If founders Clemens and August were around today, what would they make of the business? The world has changed so much in the years since they started out as young entrepreneurs – no doubt there would be some surprises – but lots of it would feel familiar too.
The dynamism and ambition that initiated the story is the same force that continues to amaze customers and expand the business. The values that underpin everything are as strong today as they ever were. The past can be a source of pride and inspiration – from deep roots grow tall trees – but like any innovative company, COFRA looks forward.
The COFRA story began in 1841 when two brothers, Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer, founded the business that would go on to be the global fashion retailer C&A. Young entrepreneurs with shared aspirations, they left the existing family business and set up in partnership. Little did they know they were setting the blueprint for an engaged and ethical approach to business with family at its heart – one that continues to flourish six generations later.
Clemens and August had the belief and the capabilities to create and expand their own business. The seeds of this entrepreneurial longing were sown early. Sons of travelling linen merchants, they grew up in Mettingen, Germany in the 1820s and learned from an early age the importance of playing a constructive role in society. They also thirsted for the excitement of trade and travel, and followed their father and uncles to the town of Sneek in the Netherlands to apprentice in the family business.
For the first twenty years, C. & A. Brenninkmeijer operated from a warehouse. In 1860, the brothers Clemens and August opened their first shop, in Sneek, selling draperies and pre-cut fabrics. Open to customers on a daily basis, it was an immediate success. In 1881 a second store was opened, this time in nearby Leeuwarden, which proved even more successful than Sneek. August died in 1892, but Clemens lived long enough to see two more stores open – both in Amsterdam, in 1893 and 1896. Within only a few decades, the sons of Clemens and August – the second generation – expanded the business to the large cities (Leeuwarden, Amsterdam, Groningen, Rotterdam), making C&A one of the very first national retailers.
In 1911, the youngest son of August (also named Clemens) and his nephew Richard opened the first store in Germany, on the old Königstrasse near today’s Alexanderplatz in Berlin. It was the company’s tenth store, and a natural move given the German roots of the family and the presence of many of their ready-to-wear apparel suppliers in Berlin. It was an overnight sensation thanks to its fixed price tags, cash-only purchasing and one-year guarantee, which was unheard of in the market at the time. After initial surprise, even disbelief, this new approach to retail became an unprecedented success.
With tough economic conditions in Germany after the First World War and a third generation of ambitious Brenninkmeijer “aspirants” waiting in the wings, the family looked overseas for the next phase of growth. The first UK branch on the corner of Oxford Street and Bird Street opened for business in September 1922 trading under the name C&A Modes Ltd. The opening was frenzied, with post-war Londoners scrambling to take advantage of fashion at competitive prices. After initial teething problems where demand outstripped supply, the UK operation became one of the leading companies in the group.
Anthos Fund & Asset Management can trace its origins as far back as 1929. Always anticipating and planning ahead, the family owners realised that they needed to invest in order to keep on investing in the expansion of their business for future generations. In the spirit of shared entrepreneurship, in 1929 they set up a pooled investment vehicle to invest in real estate, stocks and bonds – quite innovative at the time. Today, Anthos Fund & Asset Management continues to be inspired by the deep-rooted beliefs of its founders – that you invest for the long term, and that doing business and doing good go hand in hand.
In 1860, Clemens and August purchased and opened their first store in Sneek. As C&A expanded in the decades that followed, it built up an impressive portfolio of retail properties across Europe. After the 1990s, the family business owners saw a unique opportunity to leverage their knowledge of high-street retail real estate more broadly. In 1999 Redevco (short for Retail Development Company) was set up, initially to manage all the C&A properties. In the twenty years that followed, Redevco has expanded its knowledge of city centres to create vibrant, multi-functional and sustainable urban spaces designed to retain their appeal for future generations. Today, its portfolio comprises retail, mixed-use and residential projects, and its tenant base includes top high-street names in fashion, food retailing and household goods.
Up to the 1990s, C&A had enjoyed great success under a decentralised model where independent companies were free to adapt their approach to suit the market. The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent creation of the single market changed all that. Not for the first time a period of intense change in Europe meant the business had to adapt quickly.
Of course, the efficiencies of such a consolidated market represented a huge opportunity. It was essential to keep sight of this during the upheaval – ten separate companies, each with its own local governance and board structures, were merged into one. In 2001, a centralised holding company, COFRA Holding AG was born.
Redevco deployed existing skills and knowledge to a new industry. Three years later, the expertise built up in managing the family’s assets, equities and investments came together and was put to good use in setting up Bregal. This global private equity platform invests in mid-market companies in North America and Europe with a strong focus on generating returns through Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) improvements.
To understand the present, you need to understand and learn from the past. It was this conviction that led the family business owners to found Draiflessen in Mettingen, the town with which the Brenninkmeijer name has been closely associated since the early 1600s. Draiflessen opened in 2009 as a family heritage centre. Today, it combines a state-of-the-art conference centre – Draiflessen Conference – and a non-profit art museum – Draiflessen Collection – which is also home to a business history archive that preserves and documents the extraordinary story of a six-generation business over the course of 180 years. Today’s generation draw on Draiflessen to learn and draw inspiration from their past, and to understand the future.
Draiflessen Collection is open to the public and regularly organises exhibitions on aspects of the remarkable history of the family business.