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Otto Empire

Can a … paternalistic billionaire compete with the efficiency-obsessed behemoths born of the the cut-throat Internet?" That’s the question posed in a Forbes magazine article by Adam Tanner (3/24/14) and the answer is not clear. The billionaire is Michael Otto, 70, patriarch of "the Otto Group, which encompasses 123 companies (including America’s Crate & Barrel) across 20 countries," with annual revenues of about $16.4 billion. Despite his wealth and success, Michael remains "steeped in modesty and dignity."

"I have a good understanding of how it is to be poor," he says. "I sometimes cannot understand how people who become successful seem to be a different person." His outlook perhaps helps explain why his "workers have never led a strike against the company, which instructs its managers not to work on weekends or holidays." "It is so important to relax," says Michael, whose attitude stands in contrast to "charges of poor work conditions" that "led Amazon workers in its German distribution centers to strike last year."

However, "last year, for the first time, Amazon’s sales in Germany ($10.5 billion) eclipsed Otto’s ($9 billion). And the trend lines are far uglier: The Otto Group’s sales are up 17% in Germany since the recession, while Amazon’s have doubled since 2010." Otto Group is not standing still, though, among other things developing Project Collins, a "showy fashion site" run by Michael’s son Benjamin, and designed to be "attractive and exciting for young people." Benjamin’s other project is the Burn Out Prevention Center, which runs "seminars on stress reduction and holistic health."