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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.

Until he took over as Chairman of the Supervisory Board in 2007, Prof. Dr. Michael Otto consistently developed the former Otto Versand Hamburg into a globally active retail and services group with around 50,000 employees in 30 major company groups, which does business in over 30 countries in Europe, North and South America, and Asia. The Otto Group’s activities cover the three business segments Multichannel Retail, Financial Services, and Service.

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. 

The Group companies’ product and service offers are shaped by sustainability. The Otto Group intends to use only sustainably grown cotton for its own-brand and licensed-brand textile assortment – and almost achieved this goal already in 2020 with a share of 98 percent. By 2025 the plan is for 65 percent of fibres used in own-brand and licensed-brand products to originate from the ‘Preferred Fiber Portfolio’. In this portfolio the Group includes fibres that have significantly less harmful impacts compared to conventional fibres, as well as recycled materials and animal fibres that respect animal welfare.

The Group’s previous Climate Strategy targeted a 50 percent cut by 2020 in the CO2 emissions caused by its locations, transportation and employee mobility in 2006. It exceeded this goal with a reduction of 56 percent, achieved completely without any emissions compensation measures. The Otto Group fully intends to continue avoiding and reducing greenhouse gas emissions originating from its business activities. To achieve this, by 2025 it will decrease its specific emissions from their 2018 level by 40 percent. The Group plans to achieve climate neutrality in its business activities by 2030

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 Prof. Dr. Michael Otto’s commitment, the initiative ‘Foundation "KlimaWirtschaft" – German Businesses for Climate Protection ’ was established in 2007. It has now grown into an affiliation of 31 leading representatives of the German business community who actively support the German Federal Government in developing and implementing a globally effective, market-based climate policy on both a national and international level.

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