Catherine McLean Freelance Writer

Why Frank Stronach's brother walked away from a chance to be a billionaire

June 7, 2013
The Globe and Mail

Hans Adelmann is the one who didn’t make it. While his big brother Frank Stronach is a self-made billionaire, Adelmann has led a modest life in Switzerland, working as a technical maintenance supervisor before retiring in 2002.

But after a life of anonymity, it’s Adelmann who’s getting a taste of the spotlight after publishing a book called Einfacher Leben (Simple Living). The tale of the brother who enjoys nothing more than spending time by himself in his mountain hut without electricity or running water has attracted a great deal of attention in Europe.

Stronach does feature prominently in the book, but unlike many memoirs by siblings of the rich and famous, this isn’t a personal attack. (Stronach isn’t commenting on the book.) Half a century ago, Adelmann walked away from a chance to help his brother build his auto-parts empire. The book is his response to a question he has been asked for decades: Why did he choose this life over unimaginable riches?

“My brother worked very hard. That was not my goal, to be gigantic,” he explained in a recent phone interview.

His story is a compelling one. Born in 1939 in Austria, Adelmann and Stronach shared the same father, but had different mothers. The two women were reportedly friends and lived in the same house: Stronach with his mother, stepfather and sister on the main floor, Adelmann with his mother and their father on the second.

According to Adelmann, Stronach was a good big brother, and would take him on adventures in the forest. From an early age, Stronach was determined; he left the family to work in Switzerland, and then made his way to Canada. Adelmann received a letter from Stronach just before his 18th birthday, asking him to help with his start-up business. A few months later, in 1958, Adelmann sailed to Canada.

From the beginning, the brothers had very different ideas about work. The older brother worked every day and even slept in his workshop. The younger one took Sundays off, and liked to go fishing in the Humber River. One anecdote is particularly telling: Adelmann asked Stronach if he wanted to go ice fishing on a Sunday. “When you’re the best, you’ll be rich,” Stronach tells him. “When you’re rich, you can go fishing. Prior to that, you must work. Work hard.”

A confrontation some nine months after his arrival forced Adelmann to decide what he wanted in life. Stronach, the perfectionist, had asked him to redo bolts four different times. The younger brother had had enough.

“The mission was always there, to live simply,” Adelmann said. The first thing he did was stop by his Swiss girlfriend’s house and tell her he was going to buy a canoe, so “their life could start.” They spent the next few years exploring Canada. For his part, Stronach quickly found success in the business world, eventually founding Magna International.

Adelmann and his wife settled near Lake Constance in Switzerland. He soon discovered his favourite mountain, the Hundwiler Höhe, which he has climbed more than 2,000 times, including a trip one recent Saturday. He worked steadily to provide for his two daughters, but wasn’t willing to sacrifice all his time so that they could be wealthy.

He believes society focuses too much on consumption, and people feel like “victims,” because they work hard to afford things they don’t need, and are always stressed by the fear that their world could fall apart at any moment.

True to his philosophy, Adelmann passed on one more chance to join the ranks of the rich, in the 1990s, when Stronach invited him and his wife for a vacation in Colorado. After skiing together and discussing life over wine and dinner, his big brother offered him a job with his hotels in Colorado. Adelmann turned him down.

“You don’t understand one important thing,” Adelmann tells his brother in the book. “I am happy in Switzerland. I have my mountain and small house there.”

Hans Adelmann’s life lessons

More doesn’t make you merrier

“Many people feel like they are victims. They stand in their homes and ask themselves why they bought three TVs with their hard-earned money even though they only need one.

“If I had put up knick-knacks in my mountain hut like nicely-framed pictures of my trips or stones or interesting roots that I have found, I would have to regularly dust them.

“I would have inevitably asked myself if the time spent was really worth it in view of the world around and in me … this kind of abundance for which so many people strive is crazy, as is the world in which this pursuit appears necessary.”

Time is money

“Many start their life as a kind of makeshift arrangement. They are waiting for their real life to begin sometime later.”

Young people should learn a skill

“They should be well trained in a skill. To produce good quality, one must be well-trained. I find that important.