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A Foe of Privilege, Moving Van Millionaire Passes On

Zapf 38785108
Klaus Zapf's removal trucks became a landmark in Berlin and across Germany.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    From an alternative collective, Klaus Zapf built a German moving van empire.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Zapf has 14 offices and a staff of 600 and annual revenue of €20 million ($26.5 million).
    • Klaus Zapf, the founder, was a multimillionaire but lived a modest life until his death.
    • Mr. Zapf was a harsh critic of wealth and privilege in Germany.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Klaus Zapf loved to complain about the wealthy.

“The rich are a bunch of irresponsible parasites,” he said.

By the end of his life, he was one of them, a multimillionaire but an unusual one. He lived in a modest home on one of his removal company’s grounds, loved fishing, and at night collected bottles he could exchange for the deposits.

He died Wednesday aged 62. By then he had built up a removal firm that spanned Germany with 14 offices and 600 employees. One of his biggest jobs was to move the national rail company’s headquarters to Berlin.

Mr. Zapf was born in southern Germany and moved to Berlin in 1974 to evade military service. There were many others like him in Berlin, youngsters looking for excitement and freedom they couldn’t find in Germany’s provinces.

Instead they set up in the city and explored. And they moved house often, from squats to shared flats.

Mr. Zapf quickly grasped the opportunity and set up a collective that would help the people move.

“The rich are a bunch of irresponsible parasites.”

Klaus Zapf, Owner of Zapf removal firm

When he wasn’t packing boxes and carrying them up and down the stairs, lugging lamps and heaving cookers, he was deeply involved in Berlin’s counter-culture scene. His friends included Rudi Dutschke, a leader of Germany’s student movement.

Mr. Zapf studied to be a lawyer but built a moving empire instead. He started out in 1975 with a beat up old Ford Transit van, emptying houses after squatters move out.

His fleet grew and eventually his trucks with their blue and yellow marking became a familiar sight around the German capital. Emblazoned across the side was also the sentence “owned by the workers.” He eventually had to modify this to “involving the workers” after a legal claim. Later, the sentence was dropped entirely.

As a mover, Mr. Zapf was known for marching into the homes of people who were planning to move, summing up the contents in a brief glance and naming a sum off the cuff for the move. The prices were always competitive but he had a head for figures and his family business grew to be one of Germany’s largest removal businesses.

His team of movers was made up of like-minded people, students, travelers, people exploring the world and its meaning. Often after shifting the carpets, the tables and the fridge they might smoke a joint together or have a cup of tea and talk about capitalism.

When the wall dividing the city fell, Mr. Zapf opened up offices throughout the country, eventually expanding his removal business to 14 branches and a staff of 600.

 

Zapf_umzüge_köpenicker_str Wiki
Zapf removal firm’s headquarters in Berlin. Source: Wikipedia

 

Though he built his business from alternative students and experiment seekers, Mr. Zapf’s business became so established that he moved two thirds of the German federal government agencies back to Berlin when the city was reinstated as capital.

Although he became wealthy and successful, he stayed closed to his roots. He found his second wife after she advertised that she was “looking for a millionaire.”

In 2000, Mr. Zapf moved out of the removal business and turned his sights to supervisory boards, the boards of directors in German businesses that hire and fire chief executives and confirm the board of management’s decisions. His strategy was to buy shares and sue boards, to disrupt their decision-making. He took on heavyweights such as ThyssenKrupp, Allianz and Axa. His attempts to expose what he called an “entertainment circus” earned him a reputation as a corporate avenger.

With his stocky build, flowing beard, heavy glasses, he was known throughout Berlin and Germany, appearing on talk shows to decry the “idiots who believe in growth.”

He had recently summed up his life as “a complete failure,” but others impressed by his tireless work to change the German mindset are likely to be more charitable.

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