Prof Dr Michael Otto: portrait of an entrepreneur 

Michael Otto

Prof Dr Michael Otto is one of the most successful German entrepreneurs of our time. At the age of 28, after successfully completing his university education, he first joined his father’s company as Member of the Executive Board Merchandise Textile Division in 1971. In 1981 he took over the Chairmanship of the Executive Board from the then interim manager, Günther Nawrath.

From the very beginning of his involvement, Michael Otto focused on both a far-reaching diversification strategy for the company and the principle of sustainable business activity. Under his leadership numerous companies were founded, competitors were taken over, diverse commitments in Europe, Asia and America were realised and new market segments were entered. Otto was one of the first German retail companies to develop e-commerce alongside its catalogue business and its over-the-counter retail business back in the middle of the 1990s. This identifies the Otto Group as a trailblazer in the multichannel strategy that has been adopted by numerous competitors today.

Right up to his move to the Supervisory Board in 2007, Michael Otto had consistently been developing the former Otto Versand Hamburg into a retail and service group with 49,000 employees active worldwide. Today the Otto Group is active in more than 30 countries with 123 major companies in Europe, North America and Asia in the Multichannel Retail, Financial Services and Service sectors.

In March 2014 he transferred the majority of his shareholdings in Otto (GmbH & Co KG) to the Michael Otto Foundation, a non-profit foundation under German civil law, to ensure that the international retail and service group remains a family company headquartered in Hamburg for future generations. The dividends from the Otto Group are to be used to further the Foundation’s stated purpose of supporting social, environmental, cultural and charitable goals.

Prof Dr Michael Otto is a genuine family business entrepreneur with great commitment and a clear sense of responsibility for the consequences of his own efforts. His view is that the economy must serve the greater good, not the other way round. For this reason he declared that protecting the environment and acting in a socially responsible way in business was already an integral part of his corporate strategy in the 1980s. 

It is his objective to introduce both environmental and social standards to his suppliers as well as importing merchandise from them. Within the framework of a social management system the working conditions at production sites are checked on the one hand, and on the other suppliers are supported with further training measures. 

Sustainable goods and services are what distinguish the Group companies’ offer. 100 per cent of the Group’s own-brand textile range carries the ‘Skin-friendly, tested for harmful substances’ quality seal. By 2020 the Otto Group aims to use only sustainably cultivated cotton for its textile assortment marketed under its own as well as licenced brands. Under its Climate Strategy the Group also intends to halve its CO2 emissions compared to the 2006 benchmark figure by 2020.

Michael Otto is convinced that “each of us can make some contribution towards helping things in our society take a turn for the better.” For Michael Otto the entrepreneur, each of us assuming responsibility and making a personal commitment within the scope of our means are essential pillars that hold society together. Justice, equal opportunity, fairness and cooperation also shape the company’s culture and its dealings with its own employees. 

Michael Otto is a co-founder and initiator of numerous well-known and ground-breaking initiatives for German industry. Within the Foreign Trade Association of German Retailers in 2001, he encouraged the working out of a solution for the industry in which member companies agreed to commit their suppliers to compliance with minimum standards, and to train them to do this. Since the end of 2004 this model has been carried out under the auspices of the FTA as the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI). In 2000, together with Hapag-Lloyd AG, he initiated the employment initiative from which the Hamburg Basic Secondary School Model developed in 2001; this facilitates the seamless transfer of pupils leaving secondary school into an unsubsidised vocational training scheme. 

Through his commitment, the initiative ‘2° – German Business Leaders for Climate Protection’ emerged in 2007; it has now developed into an affiliation of ten leading representatives of the German economy who actively support the German government in the development and implementation of globally effective and market-based climate policy on a national and international level. 

Prof Dr Michael Otto carries the German Grand Merit Cross with Star.