Philip Rosenthal's Eccentric Policies—and Profits—make Him Germany's Emperor of China

updated 04/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Philip Rosenthal's home is his castle—specifically, the elegantly appointed 18th-century Erkersreuth Castle near his celebrated ceramics factories in the West German town of Selb. But when the 66-year-old porcelain tycoon and former member of the Bundestag (parliament) hits the road to stump for the Social Democratic Party, he travels in a VW minibus with a red rowing scull perched on the roof. While in Bonn, he is content to hole up in Spartan student digs, eating his meals straight out of the can. "Eccentric?" he sniffs. "Many people mistake conformity for normality. I am a nonconformist, but I am perfectly normal."

If so, Rosenthal is certainly a paradox. As a highly successful industrialist, he heads an enterprise founded in 1879 by his father, Philipp. Today the Rosenthal trademark is to china and glassware what Mercedes-Benz is to cars. Philip promoted the snooty Studio-Linie (including objets by such as Salvador Dali and Henry Moore), which every jet-setter worth his Guccis absolutely, but absolutely, had to have. Five-piece place settings range in price from $39 for a simple white pattern to $890 for Rosenthal's most ornate design.

Yet, as unlikely as it sounds, his management philosophy is a curious blend of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Some years ago Rosenthal decreed that no one, himself included, may own more than 5 percent of the stock (he now has only 2.7 percent). It was also his idea to distribute 11 percent of the company's shares among a majority of the 7,500 employees, thereby involving them in ownership decisions.

His colleagues in the Social Democratic Party call him "Red Brother," but Rosenthal protests that he is just a pragmatist. "Capitalism and socialism are antiquated concepts," he says. "I only know that a democracy is stable because many people participate in it, and a dictatorship—whether left or right—is not because people don't participate."

Collective involvement has paid off handsomely for his company. Last year, while much of West German industry suffered through a deeply worrying recession, the Rosenthal company upped its sales 3 percent and raised its annual gross sales to $313 million.

For Rosenthal, contrasts are the very spice of life—a notion he ponders mischievously as he lights up a cheap cigar. "I smoke this trash, you see, so that I can really appreciate a good cigar when I smoke one." Early on, as a liberal arts student at Oxford, where he captained the Exeter College crew, Philip learned to prize teamwork. But later, as a member of the French Foreign Legion, he also came to despise regimentation.

Rosenthal had joined the Legion in 1939, hoping to fight the Nazis who had dispossessed his family in the wave of anti-Semitism that swept Germany in the 1930s. But the fall of France left him in an army that no longer fought Hitler, yet still imposed brutal discipline on its own ranks. "It took me two years and four tries to escape," he recalls, "and make my way to England." Arriving in 1942, he assumed the name Rossitter and joined the British Foreign Office writing anti-Nazi propaganda broadcasts.

In 1947 Rosenthal went home to Selb and the former family business. He sued the firm's new bosses, winning 11 percent of the stock, a seat on the board and a job as advertising manager. By 1958 Philip had become president and the guiding light in assembling a stable of top artists to reburnish the Rosenthal mark of quality. Design is the one aspect of the business he will not relinquish. "Instead," he explains, "we rely on an international jury of experts to help us reach the right combination of aesthetics and the practical."

Rosenthal's tastes are unique, but happily not as outlandish professionally as personally. His bedroom at the castle, for example, consists of a mattress set on sand-colored carpeting, with tentlike drapes covering the walls and ceiling. "Lavinia, my wife, calls me a bedouin," he says with a laugh. She is the fourth Frau Rosenthal—"My only church wedding," he notes. "Perhaps the ceremony was important, because our marriage has lasted 25 years."

For all of his unpredictability, there is one constant in his life: daily exercise. "I either run or row or swim," he says. Rosenthal has climbed mountains around the globe, and with members of his family has conducted a kind of segmented circle tour of Europe for the past 20 years; they always start a new segment of their hike or row at exactly the point where they last left off. Of living to the fullest, Rosenthal muses: "The most beautiful thing in life is temptation. One can resist it and feel like a hero. Or he can give in to it and enjoy himself. The wise man," he adds with a wink, "does both."

From Our Partners