He owns a global retail empire, with over 10,000 locations and 120,000 employees. But unlike Zara’s Amancio Ortega or Ikea’s Ingvar Kamprad, Bruno Steinhoff, the 79-year-old German billionaire who turned a shop in his garage into the world’s second-largest furniture company, keeps a low profile. Chances are you’ve never heard of him.
It all started in the mid-1960s in Westerstede, a small town in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony. Mr. Steinhoff found a market niche by providing West German retailers with cheap furniture from communist East Germany. He still has a quiet, hedged-off estate in Westerstede and an office at Steinhoff’s admin center there. Photos hanging outside the door show him beside a world map next to Gaby: not a lady friend, but a red, upholstered chair, which back then was Steinhoff’s bestselling model.
Business flourished until the Berlin Wall fell, when sourcing products became difficult in the political chaos. So Mr. Steinhoff bought furniture factories close to insolvency and built production plants in Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. That’s when Steinhoff International as it’s known today, an international furniture maker and retailer, was born.
Steinhoff is still well behind its main competitor Ikea, with only about half the sales. But the name Steinhoff is quickly becoming more famous, as is it’s founder who dealt with competitors and fund managers tenaciously in the last couple years. The Steinhoff Group has about €17 billion in revenues, having grown to encompass 40 different chains and more than 10,000 stores throughout the world, including America’s biggest mattress retailer Mattress, African textile discounter Pepkor and big furniture chains such as Conforama in France and POCO in Germany.