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."
An Ambitious Alternative for Disgruntled Voters
Austria will elect a new National Council, the lower house of parliament, this summer. In addition to reforming the euro zone, the cornerstones of Stronach's platform will include: reducing the number of government officials and stimulating the economy; limiting representatives from his party to no more than two legislative terms; refusing to be part of a coalition; sending randomly selected citizens to the parliament; and promoting healthy nutrition and more exercise facilities for young Austrians.
At events related to the Lower Austria parliamentary election, however, where visitors are served free beer and two free bratwursts each, the platform of Stronach's party isn't really that significant yet. What's more important is getting a photograph with the billionaire and having the certainty that a political outlet has been created for the resentments of the disadvantaged and the fury of upright citizens -- and not one on the extreme right.
Stronach's rise benefits from the sharp decline of the competition. In the early 1980s, the two big-tent parties, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), captured more than 90 percent of the vote. According to recent polls, their margin has almost been cut in half. Along with the nationalist right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), Team Stronach is scrambling for the votes of the disgruntled.
"The situation, as we know, is absolutely lousy because our beautiful country is somehow in the doldrums." Hard to believe, but these are the words of a song with which Stronach -- the global citizen and recipient of both the Order of Canada and the Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria (gold with star) -- is currently celebrated by his flag-waving supporters. The refrain goes like this: "Steirermen (natives of Steiermark) are very good, not just over there in Hollywood and not just in Canada, but also here at home in Austria."
After giving speeches, the party founder stands on stage and tells anyone willing to listen how he -- a child of poor parents from "the huts" in Kleinsemmering, where corn porridge was served "three times a day" -- became a billionaire. It's a story that congeals more and more into a collection of anecdotes the more he tells it.
In the town of Weiz, where there are still people living in formidable townhouses with hipped roofs who remember the austere prewar period, they have dedicated the Frank Stronach Room in the local cultural center to their most famous son, in appreciation for a donation of €1 million. In fact, the honoree's name as a young man was Franz Strohsack ("straw sack"), which he later had changed in Canada to Frank Stronach.
In Canada, he started out as a dishwasher in a hospital in Waterloo. Chief engineer, Fred Gingl, who still works there, remembers that accommodations were so tight in those days that people sometimes had to sleep in the bathtub. Gingl warns against not taking Stronach's political commitment seriously: "To those who are now saying that Frank doesn't need to go into politics, I say that this is what he wants now, and he'll do it."
Dominance by 2018?
So, why is he doing it? Some Viennese, who claim to be in the know, derisively say that it is because the billionaire is "bored" and having trouble dealing with his diminished importance. Others say he is looking for "a new toy," just as he did once before, in 1999, when he discovered soccer as a new pastime, invested millions in the club FK Austria Vienna, and went through nine coaches in five years, including Christoph Daum and Joachim Löw, the current trainer of Germany's national squad.
In the ORF satire "Frankie Goes to Ballhausplatz," the brash Stronach is lampooned as a jack-of-all-trades who pays his respects to Jesus by essentially treating him as an equal and making the following comparisons: Jesus also started out small and was "born on a sack of straw" (an allusion to Stronach's original name); he also worked hard and made it big ("His first company consisted of only 12 people, and today it's a global corporation"); and he also refused to be broken ("He died on Friday and was back at work on Monday.").
When asked about the satire, Stronach say: "Never heard of it." He has neither an appreciation nor the time for things like that, he adds. Instead of heading for the Ballhausplatz, the square in Vienna where the Austrian Chancellery is located, he is crisscrossing the countryside as part of his campaign.
"I'm going back to Canada on March 4," says Stronach. On the day after the election in Lower Austria, he'll disappear across the Atlantic in his three-engine Dassault Falcon jet. He plans to spend six weeks here and six weeks there, as he always has. Stronach doesn't understand why there should be anything wrong with that.
The Austrian public has recently been debating why the billionaire manages most of his money from Zug, a canton in central Switzerland, where it is taxed at a favorable flat rate. Or why a convoluted system of deposits starts in Switzerland and ends up at Enzian Investments Limited on the Channel island of Jersey. To minimize his tax liability in Austria, he pays additional taxes in Canada. This, in turn, means that Stronach has to spend at least 183 days a year across the Atlantic.
He has already conceded that he doesn't plan to enter the Lower Austrian state parliament. But what if he is elected to the National Council this fall? "Then I'll go there often, but not always," Stronach says.
In his mind, however, he is already well beyond that. He predicts that his Team will become the strongest party in the country after the elections scheduled for 2017. He would be 85 at that point. But fortunately, Stronach says, age isn't an obstacle. "The nice thing is that the brain keeps growing."