Retailers

Lidl U.S. Chairman Roman Heini Departing

Company cites personal reasons; source disputes reported tension with CEO
Lidl US Chairman Roman Heini (left) is departing citing personal reasons; leaving control of the company of US CEO Johannes Fieber (right). Photograph by WGB staff

Roman Heini, the high-profile former Aldi executive named chairman at Lidl U.S., is departing the fast-growing hard discounter after just 17 months, WGB has learned.

Lidl U.S. confirmed the decision to WGB this morning, saying in a statement that Heini informed leaders at the company this week of the decision to depart “to pursue other professional interests and to spend more time with his family.” Johannes Fieber, who was named U.S. CEO several months before Heini, will continue to lead the company.

“We appreciate Roman’s commitment and contributions to Lidl throughout his tenure, which have helped position Lidl for greater success in the future,” the Arlington, Va.-based division of Germany’s Schwarz Group, said in a statement. “Lidl will continue its expansion in the United States under the direction and guidance of its CEO, Johannes Fieber. Johannes assumed responsibility for Lidl U.S. as CEO in May 2018 and will continue to work closely with the Lidl international team to drive the business forward.”

The German business trade, Lebensmittel Zeitung, first reported Heini would be departing. That report, based on anonymous sources, cited some tension between Heini and Fieber amid what the report described as pressure from Schwarz Group headquarters in Neckarsulm, Germany, to meet financial goals. Tightly held Lidl has been known to change its leaders with relative frequency: Fieber is the third U.S. CEO since reports first surfaced of Lidl’s interest in expanding to the U.S. in 2014. Heini succeeded Michael Aranda in the U.S. chairman’s role.

A Lidl U.S. insider disputed the characterization of leadership tension, telling WGB that Heini and Fieber had a “very close professional partnership” and cited the company’s recent U.S. initiatives—including expansion into the Atlanta and New York markets—as evidence the discounter was still strongly committed to continued growth in the U.S.

Heini on a message on Linkedin late Tuesday said the recent loss of his father played a role in his decision to depart the company.

“There are no words that can express how truly grateful I am for the privilege of working with the team of Lidl US. You have been part of my family and home during one of the most challenging times for all of us. That I have gotten to spend this time working with people who are so motivated and upbeat is a blessing I hope you have shared, and will continue to share.

“I trust you will understand that the decision to leave our company comes after much reflection on my personal goals, not just for my career, but most importantly, having recently lost my father, for my family. It should in no way detract from my confidence in the future of Lidl US.”

In an apprant message to Lidl teammates Heini continued: “Brick and mortar retail in the U.S. is at a crossroads. This team can play a fundamental role in shaping the direction the industry takes. You are in the driver’s seat, and I can’t wait to see where you take the company.”

Sources estimate Schwarz had earmarked as much as $4 billion toward U.S. expansion, although the company has not confirmed that figure.

The addition of Heini, who formerly led rival Aldi to enormous success in places such as Switzerland and the U.K., and was considered to be a potential successor to Schwarz Group CEO Klaus Gehrig, was seen as an “an audacious coup” for Lidl, sources in Europe told WGB when he joined the company last February. Standing 6-foot-8, Heini cut an imposing figure. In an interview with WGB at the opening of a New York store late last year, Heini expressed confidence that the U.S. market would welcome Lidl, based on superior value it presented to shoppers.

A recently published commissioned report confirmed Lidl’s impact in local markets, noting that even discount competitors such as Aldi had lowered prices on select items upon Lidl’s arrival on Long Island.

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