Business World

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Reclusive Aldi founder Theo Albrecht dies at 88

Thomas Molloy

THEO Albrecht, the billionaire reclusive co-founder of discount supermarket empire Aldi, has died at the age of 88; four decades after he was last seen in public following his kidnap by a criminal gang led by a lawyer.

Mr Albrecht's death was as secretive as his life. Senior Aldi managers were only told about his death on Saturday after yesterday's funeral. The publicity-shy businessman died in the western German city of Essen after a long illness. He was Germany's second wealthiest man while his brother and Aldi co-founder Karl is the wealthiest.

Once described as "more elusive than the Yeti" by 'Forbes' magazine, the two Catholic brothers lived simple, middle-class lives collecting old typewriters, orchids and playing golf on their private course. Theo Albrecht is believed to be survived by his brother and children, but as with his other biographical details, it is unclear how many.

Theo's natural wariness became fixed following his kidnap in 1971 when he was held hostage for 17 days by a group of petty criminals led by a lawyer. The Albrecht family paid seven million deutsche marks in ransom, which was handed over to the assailants by the bishop of Essen. Half the money was never recovered.

The two brothers owed their wealth to their pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap Aldi chain, short for "Albrecht-Discount", that sprouted up all over Germany and is now in nearly 20 countries after first appearing in the 1960s.

Aldi entered the Irish market earlier this decade and now controls about 3.2pc of the grocery market and continues to expand.

The Albrecht brothers were born into a retailing family; his mother opened a small shop when their father, a miner, became too ill to work. After returning from World War II where Theo fought with Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's army in Africa, he expanded the store with his brother until a dispute over selling cigarettes in 1960 led them to split the company in two although they remained on good terms and continued to co-operate closely.

The late Theo controlled shops in north Germany, and later Western Europe, while Karl controlled stores in southern Germany as well as the US, UK and Ireland. Theo's empire had about 2,400 stores in Germany and a further 2,000 outside the country.

The brothers' key to success was their low-cost business model: a limited assortment of goods that pared down supply expenses and a minimal level of advertising. The result was a shopping experience that lacked the refinement of brightly-lit supermarket chains. In return, consumers often paid less than they would have elsewhere.

Weakened by illness, Theo long ago handed over the reins of the operations but he reportedly continued to go into the office on a daily basis until a very advanced age.

According to an old German newspaper profile, he "always turns out the light behind him, insisted that colleagues write on both sides of a piece of paper and always checks where the emergency exits are in hotels".

Irish Independent

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