree from a technical school. She helped Helga with administrative work. In the next years, Gaston Jr. carved out a specialty in information technology, Robert in sales and marketing. Gaston Jr. ruefully recites “the famous quote from my father: ‘You don’t need to go to university. Come to work for me, and you will learn the most.’ ”
Gaston Sr. began traveling more often to the U.S. Sometimes the family accompanied him to the annual Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade show in Las Vegas. The Austrian company sponsored the most lavish after-hours SHOT show party. Gaston Sr. assembled his wife and children on a receiving line every guest had to traverse. The family members say they knew nothing at the time about another marketing venue: Atlanta’s premier strip joint, the Gold Club, where Glock executives spiced their pitches to police procurement officers with adult entertainment and expensive alcohol.
Once known for thrift, Gaston Sr. indulged his material dreams, Helga recounts. He bought a yacht, a private plane, a helicopter, and a luxurious villa on a lake in Carinthia, near where they’d first met. Helga fondly recalls an excursion to Hong Kong in 1997, when she and her then-husband bought a shipping container’s worth of furniture for the lakeside mansion.
From the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, an attorney named Paul Jannuzzo served as the most senior executive of Glock Inc., the company’s U.S. subsidiary and main revenue generator. From his insider’s vantage point, Jannuzzo says, he saw that Helga and the children all played meaningful supporting roles: “Mrs. Glock was the old man’s eyes and ears in Deutsch-Wagram. Whenever there was any crisis, he wanted her in the office because he trusted her more than anyone else.” Brigitte “ran human resources worldwide with an iron fist,” Jannuzzo adds. Gaston Jr. “was a quiet type and did all of the IT, an incredibly hard worker.” Robert, in contrast, was a bon vivant and a talented frontman who traveled the world attending trade shows.
Jannuzzo left the company in 2003 after a vicious falling out with Gaston Sr. According to Jannuzzo, the dispute stemmed from rivalry for the affections of a female company employee who’s now Jannuzzo’s wife. Glock had a different explanation. Several years later, at the company’s behest, a local prosecutor in Cobb County, Ga., filed embezzlement and theft charges against Jannuzzo. He denied wrongdoing but was convicted and imprisoned for 42 months. Last year a state appellate court threw out the conviction, finding that the Georgia prosecutor had waited too long to bring charges. Now living with his Glock-alumna spouse in Savannah, Ga., Jannuzzo says he was the victim of an unlawful vendetta—an allegation Gaston Sr.’s lawyers have denied.
Glock family life took its first truly bizarre turn in 1999. During a business trip to Luxembourg that year, Gaston Sr. was attacked in an underground parking garage by a former French Legionnaire-turned-professional wrestler. Then 70, Gaston Sr. fought off his assailant, who wielded a rubber mallet. Apparently the plan was to make the assault seem like a fall down a flight of stairs. Gaston Sr. survived, and a police investigation identified his top financial adviser as having hired the incompetent hit man. The adviser allegedly had embezzled from the Glock companies and was afraid of getting caught. Both adviser and would-be assassin were convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to long prison terms.
Helga learned of the attack during a visit to Brigitte’s home. Gaston Sr. telephoned from his Luxembourg hospital room. Brigitte and Robert rushed to Luxembourg and brought their father home. Gaston Sr. was never the same man, Helga says. When at the Carinthia mansion, he holed up in a windowless basement bunker wired with video monitors showing the rest of the residence. “He hid down there,” says Helga. “He was scared.”
In October 1999, Gaston Sr. and Helga formed a privatstiftung, or trust, to hold a controlling interest in the Glock companies. The trust’s goal, according to a U.S. court filing by Helga’s attorneys, “was to provide for their children and succeeding generations should something happen to either of the founders, and to perpetuate the Glock family ownership of the business.” In a sworn affidavit dated March 2013, Helga explained that, “relying on the promises of my former husband,” she transferred into the trust a 14 percent personal stake in Glock GmbH she held in her name, retaining only 1 percent. The Glocks changed their trust arrangements over the years, Helga says, but her husband always told her that she and the children remained joint beneficiaries.
Helga says that during the 2000s she spent a lot of her time in Deutsch-Wagram and Vienna, while Gaston Sr. hunkered down in Carinthia. One night in October 2008, he called her from the mansion to say he was feeling poorly. “I will come take care of you,” Helga says she told him. “That’s not possible,” Gaston Sr. responded. “I am not alone.”
Brigitte received a call the next day from one of her father’s business advisers, informing her that Gaston Sr. had suffered a stroke and been admitted to an intensive care unit in Carinthia. She rushed to the ICU, only to discover that with her father was a much younger blonde woman who introduced herself as Kathrin Tschikof. When she got to speak to her father, Brigitte says, a feeble Gaston Sr. asked in slurred speech, “What are you doing here?” She should be back in Deutsch-Wagram looking after the company, Brigitte remembers him saying.
When I ask what Brigitte learned about Tschikof, Peter Miklautz, the Austrian lawyer who’s been monitoring the interview, intervenes. The family members refuse to speak about her. Helga, though, filled in some details in her March 2013 affidavit: “As he was recovering in the hospital, weak and frail, Mr. Glock was being ‘looked after’ by Kathrin Tschikof, his fifty-year-younger girlfriend who was downright engrossed with him,” she said. Tschikof “totally denied me and other family members any access to Gaston Sr., warning that such contact would threaten another stroke or possibly cause death.” The locks were changed at the Carinthia mansion, and Helga wasn’t able to recover her clothes and jewelry for more than a year.
The family entered a peculiar limbo. Helga and her children continued to work for the gun company in Deutsch-Wagram, but they communicated with Gaston Sr. in Carinthia exclusively through intermediaries. In December 2008, the children sent their father a memo proposing how they would share management duties. They heard back that he rejected the plan. In 2010, Gaston Sr. issued a three-page handwritten letter dictating his “unconditional wishes for a reorganization of the Glock Group.” Helga and the children were to cease their “operational” roles, he declared. “I thank my wife, Helga, for her support and wish her a carefree and good life in her deserved retirement.” The letter instructed: “There will be no harassment, spying, stalking, violation of human dignity, or scheming toward me and my environment.” Gaston Sr. “guarantee[d] the agreed-upon payments to the beneficiaries for a lifetime.”
How much money did Gaston Sr. give Helga and her children? They again confer with their attorney and then decline to say. They aren’t in need financially, Brigitte says. Still, getting cut off “was really shocking,” says Gaston Jr. He genuinely enjoyed his work at the company, he explains, and looked forward to helping lead it once his father died. In April 2011, Helga received a letter from her husband seeking a formal end to their marriage. “I assumed, though, there would be a fair divorce,” she says. When her lawyers dug into the documents, she says, they discovered otherwise.
“At the time when Gaston Sr. started pushing his family out,” she stated in her March 2013 affidavit, “he had a worldwide wealth of billions. It is now becoming evident that in anticipation of filing for divorce, Gaston Sr. had already started to move and hide personal and corporate assets.” Before the divorce was finalized in June 2011, Gaston Sr. amended trust documents to strip Helga and the children’s rights and benefits entirely, she alleges. Most of the details remain unknown to her, she adds. One alleged shuffle involved the transfer of €172 million in cash and “all of the properties and real estate acquired during our marriage” into a private Austrian trust Gaston Sr. alone controls. He married Tschikof in 2011 and, according to Helga, put his new wife on the supervisory board, “a position that he has denied his own grown-up children after working at the company as employees for over 20 years.”
Gaston Sr. has denied all the accusations against him. His lawyers said in a 2013 U.S. court filing that his ex-wife has “resorted to false ad hominem attacks.” What she calls “illusory trusts” meant to obfuscate the family fortune are legitimate court-supervised legal organizations in Austria, Gaston Sr.’s lawyers have argued, and “none of the Austrian courts has ever raised any issue relative to the structure of any of the corporate entities at issue in this case.” Moreover, the lawyers maintained, Helga voluntarily approved of the relevant trusts, meaning she has no basis for complaint.
The Gaston Sr.-Helga marriage didn’t disintegrate after his stroke in 2008, according to his lawyers. Instead, it effectively ended as early as 1988, when husband and wife began living apart—a contention Helga and her children angrily contest. The earlier date should be used as the basis for determining the division of marital property, according to Gaston Sr. He and Helga are enmeshed in litigation in Austria over three intertwined divorce issues: the apportionment of joint property; the alimony due Helga, if any; and the status of her and the children’s beneficial ownership interest in the Glock companies. Jannuzzo, the former senior executive in the U.S., confirms that by the late 1990s, Gaston Sr. and Helga generally lived and traveled separately, but he also notes that they sometimes simultaneously resided at the lakeside mansion and appeared to have a civil relationship for the entire time he knew them.
Gaston Sr. and the new Mrs. Glock have achieved a level of celebrity in Austria he never before enjoyed. Kathrin appears regularly in the Austrian media delivering stage-prop Glock company checks to charities. She also heads the Glock Horse Performance Center, a world-class equestrian complex in southern Austria. The center hosts glittery galas featuring such guests as Paul Anka, Rod Stewart, and John Travolta. Kathrin didn’t respond to e-mails seeking comment. In media photos, Gaston Sr. often appears at his wife’s side, although he’s typically seated. In July, Carinthia celebrated his 85th birthday by naming two streets and a business park in his honor.
Helga and her children say Gaston Sr.’s philanthropy is new, something he scorned in the past. Their own lives are less glamorous. Brigitte owns a pet store called Zoo Exclusive; Gaston Jr., an online apparel company specializing in bespoke hunting clothes. Robert operates two restaurants in Vienna. “We didn’t give up the pistol company yet,” Brigitte says. “We didn’t give up the life’s work of our parents.” Of her father, she says, “I trusted him blindly.”