Alpine Agitator Frank Stronach's Crusade to Transform Austria
Frank Stronach left Austria as a boy to make his billions in Canada. But now the 80-year-old has returned home to launch a political party that is challenging established heavyweights. But many have one question: Why?
The man gets right to the point. "You can call me 'Du,'" he mutters at the beginning of the conversation, inviting me to address him informally. "Write it down, or you'll forget it," he says, whenever his interviewer doesn't immediately make a note of what he says. "Do you want coffee?" he asks, finally. But then he adds: "Oh well, you're going to have some ginger tea instead."
Anyone who manages to secure a meeting with billionaire Frank Stronach doesn't call many shots.
On this afternoon, the 80-year-old Austro-Canadian's Mercedes glides silently through a wintry landscape near Vienna. Stronach, sitting in the back seat, is on his way to an event in the town of Gloggnitz, at the Semmering Pass. He is campaigning for his party for the upcoming parliamentary election in Lower Austria, a northeastern state in the Alpine country, though he doesn't want a seat himself.
The car is rushing through the landscape of the state, which is divided into four regions with names referring to wine, woods, cider and industry. Until the election on March 3, Stronach will continue crisscrossing Austria's largest state in a last-minute bid for votes.
Sitting in the car, Stronach tells stories from the past: about his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin; about former US President Bill Clinton, who is now appearing in a campaign commercial saying that he is "proud" of his friend Stronach; and about the dramatic day in May 2009 when he, Stronach, CEO of Magna International at the time, was at the German Chancellery into the early morning hours, negotiating the rescue of automaker Opel with the German government -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
The billionaire says he holds nothing against Chancellor Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, her then-finance minister and current Social Democratic challenger in September's elections. But the two politicians are unfortunately "amateurs when it comes to economic policy," he adds, as Merkel's failure in the euro crisis also demonstrates. Stronach advocates a united Europe but calls for flexible exchange rates within the euro zone, arguing that a German or Austrian euro should be worth more than a Greek euro.
The real down-to-earth work awaits him in Gloggnitz, nicknamed "City in the Mountains." The chauffeur parks on the factory grounds of a pressed felt manufacturer. Stronach gets out, smiles and shakes hands. In September, he founded a new party, Team Stronach for Austria. In almost no time, the party had already reached 10 percent in the polls.
"Many of my friends ask: 'Frank, why are doing this to yourself?'" says Stronach, his voice trembling as he speaks to trainees in the pressed felt factory. He immediately answers: "Because I want to serve my country."
A Big Thinker and Doer
Wiry despite his advanced age, the billionaire is bustling across Austria's political stage, flanked by blondes, as his party's top candidate in the election to Lower Austria's state parliament. Stronach, born in the southeastern state of Steiermark, emigrated to Canada in 1954. Decades later, he has turned his attention back to his native Austria. To the delight of political comedians, he still speaks German with a strong Canadian accent, and he occasionally hurls bilingual insults at the national elites, calling them "bulls without balls."
"I'm establishing a do-tank, because there are already plenty of think-tanks in Austria," Stronach says derisively.
Wherever he looks, from Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann on down, Stronach sees nothing but weaklings "raised on the government's milk," and no one who, as he says, can hold a candle to him, the man "from the real economy." Speaking to a crowd of hooting supporters in Tulln, he says that Lower Austria has been run for more than two decades by a conservative, Christian, "tough-talking braggart," and has practically deteriorated into a dictatorship controlled by small-minded party loyalists.
Stronach, by contrast, is thinking big. The proof lies in Magna International, the automotive-parts giant that he co-founded and that now employs 115,000 people and boasts annual sales of $28 billion (21.4 billion). Magna means "big" in Latin, and it is evidenced by both the employee constitution, carved into granite and dubbed the "Magna Charta," and by Stronach himself, who ran the company until 2010. For a time, he earned an annual salary greater than the combined salaries of the heads of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Trend magazine estimates his personal fortunate at 4 billion.
He once garnered astonished looks when he whipped out a bundle of purple 500 bills to pay for himself and his guests at the upscale San Pietro restaurant in the Austrian city of Graz. It was like a scene from Ödön von Horváth's play "Tales from the Vienna Wood," in which the "Mister," a wealthy Austrian expat on a visit home, shouts out during a feast at Maxim: "Everything just happens to be more brutal in America."
And bigger. Like the mansions built on Stronach's 320-hectare (790-acre) property outside the Canadian city of Aurora, Ontario. Stronach had dozens of the houses, which go for up to $4 million apiece, built on the edge of a golf course. Sometimes, after eating a plate of Shrimp Catalan at the club restaurant, he has his chauffeur Paul drive him around the property in his Cadillac.
The Magna International headquarters are also on the grounds. Stronach sold his Magna shares in 2010 for a little under $1 billion. Nevertheless, here he is standing on the balcony in front of the office of his board of directors, gazing out at the enormous property, with its French country chateau architecture, and suddenly shouting: "It's all mine!"
Stronach has "the highest form of intelligence: street smarts," says Rudolf Streicher, a former presidential candidate for the Austrian Social Democrats. "I don't want to comment on Frank's political ideas, but I do believe that he has a desire to change things."
A Threat to the Establishment
The fact that Stronach still feels misunderstood by many fellow Austrians has structural reasons. Postwar Austria has a political system deliberately designed for consensus and the accommodation of differing views. It is a place with little room for megalomania and a tradition of wheeling and dealing across political lines. But today's Austria is still foreign to Stronach, who once shipped out in third class on a freighter to work hard and eventually succeed in Canada.
Stronach is about as out of place on this political stage as a jackhammer at a chamber music concert. He threatens the political class merely by being different -- and by calling for the prosecution of those responsible for past bribery scandals. "If you want to drain a swamp, a swamp of corruption," he says, "you shouldn't ask the frogs first."
While one in three Austrians can now "imagine" voting for Stronach, the liberal Vienna coffeehouse crowd is already groaning about the crusade of the unpolished Austro-Canadian politician. Stronach has dismissed Armin Wolf, a popular host with Austrian public broadcaster ORF, as a "schoolboy," saying he knows nothing about the economy. And he has berated the publisher of the newsmagazine profil as "the guy with the purple socks who knows how to ask stupid questions, but not much else."
The patriarch isn't used to being contradicted. At an event attended by 600 people, he rudely reprimanded a man who had asked the only critical question of the evening, saying: "Are you with the central-socialist party?"
In his 2004 biography "Let's Be Frank," author Norbert Mappes-Niediek describes how Stronach, the capitalist, shocked the establishment after returning to his native Austria. Suddenly there was "a fat, glittering fish in exotic colors standing in the middle of the tank, staring everyone else in the face," Mappes-Niediek writes.
Stronach promptly applied an approach he had already used successfully in Canada: He brought former politicians of various stripes into his corporate empire. Various pupils of former right-wing populist politician Jörg Haider came on the heels of former Socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky. According to his biographer, Stronach's strength lay in an "environment with the greatest possible mixing of private and public interests," in other words, precisely where he now hopes to combat Austria's apparent weaknesses.
"Truth, transparency and fairness" are the values that Team Stronach promotes, values the party leader proclaims in the style of modern US revivalist preachers. His comrades-in-arms, moderately prominent defectors from other parties, repeat the words of their leader with the fervor of members of a sect. Many can rattle off the beginning of Stronach's creed, even mimicking his accent: "What drives the economy is smart managers, industrious workers and investors."
Notable experts or politicians are rare in Stronach's environment. He has only managed to convince two German euro critics, Professors Wilhelm Hankel ("I see the beginnings of a new Europe in Frank Stronach") and Hans-Olaf Henkel, to come to his support and appear at his solidarity rallies in Vienna so far.
Austrian self-made millionaires, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz and top executive Siegfried Wolf, show little inclination to risk their reputations. Eyewitnesses say that Wolf, a former co-CEO at Magna, was in such awe of Stronach that he used to "walk out of Stronach's office backwards." Now Stronach hasn't even been able to convince Wolf to join his cause with the flattering remark that Wolf could be "a very qualified chancellor."
- Part 1: Frank Stronach's Crusade to Transform Austria
- Part 2: An Ambitious Alternative for Disgruntled Voters