C&A Brenninkmeyer KG

views updated

C&A Brenninkmeyer KG

Bleichstrasse 20
4000 Düsseldorf 1
Federal Republic of Germany
(0211) 35591

Private Company
Incorporated: 1841
Sales: DM7.04 billion (US$4.65 billion)

C&A Brenninkmeyer KG is a paradox. It operates highly visible stores in Germany, but is a secretive, privately-owned company. Little has been published on the organization and it is hard to get information from the company on its operations beyond its publicity for its fashions.

Large clothing stores of similar appearance to the German ones operate under the name C&A in other Western European countries, for example in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. They are described as being operated by entirely autonomous and independent companies. Any links that might exist are unclear and ambiguous, and company sources are unwilling to qualify them. Confusion exists among the general public about the various C&A companies. In the United Kingdom, for example, some people believe C&A to be a Dutch company. In fact, both C&A and the large family that controls it have a long history of keeping a foot in both Germany and the Netherlands.

The Brenninkmeyer family has its roots in Mettingen, a small community in the Tecklenburg area of todays northwest Germany, not far from the present border with the Netherlands, a country with which the area has strong links. Originally, Tecklenburg natives spoke a dialect of Low German with some resemblances to Dutch. Especially in the 17th century, Hollands golden age, much of the areas commerce focused on Hollands international ports and rich trading markets. Even today, the Rhine River and canals link much of northwest Germany to the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

The first trading Brenninkmeyers left the family farm in Mettingen in 1671 to become traveling linen sellers in Holland. It is said that even then they were secretive about their business. At this time, secrecy gave them a commercial advantage and permitted the avoidance of customs charges.

In 1841, the brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeyer abandoned the itinerant life and laid the groundwork for the C&A chain when they opened their first store in the small Dutch town of Snook. The small firm of textile sellers was very successful, and within the next few years further stores were opened in the Dutch cities of Leuuwarden, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Groningen, Leiden, Haarlem, and Enschede. Many of Clemens and August Brenninkmeyers descendants have been active in the company throughout its history.

The second Clemens Brenninkmeyer became the driving force behind the familys expansion into Germany. In 1911 he opened C&A, the familys first large German department store, in Berlin. In the next year he opened another Berlin clothing store. In 1913 new branches were opened in Hamburg and Cologne and in 1914 another store was established in Essen. World War I presented the family with few international problems, because Holland remained neutral throughout the conflict.

After World War I, Germany became the major focus of expansion, despite its inflation and other economic problems. By hard work and constant travel between branches, Clemens Brenninkmeyer made a success of the German operation. By 1928, C&A had eight stores, and at the outbreak of World War II, there were 17.

Clemens Brenninkmeyers efforts at further international expansion were only partially successful. The first British store was opened in Londons Oxford Street in 1922. Later in the decade, other British stores were opened in Birmingham and Liverpool.

In contrast, C&As most successful field of operations, Germany, was coming under the control of the strongly nationalist and anti-Semitic Nazi regime. The Dutch Catholic family had to come to terms with this new German government. C&As Dutch background put its German expansion plans at risk. Nazi laws required the firm to gain government permission to open new branches. Some Nazis were also suspicious of the firms church connections.

The firm emphasized its pre-Nazi, anti-Jewish hiring policies and the familys distant German origins. In a 1937 application to open a store in Leipzig, the board asked for assistance from Hermann Göring, the author of the state economic plan, and successfully argued that it had struggled against Jewish-owned business and prohibited the employment of Jews in the past.

Against further 1938 allegations by influential Nazi party members that C&A was Dutch, the firms Berlin representatives stressed the Brenninkmeyer familys German roots in Mettingen. They claimed the family had been forced to take Dutch citizenship by a 1787 law.

World War II brought hardship as the officially neutral firm was cut off from its stores in England by the German invasion of Holland in 1940, and merchandise supplies became harder to obtain because of rationing. As the tide of the war began to turn in favor of the Allies, the Brenninkmeyers began to return to the Netherlands. By the end of the war, only two of the firms 17 German locations remained relatively unscathed by bombing and fighting.

As the West German Wirtschaftswunder economic miracleproved to be a powerhouse in the rebuilding of the wider European economy, the Brenninkmeyers returned to make Germany the focal point of their business empire again. The 1950s and 1960s were boom years for C&A in Germany. From 1952 to 1971, the number of C&A clothing and textile stores rose from 17 to 72. By 1982 there were 116 branches worldwide.

This success was based on an ability to spot trends in clothing fashions and sell inexpensive versions to an increasingly affluent and style-conscious public. Unlike some competitors, C&As buying was centralized in specialized teams at an early date to achieve volume discounts.

Constant review of stocks and demand by buyers and managers has long been another policy of C&A. Heavy advertising is then concentrated on the appropriate merchandise. Small manufacturers with C&A contracts, considered lucrative in Germany, had to be willing to change specifications at short notice. C&A also produces confectionery and a small minority of its clothing merchandise in its own factories.

The organization has also been characterized by very tight cost controls. Brenninkmeyer family managers always carried little books, constantly updated with the details of every business for quick review.

In the 1960s stores under the name C&A were opened in Belgium, France, and Switzerland. By 1963, C&A fulfilled a long-cherished dream by gaining a foothold in the U.S. market with the acquisition of the seven Nathan Ohrbach retail stores.

Throughout the postwar period, secrecy has remained a pillar of C&A corporate policy. Important members of the Brenninkmeyer family on the governing board are hardly known outside German financial circles. When C&As management is quoted in the press, it tends to be in the form of positive statements of company sales policy, such as No store sells cheaper orthe most famous statementWe let our merchandise speak for us.

The desire for secrecy is so important that it even led the firm to change its legal status. After the German Bundestag passed new disclosure rules for the GmbH (Gesellschaften mit beschränkter Haftung), C&A Brenninkmeyer became a KG (Kommanditgesellschaft), or limited partnership, in September 1969. The move allowed the family to withhold much of the companys financial information from the public.

Secrecy seemed to insulate the company from change and criticism of other policies that appeared anachronistic. The companys paternalism and preference for hiring Catholics have attracted particular criticism from the media. An article published in Manager Magazine in 1982 described how the Brenninkmeyers expected their recruits in Germany to live an austere existence in company-run hostels during a four-year training period. Recruits were required to be devout Catholics and attend mass. The rest of the week was devoted to work training and study for compulsory examinations. If managers became engaged, they were required to give the company details on the betrotheds parents and religion. Non-Catholic affianced partners were expected to convert, or at least agree to a Catholic ceremony and Catholic religious education for the couples children. A fiancé or fiancée who worked for C&A was expected to resign.

The companys governing board and top management positions have been dominated by members of the Brenninkmeyer family and those related to them through marriage. There are some indications that these policies are changing.

C&A was slower than some other firms in reacting to the collapse of the East German regime in November 1989 and to subsequent German unification. This initial reluctance was partly its usual caution, but was also due to the need to settle property questions over prewar store sites in Leipzig and elsewhere. After C&As inexpensive fashions proved popular with East Germans living near the border, making a strong contribution to 1990 profits, the company required no more convincing to expand into the former East Germany.

By autumn 1991, new C&A stores had opened in Gunther-stadt, Chemnitz, formerly Karl Marx Stadt, and Magdeburg. There were plans to reopen a C&A on a prewar site in Leipzig. West German expansion continued, however, with new stores planned in Lünen, Ingolstadt, Ravensburg, and Regensburg. Some expenditures and expansion plans elsewhere were reduced in order to concentrate on investment in a unified Germany.

Many Brenninkmeyer family members have retained Dutch citizenship and strong ties to Holland, but others have taken on German or other citizenships.

Düsseldorf became the companys center of operations in the early 1950s. Nearly two-thirds of the stores operating under the name C&A are in Germany. Like the companys tradition of secrecy, strict family control, and Catholic paternalism over management and employees, C&As national focus seems anachronistic in a competitive, multinational European Community. C&A is, however, a successful company, with consistent profits and growth.

Principal Subsidiaries

C&A Unterstutzugskasse GmbH; C&A Nederland CV; C&A Mode AG (Switzerland).

Clark Siewert