Germany's super-shy super-rich
- 28 July 2014
- From the section Magazine
Nobody could accuse the richest people in Germany of flaunting their wealth, quite the opposite.
With the death of Karl Albrecht, there was no announcement for nearly a week, and not until the small, private funeral was over. He and his brother, Theo, had turned their mother's small grocery store in the Ruhr into Aldi, one of the world's biggest supermarket chains, but the habits and thoughts of this mega-business mogul were unknown.
For the obituaries the German papers could only trace bland statements he had made in 1953 and 1971.
This was not a chatty public figure. He grew orchids, apparently, and played golf - but on his own, private golf course. In the absence of a public presence, a legend grew around him.
The brothers, ex-employees said, would keep accounts using stubs of old pencils, almost too short to hold. It is said that they once told architects designing a new store that they were using paper that was too thick.
It was this frugality which set the Albrecht brothers on the road to super-rich status.
After the war, they took over the grocery store and set up a company called Aldi after Albrecht Diskont.
They pared the costs to the bone, dispensing with advertising and relying on the reputation for low prices. They sold what sold quickly, only 300 items initially.
Even shelves were thought to be too extravagant - after all shelves had to be stacked and that meant stackers and that meant wages. Instead, the goods were deposited, in the stores on the pallets on which they arrived.
Even today, Aldi stores usually offer no more than 2,000 products compared with the 45,000 products for other chains.
Food tended to be in tins because fresh food cost money to store. Managers had no telephones - they were told to use the nearest pay phone.
When Theo was kidnapped in 1971, Karl negotiated - over some days, according to the German media - and then paid the ransom which, legend has it, he tried to offset against tax.
If Karl Albrecht was reclusive, the head of the rival Lidl chain is positively invisible.
There are only two photographs in existence of Dieter Schwarz, and one of those is in black-and-white. He may be the 25th richest man on the planet but nobody outside his closest circle knows anything about what he thinks or does.
It is the same with the Quandt family which owns BMW. The product may be a symbol of conspicuous consumption but they are a symbol of inconspicuous taciturnity.
Take the case of Susanne Klatten, the daughter of the industrialist Herbert Quandt, the man who made BMW the luxury-car colossus it is today. She was left 12.5 % of BMW.
With her other business interests, she is the 44th richest person in the world, but a woman with a low profile. When she started in business, learning at the bottom, as an apprentice, she worked at a BMW factory under a false name.
The man she married never knew her real identity until the romance was solid.
It would be tempting to draw big conclusions about the reticence of Germany's super-rich.
In the US and Britain, business people are part of public life. Warren Buffett gives press conferences. Bill Gates tours the world, banging the drum for measures to prevent disease. Every American city has a museum or a medical research centre or a university department named after a local moneybags.
But the German way with money is to keep it quiet.
It is partly because frugality is a virtue, a matter of morality and not just of wise behaviour. And maybe, after the experience of Theo Albrecht, privacy means you're less likely to get kidnapped.
It is not the kind of place then to approve of young millionaires roaring around in expensive cars - they may make the Porsches and the BMWs but it's for others to rev them up and show off.
The figures show that private wealth in Germany is more unevenly distributed than in any other country in the eurozone. While the richest 1% have personal wealth of just short of one million euros on average, a quarter of adult Germans have no wealth or even owe money.
But because those with the money keep their heads down, it doesn't always show.
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