German retail pioneer Werner Otto turns 100 | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 12.08.2009
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German retail pioneer Werner Otto turns 100

Otto Werner's career began with a failed attempt to sell shoes amidst the rubble of post-war West Germany. Today the retail pioneer's empire includes Europe's largest shopping mall developer. He turns 100 on Thursday.

Werner Otto in 2003

Werner Otto was imprisoned by the Nazis before becoming a successful businessman

As a refugee from Soviet-controlled East Germany after World War II, Otto, who had apprenticed as a grocer, arrived in Hamburg and founded a shoe factory, which went bankrupt a year later in 1949. So in 1950 Otto came up with a new idea.

"Then, as I was looking around to start something new and was thinking about the shoe business, a catalog came. A mail-order shoe catalog on the table. Purely by coincidence it was sent to me. And I thought to myself, 'That's right for me. Go into mail-order shoes," Otto said.

Thus the Otto legend was born. The first catalog appeared in 1950, 28 different kinds of shoes on 14 pages. Just 300 hand-bound copies of the catalog were published and the photos were pasted in by hand. The original catalog can be seen today in the Haus der Geschichte history museum in Bonn.

The catalog set the foundation for a global retail and service group of companies that now employs tens of thousands of people. As the catalog expanded to include fabrics, furniture and consumer goods, the Otto Group grew into one of the largest mail-order firms in the world, with locations in 19 countries.

Shoppers at the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden in Berlin

Shoppers at the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden in Berlin, one of 112 shopping centers opened by Otto

"Location, location, location"

Always on the lookout for new challenges, Werner founded the shopping mall developer ECE in 1969, when he was 60 years old. Otto's son, Alexander, took over the reins of ECE in 2000 and said his father was thinking about globalization well before the term was even coined.

"As the Otto mail-order business was building up, my father was especially interested in the United States and traveled there often with other mail-order types to see was he could learn from the big mail-order houses," Alexander Otto said.

Today the company is the largest mall operator and developer in Europe, with 112 shopping centers across the continent. The company's formula for success was simple, said Alexander Otto.

"Location, location, location. Above all else, it's the most important corporate principle of ECE, that we only concentrate on first-class locations," Alexander Otto said.

Responsibility to the society

Before Werner Otto entered the shoe business and changed German retailing, he had been imprisoned for two years during World War II for handing out anti-Hitler leaflets. According to former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Otto represents a special kind of German entrepreneur.

"For me, Werner Otto is a textbook example of a successful businessman, who at the same time felt his share of responsibility for the common good and was fair about this responsibility," said Schmidt.

In 1969, Otto founded the Otto Foundation to support areas where he believed the government was not intervening quickly enough. Otto funded medical research, including a treatment center for children with cancer at the University Clinic in Hamburg. In 1974, Otto founded the Otto Institute, which was the first and only such institute in northern Germany dedicated to treating developmentally-challenged children. On Tuesday, Otto founded yet another foundation, this one dedicated to caring for poor, elderly residents of Berlin and Brandenburg.

Werner Ottos receives gifts at a cermony in Berlin

The city of Berlin honored Werner Otto on Tuesday

The thrice-married Otto had five children, who are now between the ages of 42 and 68. Michael Otto, 66, is currently the chairman of the board of the Otto Group and the most visible in the public eye. His eldest daughter Ingvild lives in Munich and collects art. 45-year-old daughter Katharina lives in New York while brothers Frank, Michael and Alexander all continue to live in Hamburg.

"My father said that he had an insane amount of luck in his life, naturally with his health and with some of the very important changes in his life. And therefore for him, it was always important from the beginning to give back a lot to society," said son Alexander.

Today, Werner Otto lives in Berlin with his wife Maren, who is 32 years younger. On Tuesday, Otto became an honorary citizen of the capital city and on Thursday he celebrates his 100th birthday.

Author: Verena Herb (bmn)
Editor: Sam Edmonds