My two favorite retail grocers now are Trader Joe’s and Aldi. I became familiar with Trader Joes post-college because their 2 buck Chuck wines fit nicely into my budget. I now go there just to get their mochi ice cream. But I’ve only recently come to love Aldi’s with their latest Oktoberfest promo. I am now a cult lover of their savory artichoke and cheese strudel, their schnitzel, and their canned herring.
What I didn’t know is that they’re both owned by the same staunch Catholic and super-reclusive multi-billionaire Albrecht family. They are the result of two brothers, Theodore Paul and Karl Hans Albrecht who founded the German retail giant Aldi after they both returned in 1946 from service in the Wehrmacht during World War II. Karl served on the Russian front, while Theodore served in Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Their mother – Anna Siepmann Albrecht – opened a small corner market in 1913 in Schonnebeck, the workers’ quarter of Essen, the industrial town in Nordrhein-Westphalia they called ‘heim’. Their father Karl Albrecht had developed emphysema working in the coal mines of Essen and his mother became the sole bread winner. Karl Sr. died while his boys were away serving in World War II.
Both brothers, in their twenties, were determined not to go to the mines or factories with their peers. Having grown up modestly, and seeing the scrimping and saving their mother’s customers had to do to get by, they were experts in Germany frugality. So, learning from their mother, they developed a discount grocery concept – Albrecht Diskont – shortened to Aldi in 1962 – and revolutionized German grocery market. Their motto ‘best quality at the lowest price’ is evidenced by modest packaging and storage, small stores and their own store brands. The business grew to make Theodore Sr. alone a fortune of over US$11 billion by his death in 2010. Karl Albrecht’s net worth at his death at 94 in 2014, was over US$24 Billion. The rise of Aldi under these two brothers is one of Germany’s greatest post war economic success stories.
Success didn’t come without contention. In 1960 the brothers divided the business into Aldi Nord – run by Theodore in Essen, and Aldi Sud (South) – run by Karl out of Muehlheim. Their squabble was over carrying cigarettes in their stores. Theodore’s son, Albrecht was credited with the lucrative entry into the U.S. market by acquiring Trader Joes in 1979 and letting them operate independently. They have about 370 Trader Joe’s in the U.S. But here’s where it gets confusing. It’s Aldi Sud, not Aldi Nord, that owns the Aldi chains in the U.S., of which there are about 1200. Aldi Sud, on the other hand, owns Trader Joe’s chains in Germany. It’s confusing, especially to U.S. customers who see same products at both stores, like their flavor blasted Chili Lime Cashews. But in the U.S. Trader Joe’s and Aldi operate separately.
Little is known about the ultra secretive family. They stayed out of the spotlight, were rarely photographed and never made public statements. They live behind fortress-like estates overlooking the Ruhr valley in Westphalia. The brothers were said to own an island in the North Sea, where they played golf on their private golf course called the Oschberghof, and indulged their habits of collecting antique typewriters and growing orchids. The reclusiveness is due to Theodore’s kidnapping for ransom in 1971 for 17 days by lawyer Joachim Ollenburg, to pay off gambling debts. The ransom of 7 million Deutschmarks was paid to the Bishop of Essen and Ollenburg and his accomplice Paul Kron were caught and jailed. But only half of the ransom was recovered. The other half, Theodore claimed as a deductable, not taxable business expense.
Today Aldi operates in 17 countries and has a turnover over 50 billion Euros annually. And I plan on having one flavor of their Deutsche Kuche brand savory strudel on hand at all times.