The Albrecht family, owners of Aldi Nord, are famously reclusive. Almost nothing about them leaked out into the public for decades. But when Berthold Albrecht, son of Aldi founder Theo, died in 2012, a dispute over money and power burst out into the open.
Suddenly family members were telling the German media about the extravagance and greed of other members of the clan.
The dispute could be resolved on Thursday when a court in northern Germany will rule on whether a change Berthold made to the company management in 2010, which reduces the power of the family, is valid or not. The outcome of the case could have a major impact on the company's future.
Berthold's brother Theo Jr. claims that the ruling has potentially dramatic consequences for the discounter's future.
If the change is not recognized “the company would permanently have to dance to the tune played by Berthold's children and their lawyer,” he warned in a recent interview with Stern magazine.
In 2010 Berthold Albrecht, the son of Aldi founder Theo Albrecht, was told by his doctor that he didn't have long to live. So the two brothers decided to change the structure of the company, in an attempt to ensure its long-term success.
They decided to reduce the power of the family inside the supermarket's boardroom. How the company is run is complicated – Theo senior set up three foundations with control over the company – one called the Markus Foundation for his wife Cilly, the Lukas Foundation for Theo Jr. and the Jakobus Foundation for Berthold. Whenever Aldi Nord makes a significant investment, all three foundations need to approve it.
According to the version told by Theo Jr., the brothers both decided it would be in the company's best interests if senior Aldi employees were represented on the boards of the foundations too. So they began to reform each foundation to reduce the family's power. Theo Jr. went first, adding outsiders to the board of the Lukas Foundation, and the other two then followed suit.
That's not the version that Berthold's wife Babette tells though. She says that her husband was an alcoholic who was in no position to make a sound judgement at the time. According to Bild, she told the court that her husband used to consume large quantities of alcohol and sleeping pills at night in a form of self medication against insomnia. This version of events is confirmed by his children.
Babette Albrecht in 2015. Photo: DPA.
Berthold's children say that Theo Jr. is forcing them out of the company.
The suspicion is that Theo Jr. has become upset by the lavish lifestyles of a family which has built its success on the traditional German values of modesty and frugality.
In a thinly veiled attack on his brother's family, Theo Jr. told Stern magazine recently that “the name Albrecht commits you to a modest life”.
His brother clearly saw things rather differently. In the years 2009 to 2011 alone he spent around €100 million on vintage cars and paintings, details which emerged during a civil case against the art dealer Helge Achenbach.
So far at least, the family drama has had little effect on the success of business for the retailer which owns stores in ten countries and employs 60,000 people.
Most recently all three foundations unanimously green lighted a €5 billion modernization programme for Aldi North stores in Germany and then extended Aldi Nord CEO Marc Heußinger's contract for a further five years.