Theo Albrecht dies at 88; German billionaire was co-owner of Trader Joe’s

Theo Albrecht, the secretive co-founder of Germany’s worldwide discount supermarket chain Aldi, a co-owner of Trader Joe’s in the United States and one of Europe’s richest men, has died. He was 88.

The retail machine that Albrecht built with his brother Karl has won over German consumers with their no-thrills but super-cheap offerings, making billionaires of the two and spawning imitation discount stores across Europe.

The company’s Aldi Nord division said in a statement Wednesday that Albrecht was the driving force behind Aldi’s internationalization, expanding stores to France, Spain, Portugal, Poland and the United States, among other nations.

The company said he died Saturday in his hometown of Essen, Germany, but gave no cause of death.

Even that bare-bones statement marked unusual openness for a company known for its extreme secrecy.

When Forbes featured the brothers in 1992 as two of the world’s richest men, the magazine had to use silhouettes rather than photographs to illustrate the article since no pictures of them had been published in many years.

Albrecht was born in Essen in 1922. He and his elder brother Karl both served as German soldiers in World War II and then returned home and took over a grocery store their parents owned.

They flourished as the German economy, in shambles after the war, came back to life in what is often called the “economic miracle.”

By 1950, they were already running 13 stores and five years later, they had expanded throughout Germany’s western industrial Ruhr basin.

The first Aldi stores — an acronym standing for “Albrecht Discount” — opened in the early 1960s. Those stores were the building blocks of one of Germany’s largest food retail chains with a focus on a limited range of goods at bargain-basement prices.

In 1979, a family trust established by Theo Albrecht bought the U.S. specialty grocery chain Trader Joe’s from founder Joseph Coulombe. In 1967 he had turned his Pronto convenience stores into Trader Joe’s and opened the first one in Pasadena.

In keeping with Aldi’s culture of secrecy, Monrovia-based Trader Joe’s refused Wednesday to comment on Albrecht or Aldi, even refusing to confirm that the chain is owned by the Albrecht family. The business information provider Hoover’s confirms that the billionaire brothers bought the U.S. company in 1979. The chain now has 342 outlets and last year had sales of about $8 billion.

Albrecht quietly managed Aldi Nord until 1993, when he stepped back from its day-to-day operations. But he still wielded huge influence as chairman of a foundation that holds the biggest stake in the company.

The publicity-shy Albrecht kept a very low profile. In 1971, he was kidnapped in Germany and released after 17 days after paying a ransom of about $2 million. The kidnappers were caught but half the ransom was never recovered. Albrecht went to court to have the ransom accepted as a business deduction for tax reasons.

Besides his brother, Albrecht is survived by his wife and two sons.