RICH PICKINGS: An old school billionaire

The passing of Walter Haefner at the age of 101 this week is the last chapter in the incredible life story of the world's oldest billionaire.

In 2010, legendary Irish trainer Dermott Weld brought a horse out to Australia called Profound Beauty to try to win the Melbourne Cup for the third time.

The horse was owned by a man called Walter Haefner, a Swiss billionaire who had met Weld in a Dublin hotel by chance in 1962. After a few whiskies, Haefner ended up as the owner of the famous Irish breeding operation Moyglare Stud, with Weld as his head trainer.

Haefner and Moyglare bred 2002 Melbourne Cup winner Media Puzzle and Profound Beauty was Haefner's, then a tender 98, last runner in Australia’s biggest race.

In the end, it wasn’t to be. Profound Beauty finished a disappointing 17th in the race, beaten 19 lengths.

Profound Beauty was promptly retired after that race and her owner died peacefully in Switzerland last week. At the age of 101, Haefner was the world’s oldest billionaire, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $4.3 billion.

Much of Haefner’s notoriety in the wealth world came from his age. But his incredible career crisscrossed a range of sectors, from information technology to automotive to racing and philanthropy.

Payroll and paydirt

Haefner was born in September 1910 in Switzerland, one of six siblings and the son of a missionary who travelled regularly, spending much of his time Tibet.

Haefner studied at university in Zurich and Lyon in France (the latter thanks to a scholarship from the City of Zurich) before starting work in the 1930s selling charcoal to heat houses. He soon took a job with the Swiss subsidiary of General Motors as a field liaison with dealerships. It was the beginning of a life-long affinity with the car industry.

After a stint in the Swiss army during the years of World War II, Haefner moved to England and started his first car dealership, importing vehicles backed, according to a 2000 Forbes article, by a loan from Swiss bank UBS.

In 1945 he returned to Switzerland and established his private company Automobil-und Motoren AG (AMAG), setting up a Volkswagen dealership in Zurich. AMAG would become the biggest importer of cars in Switzerland and turns over $3.5 billion.

As Haefner’s business grew, he became interested in ways to improve efficiency and in 1957 he took a step that must have been revolutionary at the time: he implemented a computerised accounting and payroll system from US computing giant IBM.

By 1964, the success of Haefner’s payroll systems had Haefner thinking about a new business.

"Other dealership owners kept asking me if I would be able to help them with their payroll on my computers," Haefner told Forbes. "So I finally decided to start selling computer services."

Taking on the giants

That year Haefner started Zurich-based computer services firm Automation Center AG, selling accounting, payroll and statistical services to car dealerships and other retailers.

"IBM was our largest competitor at the beginning, and after a few years there were at least five or six other companies offering computer services in Switzerland," he told Forbes.

The business expanded throughout Europe and by 1976 Haefner switched his eyes to a bigger prize: North America.

"We were already successful in Europe, and we knew that if we were ever going to grow fast we would have to take our computer services business to the US."

Automation Center acquired a majority stake in a US computer services firm called Wyly, which soon changed its name to Uccel.

After almost a decade of growth, Haefner was offered what turned out to be the deal of a lifetime when rising US computers services firm Computer Associates bought out Uccel in 1986 for $780 million.

The key to the deal (for Haefner at least) was that no cash changed hands – instead, Haefner emerged with a 24 per cent stake in Computer Associates, making him the largest shareholder of the company.

Today, his family still owns 125,813,380 shares, worth $3.3 billion based on the share price of Computer Associates, which is now known as CA Technologies.

The return Haefner has earned is made even more incredible by the fact the billionaire did not know his way around a computer.

"Walter was technologically interested early on, and even though he doesn't understand computers he has always been able to empower the right people who do," Haefner's lawyer Peter Widmer told Forbes.

The track and the train

Haefner was 52 when he was advised by a doctor (and let’s face it, he must have had some pretty good medical advice throughout his career) to take up horse riding.

In the words of his family, who released a statement after his death, Haefner jumped in the saddle with "typical energetic dedication”. He raced as an amateur jockey in Europe, winning the Fegentri Champion Amateur Championship in 1963 – at the age of 53.

But it was his trip to Ireland to buy a show jumper, and that subsequent meeting with Dermott Weld, that made Haefner a giant of the track.

Racing was Haefner’s major indulgence – he always lived in the same Zurich house he bought in 1945. "I'm a simple man, who has simple pleasures," he told Forbes.

One of those was philanthropy and it was notable that one of the more touching tributes to Haefner came from a charity called Smile Train, which raises money to pay for cleft lip and palate operations for affected children.

Haefner and CA Technologies' Charles Wang have poured millions into the charity and were the founding benefactors of the charity in 1999. It has paid for 750,000 cleft palate and lip surgeries for children around the world.

Lessons from Haefner

Haefner’s is an amazing story. A technology pioneer at 47, a champion jockey at 52, a US raider at 66 and a billionaire at 80, Haefner worked well into his 90s, checking on his sprawling automotive business every day.

A few key lessons from his career stand out.

Firstly, not being afraid of new technology – even if you don’t understand the intimate workings of that technology – is essential for entrepreneurs who want to stay ahead of the pack in their industry.

Haefner’s willingness to adopt computerised accounting and payroll systems was pioneering and leads to the second lesson – always be on the lookout for new opportunities.

The links between car dealerships and computer services businesses are not exactly strong, but Haefner was able to see an opportunity and understand the power of his products.

Finally, Haefner’s willingness to take stock rather than cash in the Computer Associates deal was both brave and transformative. What Haefner was doing was betting on an idea – it didn’t matter to him that the vehicle that carried his bet changed when Computer Associates bought him out.

The oldest billionaire in the world is now David Rockefeller Sr, grandson of legendary US oilman John D Rockefeller. He is 96.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompanyand LeadingCompany.