'Firm is more important than the family'

Rudolph R Spruengli, heir to a Swiss chocolate empire and head of the world-renowned Lindt & Spruengli business for more than two decades, has died at the age of 88, his company said.

Spruengli, who owned and chaired the Swiss chocolate company Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli AG during a decisive period of growth and expansion, died on January 21, a company spokesperson said.

Spruengli was born into the Lindt & Spruengli chocolate dynasty in 1920 and spent his entire working life with the family firm, known worldwide for its luxury chocolates.

From 1971 to 1994, Spruengli was the executive board chairperson—the fifth generation of the family to hold the post.

“I always had the impression that my ancestors were looking over my shoulder and that motivated me my whole life long,” he told the Zurich newspaper Tagesanzeiger in an interview to mark his 80th birthday.

Under Spruengli’s patronage, company turnover increased tenfold and it became one of the world’s best-known premium chocolate producers, with a work force of 4 000. His overriding passion and priority was to ensure that the family firm, established in 1845, stayed out of the acquisitive clutches of the mass-production multinationals.

He listed Lindt & Spruengli on the Swiss stock exchange in 1986.

Widely dubbed “the chocolate king” and the “patriarch” because of his autocratic style, Spruengli also had a reputation for fending off potential challenges to his supremacy from other family members—including from his own two sons, Luzius and Rudolf.

“The firm is more important than the family,” he once declared.

Spruengli hit the headlines in 1992 when he divorced Elisabeth, his wife of 45 years’ standing, and announced his plans to marry his 44-year-old personnel adviser, Alexandra Gantenbein, who acknowledged being a member of an obscure American sect. The news was accompanied by a flurry of rumours that Gantenbein had a shady past and was only interested in the inheritance.

Spruengli called off the wedding at the last minute and hired an independent agency to establish whether the company had been infiltrated with sect followers.
Gantenbein was subsequently cleared and the couple promptly married—to the amazement and fury of company director Ulrich Geissmann, who quit alongside other senior executives.

Spruengli brought in Ernst Tanner, a manager with United States consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson, to replace his old director. And it was Tanner who was named by Spruengli as his successor when he finally announced his retirement in 1994—13 years after first declaring he would stand aside.

At the time, most industry watchers said that Spruengli, who was then 74, wanted to continue to wield power from behind the scenes. But Tanner proved the critics wrong by easing away from Spruengli’s domination and striking out in a new—and highly successful—direction, with emphasis on the US market.

For his part, Spruengli said he was perfectly happy to live a quiet life with his “fantastic” second wife and no longer wanted a role in business. He remained honorary president for life, and his son Rudolf was elected to the board of directors.

“The younger generation wants to change everything. And so it’s better if I don’t look,” he said. “But they seem to be making a good job of it.”

The company, which is owned by a wide range of public shareholders, mostly in Switzerland, reported a full-year profit of 209-million Swiss francs for 2006 with sales of 2,59-billion francs.

Spruengli is survived by his second wife, two sons and a daughter.—Sapa-AP

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