Hans Riegel, the eccentric billionaire confectioner who gave gummi bears their global bite

October 18, 2013 7:28 pm

Hans Riegel, confectioner who gave gummi bears their global bite

By Michael Steen

For nearly seven decades, Hans Riegel was the eccentric chief confectioner, autocratic business leader and one-man marketing machine who propelled Haribo, purveyor of colourful fruit-flavoured “gummi bears”, from a Bonn backstreet to an envied prominence in global confectionery. Riegel represented, in concentrated form, traits typical of Germany’s family-owned Mittelstand companies. As the business grew, he flew Willy Wonka-like in the face of modern corporate convention, eschewing everything from market research to bank loans and opportunities to take the group public.Childless but childlike in his fascination with the comics his main customers read and the games they played, the billionaire constantly dreamt up new products as he zipped between its headquarters and his house in Austria in a liquorice-black helicopter that, for many years, he piloted solo.

Next week, as every October, thousands of children will turn up at the Bonn factory gates with bags of conkers to exchange them for Haribo sweets. The horse chestnuts are used to feed deer during the winter. “I work because I enjoy it,” Riegel said three years ago. “And I have no reason to rob myself of that joy.”

Riegel, who has died aged 90, had been recuperating from an operation in July to remove a benign brain tumour. Until then he had remained directly engaged in the business of which he took ownership along with his brother Paul in 1946.

Founded in 1920 by their father, also called Hans, Haribo’s name is derived from an abbreviation of Hans Riegel Bonn. During the 1930s the company grew to employ 400 people and built the factory on the site that remains its main base. But by the time Hans Jr, born on March 10 1923, and the younger Paul had been released as prisoners of war by the US army, Hans Sr had died. The company was barely ticking over with 30 staff left and big problems accessing raw materials. Hans took over the management as well as marketing and sales while Paul, who died in 2009, was in charge of production.

The global blockbuster that is officially known as the Gold Bear, but colloquially as gummi bear, traces its ancestry back to 1922 when Hans Sr started selling Dancing Bears made of gum arabic. In the 1960s Riegel shrank them in size, packaged them in bags and renamed them Gold Bears. With a few ingredient changes over the years, such as a switch to pork-based gelatin in the 1980s, the product became a worldwide hit.

Today’s Haribo employs 6,000 people in 15 factories. It says it produces enough gummi bears every year to circle the globe four times.

Riegel, who wrote a PhD thesis on the world sugar market, had his fair share of misses as well as hits. The delicately named “A...Mit Ohren”, which depicted pink bottoms with ears attached, were made for German carnival celebrations and can be tracked down only on eBay. A 1986 jelly “holy family” was swiftly withdrawn from sale after complaints from the Roman Catholic church.

Where Riegel typified the Mittelstand was in his life-long belief in the values of a family-run company and his hostility to outside interference. He was horrified in 1949 when officials from the local savings bank came to the factory and began sticking “property of Sparkasse Bonn” on his bags of sugar after the company missed an interest payment on a loan. He persuaded the bank to let him keep the sugar but swore never to take credit again. Subsequent takeovers of smaller confectioners in the Netherlands, France and the UK were directly financed out of cash flow.

Riegel understood the importance of marketing and branding early on and here too he took a hands-on approach, scripting television advertisements and adapting his father’s tagline, “Haribo makes children happy”, to include adults. The rhyming German version, Haribo macht Kinder froh/ Und Erwachsene ebensoremains the jingle on its adverts to this day.

Just like Willy Wonka, Riegel found his thoughts turning over the past decade to his lack of a successor. Instead of placing golden tickets in bags of Haribo, Riegel, who took Austrian citizenship in 1991, placed his shares in an Austrian foundation. Two of his brother’s three children are in the company and Felix Theato, the external manager he chose as caretaker while he recuperated, remains in place – about as much planning as the man who did not want to retire could manage. Riegel is survived by his partner of more than 25 years, Anna Maria Bischof, 50.

Speaking a few years ago, Thomas Gottschalk, a television celebrity who has featured in German Haribo adverts since 1991 and counted as a friend of the reclusive confectioner, said: “Riegel is older than 80, looks like he’s 60, works like a 40-year-old and behaves like a 20-year-old.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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