In June in 1986, Hans Riegel told one of the jokes for which he had become well-known. The Haribo CEO told a reporter he had just swallowed Maoam. All Riegel had to do was wait a second for a question in response: "The candy?" "No," he answered triumphantly. "The company. It was a lot of fun -- they used to be a competitor."
It would be hard to find another executive in Germany as multifaceted as the former head of Bonn-based gummy bear empire Haribo. Riegel was equal parts tenacious businessman, jokester, workaholic and bon vivant. Above all, he was the man associated with Haribo -- few entrepreneurs have been as closely identified with their brands as he has been. In his 67 years at the helm, he transformed his father's small candy company into a global sweets giant with an estimated €2 billion ($2.7 billion) in annual sales of gummy bears and other candies in 110 countries around the world.
Riegel died on Tuesday at the age of 90.
He was the archetype of the old-school German capitalist from the Rhineland -- hardworking, responsible, persistent and full of business acumen. After having just returned from being a prisoner of war after World War II, Riegel and his brother Paul assumed responsibility for the family business, which at the time had 30 employees, 10 sacks of sugar and the secret recipe for gummy bears that still guarantees the company's success today. Paul, who was more behind the scenes, developed the machines used to make the company's liquorices. The more outgoing Hans worked on the company's first commercials.
The Man Who Turned Warren Buffet Away
The division of labor between the two brothers was a success, and it didn't take long before the company's motto, "Kids love it so," created by their father, was known by youth all across Germany. Although the company's gummy bears soon became a gold mine, financial success eluded the young entrepreneur. One day, when the local bank tried to seize bags of sugar at the Haribo plant because the company had been late on a loan payment, Riegel swore he would never borrow money to grow the company again.
It's a position he stuck to for the rest of his life. When star investor Warren Buffett came knocking on his door in 2008, Riegel sent him away. "Money was never my motivation," he said at the time. "I don't even know when I made my first million."
Riegel wanted to maintain control of his own company. Indeed, each gummy creation at Haribo had to be approved by the boss before it could go into serial production. He knew what customers wanted, too. Whereas other companies developed the products for the tastes of the masses, Riegel continued to stubbornly make his gummy candies according to his family recipe. He made a few name changes to his father's products here and there, but adding adults to the company's slogan was one of the few large additions. The company had a tendency to hang on to things that worked.
An Eccentric Leader
At times, though, Riegel's management could be a bit eccentric. Each morning he would read his executives' letters before personally sharing the details with them. Employee emails were also monitored if there was a reason. Riegel said he did such things out of concern for the company. "Otherwise troublesome letters would have just disappeared into people's drawers," he once said. "And I would also lose oversight."
But "Hans II," as some liked to call him, was more a benevolent dictator when it came to his 6,000 employees. He paid them well and rented his properties to them cheaply. He also hired famous German bands to play at company parties and even sometimes played the saxophone himself. Riegel was never a cheapskate concerned only with his business. As a young man, he brought a badminton set back with him during a business trip to Denmark and became the first German champion in the men's double competition. Later, he discovered his passion for helicopters and for hunting deer on his 4,800 hectare property in Austria's Steiermark region.
But work remained his greatest passion: "I'm at the office almost every day," Riegel proudly said not long ago. In the "pulpit," as he called his glass-covered command center overlooking the Bonn facility, he tinkered with new types of fruit gummies: lemon-ginger for adults, gummy pacifiers for children, marshmallow footballs for sports fans and gummy bears for everyone.
'He Who Retires Gets Older Faster'
Even at an advanced age, he didn't lose sight of his core customers: Riegel remained a child at heart, watching cartoons and eating gummy bears from the package.
Haribo was not only his life's work, but also his fountain of youth. He worked far beyond Germany's statutory retirement age and was fond of adages like, "He who retires early gets old faster." He liked to say that without the company, he would have fallen ill.
One has to grant him that, because until the end he served his company well. When he had to have a tumor removed from his brain in July 2013, representatives took over marketing and sales for several months. The company's continued existence as a family business was guaranteed after the death of Paul Riegel in 2009. Hans Riegel and his nephew Hans-Guido led the newly formed holding company from that point on. Now Riegel is leaving a thriving business to the next generation.
"I just wanted to make something of my father's life work," the billionaire once said. It was a simple wish -- and one Hans Riegel spent a lifetime fulfilling.