"All on sugar" - "Welt" article with Philip Hitschler-Becker

Under the title "Alles auf Zucker" (Everything on sugar), the Welt published an article with Philip Hitschler-Becker on 06.02.2021. A report by Till Uebelacker:

"Alles auf ZUCKER"

Philip Hitschler-Becker clearly feels at home on the new, modern company premises in Hürth. He beams incessantly, everyone is on first name terms. In the past, TV programmes were produced here, today it is the office of the Cologne-based sweets manufacturer Hitschler.

From the outside, everything is completely glazed. Large industrial lamps hang from the ceiling, and there are green retro chairs in the "library". Work is done in open spaces. The boss's office has no door; the water bowl and food bowl for the office dogs Emma and Lotti are in front of it. "Together we have created a new corporate culture," says Hitschler-Becker. IT, too, is now fit for the 21st century. And along the way, he completed the move to the new "Hitschler Campus" in the Corona year.

At the same time, 2020 was not an easy year for the confectionery industry. The Corona crisis saw the loss of many operating channels, including airports, popular festivals and the Christmas business. "Our products are in station vending machines, for example," says Hitschler-Becker. But hardly anyone still travels by train and gets sweets for in between. Turnover dropped. "We were on short-time work for a few weeks, with full pay," says Hitschler-Becker, but from his mouth that also sounds like positive news. He won't say exactly how many employees were affected.

56 per cent of companies in the industry complained of declining sales in the first half of the year, 62 per cent of a worsening order situation and as many as 65 per cent of falling profits, according to figures from the German Confectionery Industry Association (BDSI). But the problems of confectionery manufacturers go beyond the Corona dent. Scientists and doctors warn against sweets. Diabetes has become a widespread disease, and more and more children are affected.

In Germany, there are about eight million people who suffer from diabetes. About 600,000 more people are diagnosed with diabetes every year, according to the German Health Report on Diabetes. And the risk increases with age. Triggers can be hereditary factors, lack of exercise, obesity and poor diet. Germans eat almost 30 kilograms of sweets per capita per year. More than half of them are overweight, almost a quarter are obese. According to the Federal Ministry of Health, just under one in ten children is already overweight, and 5.9 per cent are even obese.

Although the food industry and the Federal Government agreed in 2018 on a voluntary commitment to reduce the salt, sugar and fat content in ready-made products, as envisaged by the "National Reduction Strategy" of Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU). But this is not enough for the consumer centres and the non-governmental organisation Foodwatch. They say there is a need for binding rules, an extension to other products such as confectionery and better labelling of products.

"If the voluntary sugar reduction of ten percent does not succeed, the government will probably consider further measures," says Karin von Funck, consumer goods expert at the Boston Consulting Group. The industry therefore fears being treated similarly to the tobacco industry in the future: with advertising bans, a strict food traffic light or a sugar tax.

Philip Hitschler-Becker nevertheless sees no problems - "only challenges", challenges. The 33-year-old took over the family business three years ago and is now the fourth generation to run it. To tackle the "challenges" and become more modern, he has hired a few young people, he says. Some employees have left the company voluntarily or are retiring soon. However, it is "hard to attract talent," Hitschler-Becker says. But he believes he has a good argument with the new location. In today's working world, he says, it is about "doing something with meaning and leaving something behind". Hitschler as a nice family business is exactly the right address for this, he says. "You still have room for manoeuvre here," promises the boss.

In order to survive, Hitschler-Becker has implemented cultural change in the tradition-rich company. It had begun in the late 1920s with his great-grandfather Ferdinand Hitschler and the trade in tobacco and cachous - small liquorice sweets - actually a speciality from France. In the mid-1930s, Ferdinand Hitschler then founded the Cologne trading company "Hitschler's Cachou". The grandfather of today's managing director, Walter Hitschler, then shaped the company with his strict manner for many decades.

The expansion of the sweet assortment continued, chewing gum and other sweets were added. An important strategic step was the purchase and subsequent expansion of the "1st German Chewing Gum Factory" in the Odenwald region of Hesse in the 1950s. Production is still located at the Michelstadt site today. The family business has about 140 employees, 50 of them in Hürth and about 90 at the production site in Michelstadt. "My grandpa stuck to a suit-and-tie policy in the office until the end," says Hitschler-Becker. In 2010 he passed away.

Despite all the differences, he was the young man's mentor. "I had a close relationship with him." For seven years the company was managed by
external directors, then grandson Philip stepped in. Today, Hitschler International GmbH has a small slice of the pie in the nearly 13 billion euro industry, with a turnover of about 38 million euros. Hitschler-Becker likes to call his company a "hidden champion". The most important products are Ufos, Speck, Hitschies, chewy sweets and fruit gums. A pack of colourful dragon tongues or sour "Hitschies" costs between 99 cents and 1.50 euros. However, more and more supermarkets and discounters are producing their own brands, making it increasingly difficult for large and small family businesses from Haribo to Hitschler. The price pressure on smaller companies is enormous. But Hitschler finds it hard to imagine producing for a large corporation himself. "Own brands are not the focus of the strategy at the moment," says the boss.

His own marketing, on the other hand, is: every day, he himself posts on the company's Instagram page. You can see him feeding his two bitches or introducing a cooperation with an influencer. After all, 53,000 subscribers follow him. By comparison, competitor Katjes is only followed by 29,000 people, and that with six times the sales. Haribo has just twice as many followers with more than 50 times the turnover.

Hitschler-Becker prefers not to. But relying on Instagram and online marketing seems smart, especially for a young boss like the 33-year-old. How much it will help the company in terms of sales remains to be seen. The family has just opened a factory outlet at the new Hitschler campus. This is important to strengthen "the brand to touch". Hitschler-Becker wants to open up new sales markets and bring in his ideas from his studies and other companies. He studied business administration in Holland and Australia and initially worked for the food manufacturers Iglo and Danone. By 2023, he wants to rid all products of gelatine, "Halal" products for the Muslim target group are important to him. He also wants to reduce plastic.

And the family business will continue to change in the future, as the younger siblings are soon to support the big brother: The younger sister - previously with Amazon - will soon join the company. With so much modernisation, wouldn't it be consistent to also reduce the sugar in the products? Philip Hitschler-Becker doesn't have to think about it, but says with a smile: "I stand by sugar."