The death of Germany's 'best' businessman
Götz Werner leaves Germany with a positive legacy shaped by an eccentric belief system.
Anthroposophists have had something of a bad rap of late.
The quasi-religious movement founded by Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century is best known for the Waldorf schools middle class hippies send their kids to. But it has gained notoriety over the past 12 months due to the suspicion many of its adherents have towards Covid vaccines.
In the state of Baden-Württemburg in the southwest, which is the cradle of anthroposophy, vaccine take up has been low. Stuttgart is also the birthplace of the anti-lockdown Querdenker movement. Some observers have linked this to the local popularity of Steiner’s worldview, which sees illness as a necessary path for ridding the body of imbalances carried over from previous lives.
But some sad news from this week highlights the good that anthroposophy can do in the world.
The death of dm drugstore founder, Götz Werner, was met with universal grief, due to the fact that his anthroposophic beliefs had given him a reputation as a businessman with a big heart.
“Werner always saw himself as a different entrepreneur, as an anthroposophist and philanthropist who didn’t primarily focus on profit but on the well-being of customers and employees,” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote in its obituary.
Brought up in the badische town of Heidelberg in a family that had run a local drugstore for a 100 years, Werner moved to Karlsruhe after falling out with his father. There, he set up his own shop in the early 1970s.
Chance would have it that this coincided with the government liberalizing pricing in the branch, a step which allowed the free market into the sector.
Three particularly entrepreneurial men used the Gunst der Stunde to expand their businesses: Anton Schlecker, Dirk Rossmann and Götz Werner.
Schlecker’s business has since gone bankrupt and the founder is sitting in jail after one of the biggest fraud cases in German legal history.
Herr Rossmann did well for himself - as anyone who has walked down a German high street will know.
But Werner, the only one not to put his name on his shop front (dm stands simply for drogeriemarkt), was the most successful. Dm now runs 3,000 stores and employs 66,000 people across the continent, making it the biggest drugstore chain in Europe.
The company makes a big deal of the fact that it puts its employees and customers first. Customer care, still an alien concept in cities like Berlin, was a central tenet of his business model from the beginning. The company’s slogan is “hier bin ich Mensch, hier kaufe ich ein.”
Checkout assistants at the company take part in theatre workshops as part of their personal development training. A trainee there is a Lernling rather than a Lehrling (the emphasis changing from teaching lehren to learning lernen.)
While some of this stuff might sound gimmicky, dm employees genuinely seem to identify with their company. In job satisfaction reports, the drugstore is a habitual winner.
In his later life Werner became a celebrity due to regular talk show appearances, in which he argued that Germany needed to institute a universal basic income. A book he wrote on the subject was titled “Income for all”. Always ahead of the curve, Werner was already talking about a basic income back in 2004.
According to Der Spiegel, “he was a pioneer in many ways. He was committed to sustainability long before entire industries discovered it as a PR tool. And while there were complaints about poor working conditions elsewhere, dm employees only had good things to says about Werner, who was guided by his anthroposophical view of man.”
From personal experience, I can’t say that the anthroposophic culture of dm has made that much more of an impression on me than the customer care at Rossmann. My new role as a 21st century father means I’ve spent more time in drugstores in the past two months than I had in the previous thirty years. Dm were kind enough to gift us a nappy and a milk bottle. Both stores have a bafflingly wide range of hair lotions.
On the wider subject of anthroposophy though, my first hand experience of a belief system some deride as occult has only been positive. In December, my son was born in Berlin’s only anthroposophic hospital. It’s reputation for having a first class maternity ward is more than deserved. Our midwives had a sixth sense for when to give us attention and when to leave us in peace. Surrounded by moodily lit healing stones and with an ensuite luxury bath, we almost felt like we were in a hotel.
From what I hear from from friends, one isn’t as lucky at every Berlin hospital.
So here’s to anthroposophists. They may believe that we’re carrying around ailments from previous incarnations. But they sure seem like nice people.