Theo Albrecht was the German business wunderkind who built the Aldi supermarket empire alongside his brother Karl. In 2010 it was revealed they had a combined fortune worth over $40 billion. Rather than becoming famous public figures, however, the brothers were always extremely private. In fact, Theo became a recluse following a bizarre 1971 incident in which he was kidnapped by a debt-ridden lawyer and a burglar.
Albrecht was born Theodor Paul Albrecht in Schonnebeck, Essen, which is in the Ruhr region of Germany. His birth in 1922 came along two years after his older brother Karl. Their father was a miner who became unable to work after falling victim to emphysema and this prompted their mother to open a small food shop to provide for the family.
Theo learned how to run the shop from his mother, while Karl apprenticed at a delicatessen. The two brothers also sold bread rolls from a wooden cart to the people of their hometown. Both brothers then served in the German army during the Second World War, with Karl getting wounded while posted to the Eastern Front.
Theo, meanwhile, was part of Rommel’s Afrika Corps, and he was captured by US soldiers in 1945 in Tunisia. Both brothers wound up in prisoner-of-war camps and when they finally returned to Essen, they found it destroyed. Most of the city was in a state of ruin, but their mother’s shop still stood tall.
The brothers took the reins of the shop and swiftly expanded, opening stores that only sold a small number of essential items: butter, milk, bread etc. They also instituted a self-service approach to a customer’s shopping experience, and their aisles featured no shelves; they simply stacked boxes on wooden pallets.
This approach was born out of necessity but was also indicative of the cost-cutting attitude that would define the Albrecht brothers’ empire. Within ten years, they had expanded to more than 100 stores in their homeland, and in 1961 the name “Aldi” was born; a shortened version of “Albrecht Discount”.
In 1961 the brothers had something of a falling-out, reportedly over whether they should sell cigarettes in their stores. They divided the company into two operations within Germany: North and South. Theo stayed in Essen and ran “Aldi Nord”, while Karl ran “Aldi Sud” from the neighboring city of Mulheim.
As the business expanded into other countries, the brothers continued to split their territories. Theo took Europe, expanding into Poland, Spain, France, and Portugal, while Karl arguably took the riskier approach by moving into the American and British markets. There are now more than 300 Aldi stores in the UK and, starting in 2001, Karl even opened stores in Australia.
Aldi’s motto is “best quality, lowest price” and the stores have always been run with cost-effective, almost military-style precision. The firm spends almost nothing on flashy advertising and stocks only a small fraction of the products that would be available in comparable supermarkets. For example, Aldi only sells a few hundred product lines, whereas another outlet might sell tens of thousands.
Aldi stores are run with such secrecy that managers are strictly forbidden from talking to the media and are also not allowed to communicate with fellow store managers in other districts. The stores often have unlisted phone numbers, with the idea being that the small number of store employees will never be interrupted while on duty.
The Aldi stores in Germany were owned via a host of legally separate entities, which allowed Theo and Karl to co-operate when they wanted to, but also enabled them to get around laws which required large businesses to declare their accounting numbers. It also meant they could avoid any encounters with a nationwide worker’s council.
While the ethics of some of these decisions can be endlessly debated, there is no doubt that the Albrecht brothers knew how to make money, and how to keep it, too. Theo reportedly used cheap pencils in board meetings, rather than pens and even complained once that plans for a new store in Holland were printed on paper that was too expensive!
Over the years, Aldi stores became so dominant in Germany that the brothers were able to repel even the most serious competitors to their crown. For instance, the US giant Walmart, which is the single largest company in the world by revenue, closed its last store in Germany in 2006!
Walmart mightn’t have been able to gain a foothold in Germany, but both Albrecht brothers did manage to expand their empire successfully into America. In 1979, Theo bought Trader Joe’s, the California-based chain which shared Aldi’s cost-effective ethos, even though it offered more ‘gourmet’ products and tried to give its stores some personality by having its workers wear Hawaiian shirts.
Over their long careers, the Albrecht brothers have been notoriously reclusive. They live in heavily guarded palatial estates overlooking the Ruhr Valley and refuse to speak to the press. In fact, there are only a few photographs of either brother that are publicly available. Forbes magazine once called Theo “more reclusive than the Yeti”, and perhaps it all stems from his terrible ordeal in 1971.
In December 1971, then 49-year-old Theo Albrecht was kidnapped at gunpoint on his way home from work. His kidnappers were Paul Kron, a convicted burglar, and Heinz-Joachim Ollenburg, a lawyer who owed big sums because of a gambling habit. Theo was held for 17 days, Ollenburg and Kron demanding a ransom for his safe return.
Astonishingly, the kidnappers didn’t believe Albrecht was the rich man they were after, due to the untailored store-bought suit he was wearing. They forced their victim to show them his identification in order to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was truly the Theo Albrecht of the Aldi empire.
Eventually, the ransom was delivered by the Catholic Bishop of Essen, who left the seven million Deutschmarks (around $2.8 million dollars in modern terms) by the side of a main road as directed. Albrecht was released unharmed, but the most outlandish (yet entirely fitting) part of the whole affair was yet to be revealed.
Theo Albrecht was a famously thrifty man, who preferred to wear cheap suits and eat plain meals with lots of potatoes, rather than spend his fortune on tailored garments and gourmet dining. So, it made perfect sense that he would bargain with his kidnappers to lower the amount of his ransom, and that’s exactly what was revealed later; he had successfully haggled them down on the value of his life!
Olllenburg and Kron were caught by the authorities soon after they released Albrecht. Kron, whose nickname at the time was “Diamond Paul”, paid for something in a shop using an easily traceable 500-mark bill from the ransom money. Ollenburg, meanwhile, fled the country, only to be arrested in Mexico and extradited back to Germany.
Both men were sentenced to eight-and-a-half years behind bars and disappeared from the public eye once they were released. Intriguingly, however, only half of the ransom money Albrecht paid was ever recovered by the authorities, and the two kidnappers could never seem to agree on what happened to the rest of it.
What was the disconnect? Kron maintained that Ollenburg, who had masterminded the operation, had only ever given him several thousand marks. Ollenburg, on the other hand, was always adamant that they had split the ransom evenly, and it was his half that had been returned to the police. This left 3.5 million marks mislaid.
Germany’s Bild newspaper interviewed Kron a few years before his death and he spoke of the situation. “Honestly, I don’t know [about the missing money]. I only got 10,000 Deutschmarks from Ollenburg. He was cleverer than me.” At this point, Kron was existing on a small state pension, so it was obvious he had no secret riches concealed anywhere.
About this time, Ollenburg was living close to the Polish border, but completely refused to speak to the newspaper. Townspeople in the surrounding area liked to gossip, however, that he had hidden the missing money in Switzerland. The mystery has become a part of German folklore and it will continue to be the subject of speculation, because a definitive answer will almost certainly never be revealed.
Why? Well, because both Ollenburg and Kron passed away in recent years, potentially taking the secret location of the missing money to their graves. Kron died at the age of 87 in an elderly care home in January 2017, and 93-year-old Ollenburg died only a month later. 5
However, Theo Albrecht wasn’t the kind of man to simply let his money disappear and do nothing about it. He enacted legal proceedings and went to court in order to claim the ransom money as a tax-deductible business expense… and he won! His thriftiness has become legend over the years, and this is maybe the best example of it.
Following the kidnapping ordeal, Albrecht doubled down on his reclusiveness, refusing to ever speak to the press again and going to extraordinary lengths to avoid having his photo taken. He even began taking an armored car to work, taking a different route every day. It was clear the kidnapping had frightened him to his core.
The last public comments made by either Albrecht brother came in 1953 and 1971, the year of the kidnapping. In 1993, a paparazzo from Munich named Franz Ruch, who had managed to snap a rare photo of the brothers together, revealed they drove home from work in different cars and varied those routes each day as well.
Theo Albrecht retired from the day-to-day running of the Aldi empire in 1993, the same year Franz Ruch captured his illicit photo. He was succeeded by a board of family members and other representatives. However, the founding brother retained a somewhat active role in the company by acting as chairman of the foundation that is Aldi Nord’s main shareholder.
It was said that the brothers spent their semi-retirement on a remote island in the North Sea, far away from the prying eyes of their business partners and the press. Reports claim they passed the time playing golf and indulging in other hobbies such as gardening (including growing orchids) and assembling a collection of valuable typewriters.
Theo Albrecht passed away on July 24, 2010, at the age of 88. In the year of his death, Forbes magazine estimated his net worth to be $16.7 billion, making him the 31st wealthiest person in the world. He was survived by his wife Cilli, sons Berthold and Theo Jr., and his 90-year-old brother Karl.
Karl would outlive his younger brother by four years. He passed away on July 16, 2014, at the age of 94. Karl was, if possible, even more secretive than Theo, and very little is publicly known about him. Forbes reported that he had two children (Beate Heister and Karl Jr.) and neither of them worked in the family business.
Sadly, Theo Albrecht’s son Berthold died only two years after his father, in 2012. He was only 58 years old. Befitting the obsessively private nature of the Albrecht family, his death wasn’t publicly announced until several weeks after he had passed, and his funeral had already taken place in Essen.
The family published a full-page obituary for Berthold in various newspapers, which described him as “much loved”. His wife Babette said he was “a very loving and extremely generous human being, an exemplary husband and father.” However, four years later some more unsavoury claims from Berthold’s family would be revealed to the world.
In 2016 Babette and her four children filed a multibillion-Euro lawsuit against their late husband/father. The notoriously private family then had its dirty laundry aired to the public. It was revealed that Berthold had changed his will before he died, excluding his family from two of three foundations which control the operations of Aldi Nord.
Babette claimed in the lawsuit that Berthold was a “serious alcoholic” whose death was caused by “multiple organ failure through alcohol-related illness”. She posited that he was contractually incapable, when he signed the documents excluding them in 2010, due to his alcohol issues, cirrhosis of the liver and the “personality change” caused by his drinking.
In a move that would have undoubtedly made Theo Albrecht deeply uncomfortable, private details of his family dealings were then revealed to the court and to the world at large. Court documents showed that he had offered Berthold’s children multimillion yearly payments to stay out of Aldi Nord’s business affairs.
Apparently, Berthold had felt his children lacked the “experience and competence” to properly run the family empire. It led to his father writing a letter to the heirs that read, “Please decide for a peaceful alternative… Forcing further disagreement serves no one.” He added that he was prepared to “fight on in court to carry out your father’s wishes” if the children did not accept the payoffs.
All in all, it’s an incredible turnaround in terms of the world’s perception of the family. After the kidnapping, Theo and Karl Albrecht were somehow able to remove themselves from the public eye with startling effectiveness, but recently extremely personal family matters have been dissected in court and in the media.
Overall, Theo Albrecht left behind a legacy of frugality at all costs. He had complete commitment to running a business with the most efficiency possible and believed in keeping personal matters where they belonged: at home. And surely only Albrecht would have been capable of negotiating a price when his life was on the line, and then claiming back the money he lost as a business expense!