Heinz Hermann Thiele died on Tuesday at the age of 79 in Munich. The entrepreneur, who worked his way up to the top position at the Knorr-Bremse stock exchange company and, as a major Lufthansa shareholder, tipped the scales of the rescue loan last summer, managed to amass a billion-dollar fortune on his own.
According to the US magazine “Forbes”, Thiele was one of the ten richest Germans. According to the “Forbes” ranking, the entrepreneur owned more than 18 billion US dollars in 2020.
Create something on your own
Thiele originally came from a humble background. He was born in April 1942 in Mainz. His father, who returned from captivity in 1945, resumed his work as a lawyer and notary in 1951, but died in 1963 at the age of 61.
Heinz Hermann Thiele grew up in modest circumstances after the loss of the family property in destroyed Berlin, according to the official announcement of the Knorr-Bremsen concern. Nevertheless, Thiele was able to take up law studies at the University of Munich in the winter semester of 1962/1963. “In retrospect, I used the extremely limited financial circumstances and the very lack of a father figure to create something on my own,” Thiele said later.
After studying law in Munich, he started working in the patent department of Knorr-Bremse in 1969 as a clerk. The then ailing company soon became more than just a job for him – it became his life. Thiele rose to head the company. When the company was up for sale in 1985 after an inheritance dispute, Thiele was supposed to find a buyer on behalf of the banks, reports the Handelsblatt. When he couldn’t find one, he accessed it himself with the help of Deutsche Bank. According to Handelsblatt, the then Deutsche Bank boss Alfred Herrhausen, who was murdered by the RAF in 1989, is said to have supported Thiele.
From Munich to the world market
Thiele managed to turn a German company from Munich into a global player. Knorr-Bremsen still dominates the train and truck brake markets today. Most recently, Knorr-Bremse had a turnover of 6.9 billion euros and employed 29,000 people.
But Thiele was missing a successor, neither his daughter nor his son he sat on the executive chair. Instead, Thiele moved to the Knorr-Bremsen Supervisory Board in 2007 and appointed external managers. Thiele remained chairman of the supervisory board until 2016, and in 2018 Knorr-Bremsen went public – a year earlier, son Hendrik had left the company and the family holding company due to the conflict, as the Handelsblatt reports. The majority of the company’s shares are still held by the family holding company, which is now controlled by his wife and daughter Julia.
The trained lawyer also worked at Knorr-Bremse, initially as a legal advisor for many years. Today she sits on the supervisory board and is also head of the Knorr-Bremse Global Care association, an international aid organization in the areas of water, sanitation, hygiene and education, as we reported.
Thiele’s decisive role in the Lufthansa rescue
Thiele was considered an old school manager who spared neither himself nor others. Critics feared his tough management style – he called it “consistent”, describes him in the Handelsblatt. He rejected the nationwide tariff, he resigned from the employers’ association. In addition to Knorr-Bremsen, Thiele also held the majority in the Vossloh rail technology group.
Thiele made a particular public appearance in the summer of last year when, as a major shareholder of Lufthansa, he played a decisive role in the federal government’s rescue package for the ailing company.
The federal government had offered the airline a deal, according to which the group should receive nine billion euros – for in return 20 percent of the shares plus two convertible bonds of 5 percent each. But the shareholders still had to agree to the offer – above all Thiele, who had used the falling price of the Lufthansa share in the corona pandemic to take over around 10 percent of the shares, as we reported. He rose to become the largest single shareholder. Thiele was critical of the trade at the time and could have let it fail – which is why both Lufthansa and the Ministry of Finance contacted him.
In July 2020, Thiele returned to Knorr-Bremsen as Deputy Chairman of the Supervisory Board due to the corona pandemic. “Heinz Hermann Thiele dedicated his entire life to the service of the company,” says the company’s announcement that was published on his death. There are few for whom this sentence is as apt as it is with Thiele.