Obituary: Theo Albrecht

Theo Albrecht, a billionaire German grocery magnate, noted recluse, and survivor of a bizarre kidnapping, made his mark on the U.S. by operating Trader Joe's, a retail food chain known for the cheerfulness and colorful Hawaiian shirts of its employees. Albrecht's expansion of the no-frills Aldi Group stores made him Germany's third-richest man. He died on July 24 at 88.

Little is known about Albrecht or his 90-year-old brother, Karl, who together presided over a global grocery empire with roots in Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley. Aldi had revenue last year of €53 billion ($69.9 billion). Their success turned the brothers into two of the wealthiest people in the world. Their combined fortune topped $40 billion in 2010, according to Forbes.

Theo lived in near-total seclusion, a circumstance compounded after he was kidnapped for a 17-day stretch in 1971. The Albrecht family paid 7 million deutsche marks ($4.6 million at the current rate) in ransom. The money was handed over to the assailants by the bishop of Essen. There are only three confirmed public statements from Theo, according to Klaus Kraenzle, a consumer-goods analyst at GSC Research in Düsseldorf. The last confirmed photograph of either brother appeared in the 1980s, Der Spiegel says.

"Aldi mourns a man who was humble toward his business partners as well as fellow employees and always held them in great respect," the company said in a statement. The brothers' key to success was their low-cost business model: a limited assortment of goods that pared down supply expenses and a minimal level of advertising. The result was a shopping experience that lacked the refinement of brightly lit supermarket chains. Consumers often paid less than they would have elsewhere.

Theo was born in the western German city of Essen in 1922. The brothers took over their parents' grocery store in 1946. They opened more outlets, shortening "Albrecht Discount" to Aldi. In 1960 they divided the family food kingdom into two operations: Theo took over the north; Karl, the south. Aldi Nord controls stores in western Europe and Poland, with about 2,400 stores in Germany and 2,000 outside the country. Karl's half, Aldi Süd, has stores in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and elsewhere. Theo purchased Trader Joe's in 1979. The affordably priced chain is known for its lively atmosphere and spirited workers. It has 342 outlets, which generated sales of $8 billion last year.

Aldi Nord's assets are held in protected trusts that will guarantee the company's further expansion, Aldi said in its statement. Theo, who died in Essen, was buried on July 28. The ceremony was private.


The Albrecht brothers' fortune tops $40 billion


A global empire with stores in Europe and the U.S.


The reclusive mogul was kidnapped for 17 days in 1971

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