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.
C&A Brenninkmeijer continued to grow apace as the eight sons – four sons each – of Clemens and August all set up new stores in cities around the Netherlands. This was the model of entrepreneurial expansion that would see the business grow over the coming decades – new generations devoting themselves to the enterprise, travelling to new cities, setting up home in new communities and raising families.
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.
As C&A’s first foray into the US was losing momentum, the family owners – keen to keep a foothold in the market and demonstrate that they’d learned some tough lessons – adopted another strategy. In 1962, they bought Ohrbach’s Inc., a family-owned chain headquartered in New York, and this began a string of acquisitions of specialty stores under the umbrella Amcena (renamed American Retail Group in 1994). Brands like The Lodge, Maurices, Miller’s Outpost, Eastern Mountain Sports, Woman’s World, Uptons and Steinbach helped the business in the US to expand.
Expansion tends to happen in phases, and as the 21st century beckoned, C&A looked east for opportunity. After the opening of the first store in the Czech Republic a succession of stores opened in new countries across Eastern Europe and beyond, including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia and Turkey. With new stores opening in Russia and China, C&A became a truly global retailer.
With the EUR 1.1 billion acquisition of GIB Immo’s property portfolio in 2001, Redevco became the largest real estate company in Belgium – a position it maintains to this day.
Over the years, COFRA has expanded the horizons not just of where it does business but also of what it does. Today, it encompasses businesses in real estate (Redevco), fashion retailing (C&A), asset management (Anthos Fund & Asset Management), as well as holdings in numerous sectors in several continents through its private equity platform (Bregal). Most recently, in 2020, it added Sunrock (renewable energy) to its businesses as part of its strategy of diversifying into industries contributing to the systemic changes underpinning the future of our common home.
COFRA constantly reviews what it does to see where it can have a deep and lasting positive impact, to further its mission to be a force for good. But it’s also reviewing how it does it, recognising that the challenges involved in a just transition to fairer, safer and more sustainable industries and societies cannot be tackled alone. Today, COFRA actively looks to partner with forward-thinking investors and businesses to maximise the impact of combined capital, capabilities and aspirations to continue to allow it to play a positive role in society.
As part of its partnership growth strategy, Redevco teamed up with Ares Management to acquire a portfolio of six retail parks in Spain and Portugal in 2016 for EUR 95 million. The joint venture added three further retail parks to the portfolio, and with shrewd asset management Redevco successfully exited in 2017 having increased the combined value to EUR 195 million.
In recent years, COFRA has gradually opened up its businesses to selected partnerships. In 2019, C&A Brazil listed on the stock exchange, enabling the company to access new sources of funding to expand further in an exciting, high-growth market. In 2020, C&A sold its China operations to a Beijing investor, giving it access to the local expertise and strong network necessary to realise its full potential in this vast market.
Redevco’s ambitious expansion programme is being driven by opening up its pan-European investment platform to third parties that share its mission and values. And by diversifying into new sectors beyond retail.
Bregal Investments, COFRA’s private equity platform, has a proven track record in attracting new external investors to accelerate portfolio growth and create value. And Anthos Fund & Asset Management, too, has opened up its asset management services to select third-party clients.
COFRA has also long been committed to investing in clean energy. It can build on decades of experience, dating back to Good Energies (founded 2001). The industry has changed and matured since then. COFRA’s approach has changed and matured too. It now focuses on downstream investments where market conditions tend to be more stable, rather than the technology-driven upstream sector.
COFRA’s acquisition of Sunrock Investments in 2020 is a good example of this. A leading provider of solar energy in the Netherlands, Sunrock has an established market and uses proven technology. It offers the perfect platform for COFRA’s continued expansion into the renewable energy sector and for its commitment to playing a positive role in tackling climate change.