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Johanna Quandt, the billionaire widow behind BMW, dies aged 89

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Johanna Quandt in 2009, flanked by her children Stefan and Susanne.Photograph by Frank Rumpenhorst — AFP/Getty Images

Johanna Quandt, the largest shareholder in luxury carmaker BMW AG (BYMOF) and Germany’s second-richest woman, has died aged 89.

Quandt died peacefully at her home in Bad Homburg, just outside Frankfurt, on Monday, according to her foundation.

Born Johanna Bruhn into an art historian’s family in Berlin in 1926, her early life was disrupted by World War 2. After it, she became first the secretary, then (at the age of 34) the third wife, of industrialist Herbert Quandt. Quandt had built his stake in the Munich-based Bayerische Motoren-Werke AG when it was near bankruptcy in an effort to stop it being taken over by Stuttgart-based Daimler-Benz (the two are still bitter rivals today). Herbert had inherited a broad portfolio of industrial shareholdings from his father, inevitably including those who had contributed to Nazi Germany’s war effort. A TV documentary exposed the scale of those links (Quandt’s factories made firearms and anti-aircraft weapons, among other things), leading Johanna–belatedly in many people’s eyes–to commission a deeper investigation that confirmed the use of forced labor.

Herbert Quandt died in 1982, leaving a 47% stake in the carmaker divided between Johanna and their two children, Stefan and Susanne, who have been the family’s representatives on the board since Johanna retired in 1997. Bloomberg quoted a spokesman for Quandt Foundation, which oversaw the bulk of Johanna’s fortune, as saying that the stake will stay within the family, although he didn’t say how it would be administered in future.

Over the years, she was happy to leave the running of her company to a series of professional managers who rarely faltered in building value for their employer (the voting shares today are worth some $65 billion, and Quandt’s own fortune was estimated in 2014 at $11.8 billion by Forbes). In stark contrast to mass-market rival Volkswagen AG (VLKAY), BMW’s growth has been overwhelmingly organic, and acquisitions such as that of the Mini and Rolls Royce brands have been very much the exception.

Johanna overcame the somewhat tacky beginnings of her wealth to become the kind of patrician that German capitalists always pointed to as an example: sober, modest and extremely private (Der Spiegel reported that, when people asked if she were THE Frau Quandt, she would reply: “Ah yes, if only…” In a rare public event to mark her 80th birthday, her son Stefan had said that she really couldn’t understand why people were so interested in her.

From her position out of the public eye, she was a big donor both to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s biggest center-right party, and latterly to the smaller, more overtly pro-business Free Democrats (it didn’t save them from annihilation at the 2013 elections to the Bundestag, however). Her generous patronage of business journalism–including sponsorship of younger journalists and an annual prize–also ensured her a good measure of respect from Germany’s press throughout her life. In later life, however, she gave far more to the arts and to healthcare research.