Germans drink 162 liters of coffee a year. The brew fuels offices, even the economy, meaning the market for automatic coffee machine makers is nicely robust.
One of those companies is Coffee Perfect, based in Osnabrück, Lower Saxony. It’s still a relative newcomer to the market, but has brewed a solid success in its two decades. Sales reached €6 million in 2015 but by 2017 they heated up to €27 million. The 227 employees cater to the 8,000 customers who rent or buy their coffee machines. “The huge growth really impressed me,” says Klaus Eilers, a consultant to the coffee industry. “I’d never seen anything like it in the industry.”
Marc Beimforde and Jan-Dirk Büsselmann lead Coffee Perfect, and they have big dreams. The family-owned company wants to become the market leader for office coffee machines. The two managers have one specific rival in their sights: Kaffee Partner.
Kaffee Partner rents and services coffee machines for offices, with 70,000 clients, 530 employees and more than $100 million in sales. The company is also based in Osnabrück — in fact, at the time, Coffee Perfect was just one floor above in the exact same building.
Mr. Beimforde and Mr. Büsselmann left Kaffee Partner after the founders, Andreas Ost and Michael Koch, had sold their remaining share of the company to investors in 2014. The investors were increasingly involved in running the business, which didn’t sit well with the top managers. They left, expressing their disappointment, and felt they would feel more secure at Coffee Perfect, a family-owned business. That family would be Rebecca Ost and Lennard Koch, the children of the Kaffee Partner founders.
When it was clear Mr. Beimforde and Mr. Büsselmann were going to jump ship to Coffee Perfect, although there were no non-compete clauses in their contracts, Kaffee Partner took the former managers to court. Judges decided the two could not work for the rival for a year.
But in that year they were watched, they say. Mr. Beimforde and Mr. Büsselmann took that time to found a real-estate company. But they found private detectives on their heels. Someone overtly tried to eavesdrop on their conversations while out at lunch, they claim. When they opened the shutters at home in the morning, a detective with binoculars and a camera was sitting out front in a car. This intimidating round-the-clock surveillance is, they say, a tactic funded by their former employer.
Kaffee Partner declined to comment on the allegations.
Others spoke up. “What happened in Osnabrück is astounding,” says coffee consultant Mr. Eilers. Newcomers entering the market isn’t unusual, especially in Germany, which has 600 coffee firms. But it is unusual, and perhaps unwise, to share a building with your rival.
When Mr. Beimforde and Mr. Büsselmann officially joined Coffee Perfect after the non-compete ran out two years ago, one of their first orders of business was leaving the building they shared with Kaffee Partner on Kaffee-Partner-Allee.
Coffee Perfect is now on the next block over, where it can keep an eye on the competition.
Katrin Terpitz covers companies and markets at Handelsblatt, focusing on Germany’s Mittelstand and family-owned businesses. Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org