‘Phantom’ billionaire behind $500m flop
Dieter Schwarz is the 36th richest person on the planet - but he's so notoriously private he has been dubbed a "phantom" by the press in his native Germany.
The 80-year-old is the owner of the Schwarz Group, the fourth-largest retailer in the world by revenue.
The massive company owns the massive Lidl and Kaufland supermarket brands, and Mr Schwarz is the CEO and chairman of both.
But despite his staggering wealth and high-profile roles, Mr Schwarz is so reclusive almost nothing is known about his personal life.
In fact, just two photographs of him are known to exist - one of which is in black and white.
And while he's safely cloistered on the other side of the world in Germany, he's also behind one of Australia's biggest ever retail fails.
For years Australia was consumed with fevered speculation that Kaufland was expanding into the local market.
Then in November 2016, Kaufland's parent company applied for Kaufland trademarks in Australia, all but confirming it was heading Down Under.
In March 2017 its Australian website was up and running and in October that year it purchased its first site in South Australia, forking out around $25 million.
Throughout 2018 it began recruiting staff and firming up plans for Australian sites.
Then in 2019 it began constructing a $450 million distribution centre in Victoria and purchasing other sites across the country.
But last month, those ambitious plans were left in ruins, with the company abandoning its Australian project altogether, leaving 200 Aussie staff members in the lurch.
It had reportedly invested as much as $500 million into Australia already, but experts told news.com.au the total loss could come closer to a billion dollars.
So far, details behind the decision have been scant, with the company simply confirming the sudden withdrawal in a brief statement.
"This decision is about focusing business activities in Europe and is in no way a reflection of the efforts of our local employees or management, or the support Kaufland has received from the Australian business community or governments," the statement reads.
The years-long - and expensive - saga has left insiders stunned and scores of Australians out of work.
Mr Schwarz inherited the company from his father, Josef Schwarz, who became a partner in the Suedfruechte Grosshandel Lidl & Co fruit wholesaler in 1930.
He married wife Franziska Weipert in 1963, and joined his father's company in 1973, opening the first Lidl store that year based on the Aldi discount model.
He took over as CEO after his father's death in 1977, and since then has transformed the company into the juggernaut it is today, including its lucrative expansion into global markets.
But while he is one of Germany's - and the world's - most successful businessmen, it is his legendary secretiveness that has attracted the most attention, even inspiring a German documentary, Die Lidl-Story, in 2018.
"He is a mystery, lives out of sight, avoids all publicity. Extremely little is known about him, and very few people in his close circle dare talk to the press," the hour-long documentary begins.
According to UK industry publication The Grocer, the documentary also revealed some fascinating details about Mr Schwarz's life which are not widely known, such as the year he spent in the US as a teen in the 1950s, and the fact he got ahead of the competition by selling goods out of tents soon after the Berlin Wall came down in a bid to muscle in on the East German market.
He also allegedly had a "bitter rivalry" with Aldi founders Karl and Theo Albrecht - who gave him the demeaning nickname of "little Dieter Schwarz" - and that he paid them back by poaching Aldi executive Klaus Gehrig, who remains with the Schwarz Group to this day.
It also touches on some of the biggest rumours that surround Mr Schwarz, including the claim he likes to dress as a preacher to visit German churches undetected, that his office has not been updated since the 1950s, or that he works out to Abba hits.
However, the most fascinating rumour about Mr Schwarz is exactly what sparked his reclusive nature in the first place - and it could come down to the acts of a handful of criminals.
In the 1970s, Germany's elites were rocked by a string of high-profile and sometimes violent kidnappings, with Aldi's Theo Albrecht and Richard Oetker from food processing company Dr Oetker two of the most famous victims.
The documentary alleges the Schwarz family were also threatened - including Mr Schwarz's two young daughters - and that the young father all but disappeared as a result.
Very little has been written about Mr Schwarz - at least among English-language media outlets - but the German press consistently describe him as "Das Phantom von Heilbronn" or the phantom of Heilbronn, the city where he was born.