The billionaire boss of the giant German slaughterhouse now locked down because of coronavirus is nicknamed “the meat baron” – and controversies are nothing new for Clemens Tönnies.
Tönnies is Germany’s market leader in meat production: the plant near Gütersloh in western Germany employs about 7,000 people, who are all now in quarantine. More than 1,500 have tested positive.
Clemens Tönnies, 64, apologised for the outbreak – the worst coronavirus flare-up in Germany since the authorities started easing restrictions last month. There have been smaller virus outbreaks in some other meat processing plants.
On Saturday Clemens called it “an existential crisis for the company”.
There is anger towards the firm in Gütersloh, where schools and kindergartens have now been shut.
Family success story
Tönnies was founded as a family business in 1971, by Clemens’s elder brother Bernd, with Clemens in the junior role, as he was only 15 then.
It grew to become one of Europe’s biggest meat producers. Today it employs about 16,500 people in Germany and Denmark, and 50% of the meat is exported.
The plant in Rheda-Wiedenbrück near Gütersloh slaughters and processes about 20,000 pigs daily. But now production has been suspended as the authorities race to contain the virus outbreak.
Most of the workforce at the plant are from eastern Europe: Romanians, Bulgarians, Poles and North Macedonians, Deutsche Welle news reports.
A local activist, Inge Bultschnieder, has previously organised demonstrations demanding better living conditions for the migrant workers. Deutsche Welle found some of them living in dilapidated, overcrowded housing near the plant.
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The overcrowding is suspected to be a factor in the virus outbreak. But as in other abattoirs, at the Tönnies plant workers usually stand close together and the cool air probably facilitated the spread of the virus.
Dispute with nephew
Tönnies had a turnover of €7.3bn last year ($8.2bn; £6.6bn). Forbes business news says Clemens has a net worth of about $2.3bn.
His nephew Robert, 42, owns 50% of the business, while Clemens has a 45% stake and his son Max 5%. Clemens’s brother Bernd died in 1994, and Robert and his brother inherited their father’s stake.
For years Robert and Clemens fought a legal battle over ownership, resolved in 2017.
But the bitterness remains. When the outbreak made headlines last week Robert called for Clemens to quit, accusing the management of being irresponsible and jeopardising the firm and local people, German WDR news reports. Robert said Max Tönnies should replace his father at the helm.
Margit Tönnies is Clemens’s second wife. He has two children.
Clemens is also head of the supervisory board of Schalke 04, one of Germany’s top Bundesliga clubs.
Last year however he had to step aside from his football duties for three months after making a remark which drew a volley of criticism.
In a speech he called for German power plants to be built in Africa, saying “then they’ll stop cutting down trees and when it’s dark, when we’ve given them electricity, they won’t be making babies any more”.
He later apologised for his “mistake” and provided aid for children in Africa.
WDR reports that Clemens has been a successful networker in politics, negotiating lucrative business deals, such as one with Russian energy giant Gazprom.
He has befriended Russian President Vladimir Putin, and presented him with some meaty treats from Tönnies.