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The Quandts are descendants of a Dutch rope-making family who had settled in Wittstock and Pritzwalk, between Berlin and Schwerin, in the 18th century. Günther's father, Emil Quandt, married the daughter of a rich textile manufacturer and took charge of the company in 1883. During World War I, with Günther in charge, the Quandts supplied the German army with uniforms, building up a larger fortune that Günther would use after the war to acquire Accumulatorenfabrik AG (AFA), a battery manufacturer in Hagen; a potash mine; and metal fabricators including IWKA in 1928).
Herbert was afflicted with a retinal disease that left scars, and he was nearly blind from the age of nine. Consequently he had to be educated at home. After extensive training at the family's companies at home and abroad, Herbert Quandt became a member of the executive board of AFA, later VARTA AG, in 1940. Forced labour was used at many of the Quandt factories during the World War II and conditions were brutal. Herbert was the director of Pertrix GmbH, a Berlin-based subsidiary of AFA. The company used female slave laborers, including Polish women who had been transferred from Auschwitz. Herbert Quandt was not tried after the war, though his father was interned until 1948 while he was investigated.
A programme by the German public broadcaster, ARD, in October 2007 described in detail the role of the Quandt family businesses during the Second World War. As a result, four family members announced, on behalf of the entire Quandt family, their intention to fund a research project in which a historian will examine the family's activities during Hitler's dictatorship.
He gained greater responsibility for companies which his father had acquired and after 1945, he rebuilt them. He developed a business philosophy of decentralised organisation which gave executives wide powers for decision-making and allowed employees to participate in their company's success.
When Günther died in 1954, the Quandt group was a conglomerate of about 200 businesses including the battery manufacturer, several metal fabrication companies, textile companies and chemical companies (including Altana AG). It also owned about 10% of car company Daimler-Benz and about 30% of BMW. After Günther's death, the conglomerate was divided between his two sons: Herbert and Harald Quandt who was Herbert's half brother.
BMW was an ailing company and in 1959 its management suggested selling the whole concern to Daimler-Benz. Herbert Quandt was close to agreeing to such a deal, but changed his mind at the last minute because of opposition from the workforce and trade unions. Instead he increased his share in BMW to 50% against the advice of his bankers, risking much of his wealth. He was instrumental in reversing the company's fortunes.
BMW was already planning its BMW 1500 model when Quandt took control. It was launched in 1962 and established a new segment in the car market: the quality production saloon. It occupied a position between the mass production car and the craftsman-built output of the luxury producers. BMW's sophisticated technical skills put it in a strong position to fill this niche. It was this model that put BMW on the path to success.
When Harald died in 1967 in an air crash, Herbert received more shares in BMW, VARTA and IWKA. In 1974 Herbert and Harald's widow, Inge, sold their stake in Daimler-Benz to the Government of Kuwait.
He married his first wife, Ursel Münstermann, in 1933 but they divorced in 1940. This marriage had produced a daughter, Silvia Quandt (b 1937), who stayed with her mother after the divorce. Silvia is now an artist who lives in Munich. Ten years later, in 1950, he married his second wife, the jeweller Lieselotte Blobelt, but they divorced in 1959. This second marriage produced Sonja (b 1951) (now Sonja Quandt-Wolf), Sabina (b 1953) and Sven (b 1956). Sven became the manager of the BMW rally team.
Herbert married his third wife Johanna Bruhn in 1960, just a year after his second divorce. She had been a secretary in his office in the 1950s and eventually became his personal assistant. After Herbert's death she did not remarry and now lives quietly in Bad Homburg, though she still owns 16.7% of BMW. The current supervisory board members at BMW include Johanna's two children: Stefan Quandt, holder of 17.4% of the shares in BMW and Susanne Klatten, a 12.5% shareholder. They joined the board in May 1997.
Herbert ensured that the shares in his companies were not thinly spread and so to avoid family disputes the children of the previous marriages received large shares in other Quandt family companies. Silvia Quandt, the oldest child, received extensive investments and property in the 1970s. Later the three children from the second marriage were given the majority of the shares of VARTA Battery AG but these have since been sold. Susanne also received his shares in Altana AG, while Stefan also received shares in a holding company called Delton with interests in medical products and power supplies.
Herbert Quandt died 2 June 1982 in Kiel.
Today the Quandts are multi-billionaires, although it is difficult to put an exact figure on their wealth. They do not give interviews and are very publicity shy.