Johanna Quandt Dies: Billionaire BMW Heiress Passes Away At 89

Johanna Quandt, widow of BMW “savior” Herbert Quandt and one of the richest women in the world, has died. She was 89.

As Automotive News Europe reports, Quandt and her two children — Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten — collectively controlled around 40 percent of the stock in BMW, making the family worth billions. Johanna’s shares will be divided between her two children, meaning that each of them will have about a 20 percent share in the German automaker’s stock.

Though she died a billionaire, Johanna Quandt’s beginnings were far more humble. Born in Berlin as Johanna Bruhn in 1926 to art historian parents, Quandt trained to be a medical assistant before World War II threw Germany into chaos. She spent a year working as domestic help for a Detroit family, according to the Wall Street Journal, before returning to Germany.

Johanna eventually got a job as personal secretary to Herbert Quandt, at the time the head of BMW. The automaker had produced aircraft engines during the German war effort (an urban legend claims that BMW’s symbol is a stylized representation of a spinning aircraft propeller), and with World War II a distant memory, BMW was on the brink of collapse.

With Mr. Quandt at the helm, BMW was able to fend off collapse — and a takeover by Daimler — to become one of the world’s top-selling, and most prestigious, luxury auto brands. Johanna was at his side throughout the transition, eventually marrying Herbert in 1960.

The company’s ties to the German war effort, and speculation that it had used forced labor in its factories, became a source of shame for the Quandt family, leading Johanna to commission an investigation into the family’s ties with the Nazi regime, according to Forbes. Her investigation confirmed that the company had, in fact, benefited from forced labor during the war.

After Herbert Quandt died in 1982, Johanna largely left the running of BMW to others, and stepped out of the public eye. The following is how Wall Street Journal writer Geoffrey Smith describes it.

“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.”

While appointed managers were running the family company, Johanna Quandt herself was using her millions to support causes she favored, including the arts, healthcare research, and journalism grants. She also donated generously to pro-business German political parties, including Angela Merkel‘s party, the Christian Democratic Union.

As of this post, Johanna Quandt’s cause of death has not been made public.

[Image courtesy of Aegaeon / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons]