At Aldi's Empire of Austerity, A Fight Over Extravagant Spending
The German supermarket chain Aldi revels in austerity, with stores reminiscent of fluorescent-lit bunkers, shelves packed with 1-euro cans of sliced pork and 39-cent â€śRiver Cola,â€ť and cashiers who only started taking credit cards last summer. That hasnâ€™t stopped a widening scandal about, of all things, extravagant spending.
The heirs to co-founder Theo Albrechtâ€™s fortuneâ€”$15 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Indexâ€”are battling for control of Aldi Nord, which owns the chain in northern Germany and eight other European countries. Theoâ€™s elder son, Theo Jr., has publicly attacked his widowed sister-in-law Babette Albrecht for her purchases of art and vintage cars, and withdrawals from one of the companyâ€™s controlling trusts. Heâ€™s using the dispute to try to wrest influence from Babette and her five children, a move sheâ€™s fighting in court. The company is a rich prize: Last year it had 12.3 billion euros of net revenue in Germany alone.
The feud has upended decades of obsessive discretion at Aldi, whose owners are so secretive that the only widely published photo of Theo Jr. is a grainy, decades-old paparazzi snap. The given names and exact ages of Babetteâ€™s childrenâ€”quadruplets who are about 26 and a sister whoâ€™s about 24â€”are so closely guarded that they were never revealed until last year, and the family won an injunction against a magazine that published them.
â€śItâ€™s totally natural that the younger generation would react against the excessive thriftiness,â€ť says Eberhard Fedtke, a former Aldi Nord manager and author of a 2011 company history called Aldi Stories. â€śThe parsimony was so extreme, it was unsustainable.â€ť
The battle has been lapped up by a German public thatâ€™s long had a love-hate relationship with Aldi. For a post-war generation whose culinary compass was oriented toward cheap food in vast quantities rather than eating as a refined indulgence, Aldi was the obvious destination for staples like sugar and flour. Ultra-low prices, combined with a resistance to anything resembling an uplifting consumer experience, have given the supermarket a quasi-masochistic cult following. Its stores are social melting pots, and itâ€™s not unusual to find Aldi milk, cheese, or juice in the fridges of Germans of all incomes.
At its core, the dispute is about control of a pair of trusts named after saintsâ€”Markus and Jakobus, a reflection of the familyâ€™s Catholic rootsâ€”set up by Theo Sr. to ensure long-term control. The conflict could affect company strategy. Babetteâ€™s camp is pushing Aldi Nord, which also runs the U.S. chain Trader Joeâ€™s, to more quickly spruce up stores and products, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. Company representatives declined to comment or make Theo available. Babetteâ€™s team declined to comment.
The Albrecht familyâ€™s parsimony is legendary
The conflict heated up in 2013 after Babetteâ€™s husband Berthold died of cancer. His heirs sought to remove long-time Aldi lawyer Emil Huber from the board of the Jakobus trust, which had been revamped to reduce the childrenâ€™s influence. They maintained Huber was backing Theo Jr. in an attempt to cut them out of decision-making, and that their father had been too ill to make a competent judgment when he agreed to the changes in 2010.
In a 2014 letter to Babette, Theo Jr. wrote that she was â€śa burden on our companyâ€ť by refusing to â€śsubordinate your private lifestyle to the interest of our group.â€ť Theo Jr. and his mother, Caecilie, also said the 25 million euros Babette and her children receive from the trust annually is excessive. Babetteâ€™s response: Her spending is her own business. Around that time, Theo Jr. tried to buy her outâ€”at what she considered a lowball priceâ€”then offered to pay Babetteâ€™s side 25 million euros a year if they would pledge to follow his lead on trust votes regarding Aldi. She declined.
â€śItâ€™s grotesque that Theo Albrecht is attacking his sister-in-law invoking the companyâ€™s reputation,â€ť says Stephan Holzinger, a Munich litigation adviser who isnâ€™t involved in the dispute. â€śAldiâ€™s reputation has been more damaged by the mudslinging.â€ť
In January, Babette and her children won a court ruling striking down the 2010 changes to the board structure. In response, Theo Jr. did the unthinkable for a man who, in Holzingerâ€™s words, had spent decades â€śsealed like an oysterâ€ť: He went to the press. He told the daily Handelsblatt that Babetteâ€™s spending, and a widely publicized case in which an art dealer from whom she and Berthold had bought works was jailed for fraud, had tarnished the companyâ€™s image. â€śThe Albrecht name requires a modest lifestyle,â€ť he said in Stern magazine.
While Babetteâ€™s lifestyle isnâ€™t particularly lavish by billionaire standardsâ€”her home is a modest, two-story stucco in the suburbs of the industrial city of Essenâ€”it stands out when compared to Aldiâ€™s obsessive penny-pinching. She and Berthold met in the 1980s at a nightclub on the island of Sylt, a summer getaway in the North Sea favored by Germanyâ€™s jetset. They shared a love of fine wines, haute cuisine and golf, with Babetteâ€™s outgoing personality a stark contrast to the traditional Albrecht reticence, a friend says.
â€śAldiâ€™s principle of austerity is outdatedâ€ť â€”Martin Kuhna
According to German media reports, Berthold spent more than 100 million euros on art and a dozen or so classic cars, such as a 1939 Mercedes roadster and a 1960s Ferrari. Last year Babette was photographed in the front row of a Dusseldorf fashion show draped in pearls with a black pencil skirt and a jewel-encrusted watch.
Aldi, a contraction of â€śAlbrecht Diskont,â€ť emerged out of the rubble of World War II, when Theo Sr. and his brother Karl took over their parentsâ€™ grocery. From a single store about eight miles from where Babette now lives, they started undercutting rivals with a product range that was basic in the extreme: mostly canned food sold on wooden pallets. Over the years, the mix has been broadened, but even today Aldi stores exhibit a fierce devotion to frugality and carry less than 10 percent as many products as a typical supermarket.
In a dispute that in some ways mirrors the current internecine strife, the brothers parted ways in 1961 after a series of strategy spats. They split the business along a border dubbed the â€śAldi-equatorâ€ť slicing through the center of Germany, with Karl getting everything south of the line, Aldi Sued, and Theo Sr. taking Aldi Nord.
While the two sides share a brand name and some purchasing, theyâ€™re run as separate companies. Aldi-Sued, controlled by Karl Albrechtâ€™s descendants, has a reputation for somewhat snazzier stores with more fresh produce and major brands. The dispute between Babette and Theo Jr. only affects Aldi Nord, which has stayed closer to the traditional austere formula.
The Albrecht familyâ€™s parsimony is legendary. After Theo Sr. was briefly kidnapped in the early 1970s, he fought successfully to deduct the 7-million-deutschmark ransom from his taxes as a business expense. Until the early 2000s, his cashiers typed in product codes by hand, to avoid the cost of barcode scanners.
As the retail environment gets more crowded and complex, Aldi Nord must adapt by going more upscale, says Boris Planer, chief economist at consultancy Planet Retail in Frankfurt. â€śYou have aggressive challenges from mainstream supermarkets as well as online shopping,â€ť Planer says.
Aldi Nord is taking tentative steps in that direction. In 2012 it began buffing up stores with softer lighting, wider aisles, and popular brands like Coca-Cola in addition to house products, boosting revenue an average of 19 percent in renovated locations over three years. Long-stemmed roses, Champagne, and giant prawnsâ€”at bottom-feeder pricesâ€”have joined the selection.
An ongoing feud could slow those initiatives. The trusts representing the Albrecht heirs need to sign off on major investment plans, and Theo Jr. and his mother arenâ€™t on speaking terms with Babetteâ€™s side of the family, according to the person familiar with the matter. If the revamp stalls, Aldi risks falling farther behind rivals such as Lidl, which for years has sold branded goods, fresh fruit and a luxury selection that many shoppers wouldnâ€™t hesitate to serve for Christmas dinner.
â€śAldiâ€™s principle of austerity is outdated,â€ť says Martin Kuhna, author of â€śThe Albrechts,â€ť a 2015 book about Aldi. â€śIf I were Theo Jr.â€™s adviser, I would tell him to relax a bit, especially since he himself defied the familyâ€™s vow of silence.â€ť
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