Theo Albrecht was a German businessman who co-founded the Aldi discount supermarket chain with his brother, Karl Albrecht. After a dispute with his brother in 1960, Theo took over the management of Aldi’s stores in southern Germany and eventually expanded the business to other countries. In 1979, Theo bought the California-based convenience store chain “Pronto Markets” and renamed it “Trader Joe’s” after himself, as he reportedly wanted a way to have a store with a “nautical” theme.
Born on March 28, 1922, in Germany, Theo Albrecht grew up in a family of bakers and learned the trade from his father. After serving in World War II, he joined his brother Karl in running their mother’s grocery store. In 1961, the brothers split the company into two separate entities: Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd.
Growing up, Albrecht was raised in a Catholic family. At 18 years old, he was drafted into the Armed Forces of Nazi Germany and served in the North African campaign. However, he was eventually captured by American forces in Tunisia. After the war, in 1946, he returned to Germany.
Albrecht was kidnapped in 1971 and was released after a ransom of seven million German marks, approximately US$2 million at the time, was paid. He was held at gunpoint by Heinz-Joachim Ollenburg, a lawyer, and his accomplice Paul Kron. The ransom amount was delivered by Franz Hengsbach, then Bishop of Essen. While the kidnappers were caught by authorities, only half of the ransom money was recovered. Albrecht attempted to claim the ransom as a tax deductible business expense in court, but the claim was unsuccessful.
The kidnapping of Albrecht in 1971 played a role in the reclusive lifestyle he and his family adopted. As a result of the incident, he began to commute to work in an armored car, taking a different route each day to ensure his safety.
Despite his immense wealth and success, little is known about Theo Albrecht and his family’s private lives. According to Forbes, the Albrecht family is so reclusive that they are “more reclusive than the yeti.” Theo Albrecht seldom appeared in photographs and never made any public statements. The most recent published photograph of Theo Albrecht dates back to 1971, just a day after his kidnapping. Another photograph of both Albrecht brothers together was captured in 1987 by journalist Franz Ruch.
To avoid following his father’s footsteps in the mines, Albrecht learned the grocery business from his mother. Along with his brother Karl, he established Albrecht Diskont, which became one of Europe’s largest supermarket chains. Their motto was “The best quality at the lowest price,” and the chain is now known as Aldi.
According to Forbes, Theo’s fortune from the supermarket chain is around £11 billion. However, a disagreement about selling cigarettes led to the brothers splitting the Aldi Company they founded in 1960. This resulted in two legally separate operating units with distinct geographical locations: Theo’s Aldi Nord in northern Germany and Karl’s Aldi Süd in the south. In 1993, Theo retired from daily operations but remained as the chairman of the board.
Under his ownership, Trader Joe’s expanded and gained popularity for its unique products and low prices. In 1989, Theo sold the chain to the Albrecht family trust but continued to serve as a consultant until his death in 2010.
The Albrecht Family:
Theo Albrecht Jr. and the heirs of his brother, Berthold, are the beneficiaries of one of the world’s greatest retail fortunes. The family’s retail empire began with a small corner grocery store in Essen, opened by Theo Sr. and Karl Sr., their father and uncle, in 1913. After World War II, the brothers expanded their business by promoting the discount revolution in German retailing.
Their Aldi supermarket chain adopted a low-price strategy similar to Walmart, which proved to be a winning formula. In 1961, the brothers divided ownership, with Karl Sr. taking the stores in southern Germany, as well as the rights to the Aldi brand in the U.K., Australia, and the U.S. Meanwhile, Theo Sr. got the stores in northern Germany and the rest of Europe. In 1971, Theo Sr. bought U.S. grocery discounter Trader Joe’s, expanding the family’s retail business across the Atlantic.
According to reports, Albrecht and his brother Karl were rumored to be the owners of an island in the North Sea, which they used to pursue their hobbies such as golf and collecting antique typewriters. Additionally, Theo had a highly secure estate overlooking the Ruhr valley, which is still owned by the Albrecht family today.
Known for his obsession with frugality, Theo was said to have a habit of collecting and using pencil stubs. He also had a reputation for wearing ill-fitting, inexpensive suits and preferring simple meals with lots of potatoes. When presented with plans for a new store in the Netherlands, he approved the design but suggested using thinner paper to save money.
His net worth was an estimated $20 billion.
Theo Albrecht received few awards during his lifetime. However, his business achievements are widely recognized. Albrecht was named one of the richest people in the world by Forbes magazine, with a net worth estimated at $16.7 billion as of 2010.
He was also credited with revolutionizing the German retail industry and making Aldi into one of the most successful discount supermarket chains in Europe. Additionally, Albrecht was known for his low-profile and frugal lifestyle, shunning publicity and avoiding the trappings of wealth.