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.

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
News
videoWatch Lynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance
Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg
music

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

News
The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions
News
news

Powerful images of strays taken moments before being put down

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 pose for Children in Need 2001
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voices

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
books

Review: Witty banalities aside, the comedian has an authentic voice

Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
News
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee
people

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

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

HLTA - Higher Level Teaching Assistant

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teacher requi...

Deputy Head of Science

£36000 - £60000 per annum: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client are a we...

IT Teacher

£22000 - £32000 per annum + TLR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client is...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London