He was one of the richest men in Germany, and also one of the most secretive. Theo Albrecht, who co-founded the immensely successful discount grocery chain Aldi, died on Saturday according to a statement released by the company. Eighty-eight years old at the time of his death, he was laid to rest on Wednesday in a small service attended only by close family members.
Albrecht had been experiencing severe health problems for some time prior to his death. Last summer he spent several weeks in the hospital in his hometown of Essen following a fall. He never fully recovered and required extensive care toward the end of his life.
Theo and his brother Karl, who is two years older, laid the cornerstone for what became their discount empire in 1948 when they took over their mother's small grocery store. In 1961, they changed the name to Albrecht's Discount -- or "Aldi" for short. Within decades, the store became a discount chain worth billions, one which permanently changed the way food retailing was done in both Germany and across the globe.
The 'Aldi Equator'
Aldi's meteoric rise can be traced directly back to the brothers' business creed: "The best quality at the lowest possible price." The two Albrecht brothers are considered the founders of the discount strategy, and even today Aldi stores have little in the way of frills and stay away from expensive marketing strategies.
It is a business model that turned the Albrecht brothers into two of the richest people in Germany, with Theo's net worth said to have been $16.7 billion (€12.8 billion). The company itself has an annual turnover of some €25 billion ($32.5 billion) and has maintained its position at the top of the discounter heap despite stiff competition from newer discounters such as Lidl, Netto and others.
The company also turned heads due to the so-called "Aldi Equator," which splits Germany neatly in two. Shortly after the founding of the firm, the two brothers split it in half, with Theo taking responsibility for northern Germany and Karl for southern Germany. Legally, the two companies are completely independent, though industry insiders say that the two Aldis work closely together when it comes to developing product lines and leveraging purchasing power. Profits from the two companies flow into two family foundations.
Abduction and Ransom
Theo and Karl were in close agreement on other issues as well -- particularly when it came to keeping far away from the public eye. Extremely little is known about them. Their last public comments come from 1953 and 1971; the last known photos of the two were shot against their will in the 1980s.
One reason for their silence is the 1971 kidnapping of Theo Albrecht, who was abducted and held for 17 days. He was only set free following the payment of a 7 million deutschmark ransom. At the time it was the highest ransom ever to have been paid in Germany. Half of the money, handed over by then-Bishop of Essen Franz Hengsbach, is still missing today.
Theo, like his brother Karl, was a strict Catholic. He and his wife Cäcille had two sons, Theo Jr. and Berthold, both of whom work at Aldi Nord. Both Karl and Theo retired from day-to-day company operations several years ago.