Lambertz boss Bühlbecker and concerns about gingerbread production
AThe Germans can hardly get past Hermann Bühlbecker. To be more precise: always over. According to his own statements, the owner of the Lambertz Group is fully represented on the shelves of German retailers. “100 percent distribution,” says Bühlbecker proudly. “There isn’t a store in Germany where we aren’t represented.” Long since not just with Aachener Printen. Over the decades, the 72-year-old entrepreneur has bought a candy conglomerate that stretches from the extreme west of Germany to the deepest east. One that no longer only does its business before Christmas.
Lambertz is now much more than Lambertz. The head office is in Aachen, and this is where the company’s roots go back to the year 1688. In the meantime, however, Bühlbecker has also conquered traditional cities such as Ulm, Nuremberg and Dresden on its way “from a small bakery to an international confectionery group”, as can be read on the website. With gingerbread from Weiss and Haeberlein-Metzger, Christmas stollen from Dr. Quendt, Kinkartz dominoes and private labels, Lambertz is a constant in the Christmas business – namely, according to its own statements, the “world market leader in autumn and Christmas biscuits”.
In the company of Charles and Gorbachev
Bühlbecker pushed this development forward with a very special marketing concept. Superficially one would have to diagnose: the man is extremely vain and does not shy away from any appearance. In the company headquarters, big American politics meet in a small conference room. The walls are decorated with heartfelt letters of thanks from the White House for deliveries of prints and photos of the businessman with the powerful. Everyone is represented, from George Bush Sr. to Bill Clinton. The legendary former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says: Although his heart specialist does not like it, he is very enthusiastic about gingerbread. The Bühlbecker celebrity collection includes Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince/King Charles as well as Trump’s daughter Ivanka, Boris Becker or Nastassja Kinski.
It is fitting that Bühlbecker’s own appearance does not necessarily fit the average German medium-sized company. With his extravagant mop of hair and a fashion outfit that often contrasts strikingly in black and white, the entrepreneur demonstrates that he wants to be more than just an entrepreneur. For years he produced a model calendar and organized a party with stars and starlets at the confectionery fair in Cologne. All for the good of the company, the man, who is also the Honorary Consul of the Ivory Coast, is happy to assure you. His appearances are not a question of vanity, but one of economic efficiency.
Forget the bitter with sweets
Bühlbecker recently shifted down a gear in terms of publicity, and not just because of Corona. He no longer has to make Lambertz and its brands known. The trade knows him. Today the problems are of a different nature, and presidential and royal thank-you letters no longer help. It is the economic crisis that is also hitting the confectionery industry hard.
After all, the seasonal business went pretty well – in September, as is well known, the shelves are filled with Lebkuchen & Co for the first time. A first summary: By Christmas, more than 600 million dominoes and 720 million hearts, stars and pretzels were produced in the group’s eight plants. Every day, 150 trucks drove out a good 10,000 pallets with more than 600 tons of baked goods. In fact, more autumn and Christmas biscuits were sold in 2022 than in 2021, the Lambertz boss sums up: “That surprised me myself, but it’s proof that consumers want to make some bitters forget with something sweet at this time.”
You can see that the regular tennis player from Bühlbeck does not use his own products excessively. It would also do little to try to distract oneself from economic worries in order to relieve frustration. In the likely problematic 2022/2023 financial year, which ends at the end of June, the entrepreneur will have to defend the turnover of 659 million euros achieved by 4,000 employees. It is questionable whether this will succeed. “In the medium term, I’m more concerned that sales will decrease. We are rather worried about the future.”
Relocation abroad not excluded
With the exception of two plants in Poland, Lambertz produces in this country. In view of the massive cost increases – Bühlbecker speaks of a “cost tsunami” – some observers wonder whether this can be sustained for long. The Christmas businessman from Aachen characterizes headlines such as “Is German gingerbread on the verge of extinction?” as “an exaggerated formulation, but against an ambivalent background”. He has never experienced a situation like this before. All of the group’s 28 furnaces run on gas, and they are under considerable cost pressure. So much so that individual items have even been sold below cost in the past few weeks.
“We are more than 333 years old, we have also survived wars in Germany, so we have to make sure that we get through it,” says Bühlbecker. But he at least partially questions the “Made in Germany” concept. “With the annual articles, it could be that there will be relocations abroad.” Not in 2023, assures the Lambertz boss. “But if the development continues in the wrong direction, there will be no other choice in the medium term.”