German billionaire Adolf Merckle, whose 120-firm conglomerate includes the drugs wholesaler Phoenix and the generics major Ratiopharm, has committed suicide, weighed down by the battle to keep his family’s businesses afloat.

He was hit by a train near his home in southern Germany and a statement from his family confirmed that 74-year-old Mr Merckle had taken his own life. It said that “the desperate situation of his companies caused by the financial crisis, the uncertainties of the last few weeks and his powerlessness to act, have broken the passionate family entrepreneur.”

The woes for Mr Merckle, who was ranked as the world's 94th-richest person in 2008 by Forbes magazine, principally stem from a bad bet last year on Volkswagen shares which reportedly cost the financier some 400 million euros. The battle to save his business empire led to speculation that a number of its firms, including Ratiopharm and Phoenix, would have to be sold in order to appease the banks.

Mr Merckle and his VEM group had been in talks with creditors to renegotiate loans and it was rumoured that banks were demanding stakes in the drug businesses to be provided as collateral. No details have been revealed as to how far any negotiations are down the line and Mr Merckle’s death will only add to the uncertainty around Phoenix and Ratiopharm.