May 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

DIY parts maker parlays Ford contract into billions

Linamar Corp. Chairman Frank Hasenfratz's big break came when he won a contract to build automotive oil pumps for Ford Canada. (Galit Rodan / Bloomberg)

Frank Hasenfratz got his first taste of entrepreneurship as a teenager in postwar Budapest, fixing motorbikes with spare parts he fabricated in a country wracked by shortages. He made a few extra bucks renting out the bikes until the customers returned to pick them up.

Everything changed when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956 to crush an anti-Communist uprising. He took up arms against the Red Army, then fled his homeland to avoid arrest, arriving in Canada in May 1957. He started his first company in the basement of his Ontario bungalow seven years after leaving his native land. Today, Linamar Corp. is Canada’s second-largest auto-parts maker, and its 18-month stock surge on renewed car demand has made the 79-year-old a billionaire.

Linamar assembles vehicle engines and transmissions, and designs and builds gear systems at nine factories in North America, Europe and Asia. The Guelph, Ontario-based company also supplies the construction industry around the world with scissor lifts and articulating booms.

The stock has risen 36 percent so far this year as the company’s biggest customer, Ford Motor Co., rolls out 16 new models in North America and European car sales rebound for the first time since the 2008 credit crunch. The surge was fueled after Linamar reported a 57 percent jump in profit in 2013.

Hasenfratz controls 23.6 percent of Linamar, a stake valued at about $840 million, and has options worth another $19 million. With proceeds from share sales and dividends, as well as other assets, he has a net worth of more than $1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He’s never appeared on an international wealth ranking.

The billionaire says he pays little attention to the size of his fortune.

“My personal wealth, I don’t worry about that,” he said.

Hasenfratz arrived in Quebec City penniless in May 1957. In a brick bungalow outside Guelph, he started Linamar as a precision tool company with a $1,000 lathe he bought and installed in the basement.

His big break came when he won a contract to build automotive oil pumps for Ford’s Canadian unit, which remains its largest customer today.

Hasenfratz made his daughter, Linda, chief executive officer in 2002. The younger Hasenfratz, who’d already spent eight years on the factory floor, accelerated the company’s international expansion, particularly in Asia.

The company prospered until the 2008 credit crunch sent North American auto production tumbling.

Linda and Frank Hasenfratz began buying stock to shore up investor confidence in the company, which had fallen to about $2 in March 2009 from $26 in October 2007. By the end of 2009, it was back up to about $15. Under her leadership, the stock has jumped more than sixfold.