The richest man in Germany is also one of the most unknown. There are hardly any photographs of Dieter Schwarz, the billionaire owner of the discount supermarket chain Lidl, circulating. He has never given interviews or wanted to participate in reports. Not even in his own city, Heilbronn (Baden-Wurttemberg) would many of his neighbors recognize him if he went out for a walk on the street. More than one journalist from the major German media has tried to talk to him, or to those around him, and has encountered a wall of discretion. A secrecy reminiscent of the one that Amancio Ortega once maintained, but that Schwarz has managed to preserve until the era of Twitter and Instagram. His empire has made the news this week in Spain: a court has forced Lidl to withdraw from sale all copies of its successful kitchen robot low cost for violating the Thermomix patent.
Discretion is not an unusual trait among the great German fortunes, especially among those who have amassed their capital in the distribution business. Also the billionaire owners of Aldi or Schlecker are elusive with the media. They and their families. Schwarz’s secrecy is due “in part to his character but they also say that he comes from a certain fear of kidnappings, since in the 70s and 80s the families of the founders of Aldi and the founder of Schlecker suffered attacks of this kind ”Recalls Jan Mende, a journalist from Lebensmittel Zeitung, economic medium specialized in the food sector.
Of Schwarz a pair of biographical notes are known. He was born in Heilbronn in 1939, the son of the grocer Josef Schwarz, who, with another partner, named Lidl, had a wholesale fruit business. After finishing high school, he started working with his father. In 1973 the Schwarz decided to open the first supermarket imitating the Aldi model, which were already expanding throughout Germany offering low prices and a large selection of products. As he did not want to use his own surname, which means black, and could recall the expression black market, he decided to use that of his father’s partner, short and loud. To avoid legal problems, he bought the rights from a retired painter and school teacher named Ludwig Lidl, whom he discovered after reading an article about him in the local newspaper. He paid him 1,000 German marks, according to the magazine years ago Focus.
Four years after opening the first supermarket, Lidl was already a chain of 33 stores. In 1977 Josef Schwarz died and his son remained in charge of the company. In parallel to the expansion of Lidl, Schwarz started another business venture in the world of distribution, in this case a chain of hypermarkets called Kaufland. The first establishment opened in Neckarsulm, next to Schwarz’s hometown, and others soon followed throughout East Germany. Today there are more than 1,200 Kauflands in Germany and in other countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland and Lidl has 11,200 supermarkets in 29 countries. In Spain, it has already achieved the third largest market share, according to Kantar, only behind Mercadona and Carrefour.
It is also known about Schwarz that he has been married to his wife Franziska for more than five decades, and that he has two daughters, also unknown to the general public and of whom it has not been written what they do or any details about their private lives. The family’s secrecy seems to spread to the communication departments of their companies, reluctant to give information to the media about the founder. Schwarz retired from the day-to-day business when he was 65 years old, but has continued to control the Schwarz Group, which includes Lidl and Kaufland, ever since. It does so through a foundation that bears its name and is the owner of the group’s shares. Schwarz is the biggest patron of his city, highlights the economic newspaper Handelsblatt in a profile he made for his 80th birthday. Among other things, it financed the restoration of an old industrial building that became a center dedicated to the dissemination of science. His foundation promotes education, science and research, and recently donated funds to create chairs at the Technical University of Munich.
The discreet tycoon accumulates a net capital of 36,400 million dollars (29,900 million euros), according to Forbes, which ranks it 40th among the richest in the world. There is only one other German fortune ahead of the updated list: that of the heirs of Karl Albrecht, one of the two brothers who created Aldi, Lidl’s competitor supermarket group. Like Schwarz, they too created an empire from a modest family business, sharing until their death (Karl in 2014; Theo in 2010) the desire to manage their fortunes from anonymity. ZDF public television recently aired a report on the Lidl story, which begins with this sentence: “Dieter Schwarz, the freak, the ghost.” Reporters traveled to Heilbronn to ask its inhabitants if they recognized Schwarz in one of the few photos of him circulating. Most shook their heads. They would not know how to recognize the owner of the fourth largest distribution group in the world.