Lots of families have skeletons in the closet--black marks from deep in the past, maybe from generations ago.

This is a story about a company and a family that says it just learned about its deepest and darkest secret. 

The Reimann family is the second wealthiest family in Germany. Its holding company has massive investments in some of the world's most famous brands, such as:

  • Krispy Kreme Doughnuts
  • Panera Bread
  • Pret a Manger
  • Einstein Bros. Bagels
  • Peet's Coffee
  • Keurig Green Mountain
  • Dr. Pepper-Snapple, and
  • Calvin Klein perfume.

Now, the family's most recent generation says it's recently been told of a shameful past that older family members kept secret about their business ancestors: Albert Reimann Sr. and Albert Reimann Jr., who harbored a deep and blatant complicity with Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime.

According to a recent report in German's Bild newspaper, the Reimann family, which controls JAB Holding Company, benefited during World War II from their support of Hitler -- which in turn enabled their company to employ slave laborers, including Russian civilians and French prisoners of war.

At the time, the family's holdings were in a chemical company, which the New York Times notes eventually became the $58 billion firm Reckitt Benckiser, and which counted Lysol among its products. Eventually, the family moved its money into JAB Holdings, which "has become one of the biggest players in the consumer world through a rapid-fire series of corporate takeovers."

"We were all ashamed and turned as white as the wall" after learning of the, family spokesperson Peter Harf said, adding that the family had hired independent historians to investigate the Bild allegations, and confirmed them. "There is nothing to gloss over. These crimes are disgusting."

So, what do you do if you learn of a secret like that? For starters, the Reimann family says it will make about $11.3 million (10 million Euros) in charitable donations, although the recipients haven't yet been identified. 

Bild estimates the family's wealth at $33 billion Euros, so this amounts to about .03 percent of the family's net worth. It's the equivalent of someone worth $10 million making a $3,000 donation. 

Still, it's an honest dilemma. Customers reasonably want some kind of reaction from the company.

But to what extent is any of us responsible for our forefathers' sins? Does it change the calculus when you think about the degree to which the company continues to benefit today from what happened all those years ago?

They're heavy questions. I don't have the answers. But I hope they're weightier than anything you or your business will ever have to grapple with.

Here's what else I'm reading today:

Published on: Mar 26, 2019
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