BERLIN - Theo Albrecht, the secretive co-founder of Germany’s worldwide discount supermarket chain Aldi, a co-owner of Trader Joe’s in the United States and one of Europe’s richest men, has died at age 88.
The retail machine that Albrecht built with his brother Karl has won over German consumers with their no-thrills but super-cheap offer, making billionaires of the two and spawning imitation “hard-discount” stores across Europe.
The company’s Aldi Nord division said in a statement Wednesday that Albrecht was the driving force behind Aldi’s internationalization, expanding stores to France, Spain, Portugal, Poland and the United States, among other nations.
The company said he died Saturday in his home city of Essen, but gave no cause of death.
Even that bare-bones statement marked unusual openness for a company known for its extreme secrecy.
When Forbes featured the brothers in 1992 as two of the world’s richest men, the magazine had to uses silhouettes rather than photographs to illustrate the article since no pictures of them had been published in many years.
The German Retail Federation said the country had lost one of its greatest entrepreneurs.
“There are only a few people who have stamped their mark on an entire business sector of the economy. Theo Albrecht achieved just that,” the federation’s managing director, Stefan Genth, said in a statement.
They flourished as the German economy, in shambles after the war, came back to life in what is often called the “economic miracle.” By 1950, they were already running 13 stores and five years later, they had expanded throughout Germany’s western industrial Ruhr basin.
The first Aldi stores — an acronym standing for “Albrecht Discount” — opened in the early 1960s under the motto: “concentrating on the basics: a limited selection of goods for daily needs.” It was a formula that sold well: Aldi carries a limited selection of fastest-selling, nonperishable consumer items, a strategy that allowed them to increase order volume, cut handling costs and waste, and buy their goods cheap — savings passed on to the consumer.
Aldi now has more than 4,000 outlets in Germany alone, where it is known for its no-frills shopping environment, streamlined processes and a limited range of discount products.
The two brothers in the 1960s decided to divide up what was then West Germany, with Theo running stores in the north. However, they used their combined bargaining power to lower purchasing prices, enabling them to garner higher profit margins while keeping prices low.
As their concept proved successful, Aldi started to expand around the world. In the U.S. alone, the company says it now has about 1,000 shops.
Aldi does not publish sales or profit figures. Aldi Nord says it employs more than 50,000 people around the world but will not reveal how many stores the company has worldwide.
In 1979, a family trust established by Theo Albrecht bought the U.S. specialty grocery chain Trader Joe’s. In keeping with Aldi’s culture of secrecy, Trader Joe’s refused Wednesday to comment on Albrecht or Aldi, even refusing to confirm that the chain is owned by the Albrecht family. The business information provider Hoover’s confirms that billionaire brothers bought the U.S. company in 1979.
Albrecht quietly managed Aldi Nord until 1993, when he stepped back from its day-to-day operations. But he still wielded huge influence as chairman of a foundation that holds the biggest stake in the company.
The publicity-shy Albrecht — of whom barely any photos exist — kept a very low profile.
In 1971, he was kidnapped in Germany and released after 17 days after paying a ransom of 7 million German marks.
The Albrecht brothers have regularly led lists of Germany’s richest people.
Forbes magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s richest people estimated Theo Albrecht’s fortune at $16.7 billion, making him one of the wealthiest people in Europe. Karl Albrecht, 90, is said to have an estimated wealth of $23.5 billion, making him number ten worldwide.
Albrecht is survived by his wife, Cilli, and his two sons, Theo and Berthold.