When friends fall out: German organic pioneers fight over Alnatura brand rights

By NNA staff, March 2016

The founders of the dm pharmacy chain and the organic business Alnatura are facing one another across court in a dispute about brand rights. But what the media like to focus on is that both of them are anthroposophists.

A bitter legal dispute between the grand old men of organic retailing in Germany about who owns the successful organic brand Alnatura shows no sign of ending despite recent reports in some media that they had reached a settlement.

The quarrel pits Götz Werner, founder of the dm chain of pharmacies, and Wolfgang Gutberlet, former boss of the tegut organic food retailer, against Götz Rehn, founder of the Alnatura organic supplier and retailer.

dm has over 1,700 outlets in Germany and almost 1,500 in eastern Europe and the Balkans. It employs over 55,000 staff and last year had a turnover of €9,075m. It used to stock the whole range of Alnatura products.  Werner has also been very much involved in promoting the idea of an unconditional basic income.

Alnatura turned over €760m in the last financial year with 2,530 staff. tegut was sold to the Swiss cooperative Migros in 2013 so Gutberlet is involved in the dispute in a personal capacity.

“Staunch anthroposophists”

However, what adds the spice to the way the story is reported is that, as the media never fail to point out, the protagonists are in the words of the business paper Handelsblatt “staunch anthroposophists”, even though, as the paper Süddeutsche Zeitung highlights, “anthropos” means human being in ancient Greek and “sophia” wisdom. “But sometimes,” Süddeutsche Zeitung notes, not without irony, “it is difficult to bring the two together.”

Having had their claim on the Alnatura brand rejected by Frankfurt regional court, Werner and Gutberlet decided to lodge an appeal which is due to be heard before Frankfurt higher regional court next February. Gutberlet told Handelsblatt that he and Werner had decided to continue with the case because “the origin of the brand has to be set right”.

In a reconstruction of events based on the court’s ruling, Handelsblatt points out that the original intention of all three men – who were close friends at the time, Werner and Rehn are even related by marriage – was to put into practice an alternative economic model along the lines of Rudolf Steiner’s concept of social threefolding.

The paper quotes from an undated agreement between them, with “minor typing errors”, apparently from May 1985, in which they resolve to “strive for a humanisation of economic life on the basis of the anthroposophical socio-organic approach developed by Dr. Rudolf Steiner”. To this end they intended to produce goods “which benefit people” and come from “controlled organic agriculture”.

Rehn was made the “formal legal owner” of the Alnatura brand but a number of other clauses obliged him to obtain the consent of his partners in disposing over it.

Gentlemen’s agreement

The dispute now centres on whether this agreement establishes the claim that the brand rights should be returned to Werner und Gutberlet. The plaintiffs argue that Alnatura is in principle a brand of dm and tegut which had only been managed in trust by Götz Rehn and the return of which they can now demand.

Frankfurt regional court did not share that view and threw out the claim. It judged Rehn to be the “formal and material sole owner” of the Alnatura brand and classed the agreement between the three organic pioneers merely as a gentlemen‘s agreement.

Handelsblatt dates the deterioration in relations between the men to as long ago as 2008 but this did not come out into the open until 2012 when, according to the paper, dm buyers demanded more favourable terms from Alnatura as well as information about the latter’s suppliers and their terms – apparently in anticipation of dm introducing its own organic brand.

When Rehn did not comply, Werner and Gutberlet called on him to return the Alnatura brand rights. Rehn refused because to comply would to all intents and purposes have meant the end of his business.

Problems in the cooperation between dm and Alnatura have been reported by media in the food industry since dm announced in 2014 that it was introducing its own organic label and started taking Alnatura products off the shelves.

It therefore came as some surprise when it was reported in the anthroposophical magazine Info3 last month that the dispute had been settled through the good offices of the founder of the Egyptian Sekem initiative for sustainable development, Ibrahim Abouleish, a friend of both Werner and Rehn. In a handwritten note signed both by Werner and Rehn, the two men were said to have instructed their lawyers to reach an amicable settlement to the dispute.

No movement

The report proved to be premature. On subsequent enquiry from NNA, no one would confirm it. The dm press office refused to comment “in view of the ongoing proceedings” and Wolfgang Gutberlet’s spokeswoman, Nicole Lamparter, responded with a “no comment”. Alnatura also refused to say anything about the note.

The appeal before Frankfurt higher regional court was not withdrawn either.

It is clear from the most recent comments by both sides that each one wants the other to give way first. According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Alnatura expected the appeal to be withdrawn after the handwritten agreement. When that did not happen it sent what it called a “settlement offer” to dm.

The latter’s CEO Erich Harsch meanwhile in response to the Alnatura offer told the paper that he interpreted what dm described as “documentation relating to the proceedings” as indicating that Rehn was not willing to settle.

Both sides appear to be as entrenched as ever. Neither wants to blink first. As the reporting of this case shows, in the eyes of the wider world this dispute confirms that even “staunch anthroposophists” with their alternative way of doing things can become quite traditional when it comes to pursuing their business interests.

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