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Business

Richest Germans: The Screw King

Reinhold Würth turned his father's wholesale screw company into a giant multinational. These days, Germany's sixth richest individual is enjoying the fruits of his labors collecting art and riding his Harley.

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Reinhold Würth in front of the Würth Art Gallery

The name Würth may not carry the cachet of Porsche, but the Würth Group, which markets and distributes everything from screws and fasteners to power tools and drinking water pipes, is one of Germany's biggest postwar success stories.

The private company, based in the state of Baden-Württemberg, recorded sales of 6.2 billion euros ($7.2 billion) in 2004 and employs almost 47,000 people in 81 counties.

Much of that success can be traced back to Reinhold Würth, who, while not the founder of the company, is the man who turned it from a small provincial wholesaler to a manufacturing empire with more than 340 businesses in its portfolio.

Screws and Economic Miracles

It all started with a few nuts and bolts. The year was 1945 and much of Germany lay in ruins. That was when Reinhold Würth's father, Adolf, founded his wholesale screw business. Young Reinhold began there as an apprentice. When Adolf died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1954, his son, then 19 years old, took over the company reins.

Würth Produktion

A Würth employee packs goods for shipment

From early on, Würth showed an acute business sense and set almost immediately on a path of expansion, making double-digit annual growth one of his goals, which he generally attained.

The timing was good. Many German cities and towns needed to be rebuilt after the war, and screws were in high demand. Würth kept the focus on a wide range of smaller workshops and craftsmen, and never became dependent on a few large industrial clients, who could have put downward pressure on his prices.

Würth pioneered new management techniques long before they became fashionable. He decentralized decision making and let individual divisions and employees have a say in how their sections were run.

Reinhold Würth

Reinhold Würth

He is credited with creating an "esprit de corps" at the company that motivated employees and boosted the bottom line. He even arranged trips to Switzerland and the Caribbean for top-performing employees. The largest of these "family outings" included 1,600 co-workers and their family members, who were treated to a trip to France.

Motorcycles and modern art

In 1994, Würth retired from operative management of the company and took over the chair of the advisory board. But he hardly withdrew to a rocking chair on the porch, instead choosing to pursue his passions: art and motorcycles.

His enthusiasm for art began in the 1960s when he bought a watercolour by Emile Nolde. Today, he has a collection of 8,000 pieces of modern and contemporary art, including works by Picasso, Max Beckmann, Munch, and Christo.

Kunsthalle Würth in Schwäbisch Hall

The Würth Art Gallery in Schwäbisch Hall

In 1991, Würth, now one of Germany's most important art collectors, opened a museum in the town of Künzelsau-Gaisbach, where the company's headquarters is located. In May 2001, the Würth Art Gallery in Schwäbisch Hall was opened, providing another exhibition forum for his extensive collection.

When he's not buying art, the 70-year-old Würth likes to put on his biking gear and go cruising on his beloved Harley-Davidson. He also enjoys taking to the skies in one of his two private planes. Until the end of 2003, he had a professorship at the University of Karlsruhe and taught students the basics of entrepreneurialism. Not bad for a man who left school at the age of 14.

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