Theo Albrecht: One of the two brothers behind the Aldi supermarket empire

A former Afrika Korps soldier, Theo Albrecht was the German entrepreneur behind the discount store Aldi.

Survivor of a bizarre kidnapping, and a noted recluse, with his his brother Karl he turned their mother's corner shop into the no-frills Aldi Empire, which extends to over 8,000 stores worldwide and placed the brothers in Forbes's rich list, with a combined fortune of over $40bn in 2010, exceeded only by those of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the Mexican Carlos Slim.

The key to Aldi's success has been its devotion to cost-cutting, allowing it to sell a limited assortment of goods at bargain prices with minimal advertising costs. Aldi's thrifty ways are a reflection of its founders' personalities with neither brother flaunting his wealth; at board meetings Theo was renowned for taking notes with pencil stubs rather than an executive fountain pen. Nevertheless, in 2009, the brothers' businesses had estimated global sales of over €50bn. The companies, which are privately held, do not release financial information.

Born in Schonnebeck, a suburb of Essen in the industrial Ruhr region of Germany in 1922, Theodor Paul Albrecht was two years younger than his brother Karl. Their father, a miner, became ill with emphysema, which was the catalyst for their mother to open a corner shop in the 1930s in order to bring in money. Theo stayed with his mother and learned the grocery trade, while Karl trained at a delicatessen. With the outbreak of the Second World War, both served in the Wehrmacht. Karl was wounded on the Eastern Front; Theo served in Rommel's Afrika Korps until he was captured by US troops in Tunisia in 1945.

Upon their release from prisoner-of-war camps the two brothers returned to a decimated city; Krupps munitions plants had been located there. Their mother's shop, however, remained intact. They took it over and quickly expanded, opening shops that, out of necessity, sold only a small number of essential items, while experimenting with a no-frills self-service format. The goods were not displayed on shelves but in cardboard boxes stacked on wooden pallets. Within a decade, as Germany's economic recovery gathered pace, they owned more than 100 stores. By 1961 the retail chain was formally given the name Aldi, a contraction of "Albrecht discount".

Aldi stuck to its motto of "best quality, lowest price". Its operations were run with military discipline and attention to detail, and in such secrecy that Aldi managers were forbidden not only to talk to the press but even to colleagues in other districts. The company grew to become a global phenomenon by spending almost nothing on advertising and by simplifying its inventory, stocking only a fraction of products featured in regular supermarkets. Customers pay extra for plastic bags in which they pack their own groceries, which keeps staff numbers down. The stores are generally small and spartan, and to maximise efficiency often have unlisted telephone numbers so employees are not interrupted. The German stores were so dominant that not even the US discount giant Walmart could compete, and withdrew from Germany in 2006. In 1961 the brothers divided their company into two operations within Germany, Theo running Aldi Nord, and Karl Aldi Süd. As the brand continued to grow, the brothers divvied up the globe, with Theo taking the rights to Europe and Karl taking the US, the UK – where there are over 300 stores – and Australia.

In 1979, Theo broke into the US and bought Trader Joe's, a young California grocery chain featuring Hawaiian shirt-wearing employees, inexpensive "gourmet" foods and a cost-cutting ethic that mirrored Aldi's. Since then, Trader Joe's, known for its lively atmosphere, has developed a fanatical following among customers as it expanded to more than 340 stores in over 25 states, generating sales of $8bn last year.

Little is known about the Albrecht family except their obsession with privacy; they live behind fortress-like security on estates overlooking the Ruhr valley, maintaining an almost total media black-out. Their reputation for reclusiveness is part of German business folklore. There are only a handful of photographs of the brothers in existence. Forbes magazine once described Theo as "more reclusive than the Yeti".

Their seclusion became even more pronounced after 1971 following Theo's kidnapping on the way home from work. His assailants, a lawyer with gambling debts and a convicted burglar, disbelieving that the common-looking man dressed in an ill-fitting, off-the-rack suit could be their target, demanded to see his identification. He was held for 17 days and paid the equivalent of £2.2m for his release. However, it later emerged that the ever-frugal Theo had negotiated the ransom. He demanded, and won, tax relief on the payment, claiming it was a business expense. Thereafter, he never spoke to the media again and went to great lengths to avoid being photographed.

By all accounts Theo had not been involved in the day-to-day management of Aldi since 1993 and had transferred his assets to a foundation, although he remained chairman.

Theodor Paul Albrecht, entrepreneur: born Essen, Germany 28 March 1922; married Cilli (two sons); died Essen 24 July 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power