Biscoff maker eyes market leading future in Germany

If you order a coffee in almost any European hotel, restaurant, cafe or pub, the chances are it will arrive with a sweet, crunchy, caramelised biscuit. Branded as Biscoff, these petite treats are produced and sold by Belgium’s Lotus Bakeries, a family-owned business founded in 1932.

The speculoos cookie, to give it its proper name, is over 400 years old. While manufactured by various companies over the years, it's Lotus Bakeries which has cornered the speculoos market. And with its simple yet distinctive red wrapper and unique taste, Biscoff is now an iconic snack enjoyed by millions of consumers every day. 

Nigel Wright caught up with German Country Manager, Nathalie Lambrechts, who revealed the strategies behind Lotus’ recent rapid growth, its ambitions in Germany, as well as plans to expand a new healthy snacking brand portfolio and footprint.

A Belgian native and graduate of Unilever’s sales training programme, Nathalie could have dedicated her whole career progressing through FMCG giants’ ranks. However, when Lotus Bakeries approached her in 2013, the chance to make an impact at this famous Flanders business was hard to ignore. Joining as Key Account Manager for Colruyt – a retail group with over 200 Belgian stores – after 18 months, Nathalie was promoted to Sales Director Netherlands. And when the opportunity arose in 2017 to manage the German business, it was the perfect way to stretch her skills, as she explains: 

“Despite launching here 25 years ago, Germany is still a relatively small market for Lotus Bakeries – much smaller than the Netherlands – but growing fast. It’s strategic because it represents lots of untapped potential to bring the unique Biscoff taste to German consumers. Competition is fierce, though, especially within the cookie segment. Private label is very strong too, with the dominance of hard discounters like Aldi and Lidl. However, Lotus believes that the best way to learn and develop your skills is to prove yourself in challenging scenarios.”

Nathalie’s appointment marked a new era for Lotus Germany, which had also recently relocated from Aachen to Düsseldorf. Hiring was top of her agenda, and with the Board's backing and investment, she embarked on a multi-role recruitment process, introducing seven new team members during the first 12 months. In a tough market you need good Key Account Managers, she says. And most of those who joined in 2018 offered retail, B2B and ‘out of home’ channel expertise.

With three trade marketers and support function completing the thirteen-person team, Nathalie explained how the primary focus early on was commercialising Lotus Biscoff, especially within retail. While the iconic Biscoff Cookie is already the ‘out of home’ channel market leader, retail remains a segment with huge growth potential in Germany. Through its 250g Biscoff Cookie pack, as well as Biscoff Cookie Butter launched in 2014, the business is making significant inroads, but expects even better results moving forwards:

“In 2018 the German business grew by 10%. We’re very proud of this, as recruiting and embedding a new team while delivering growth isn’t easy. But we’re still defining the right assortments and channels and ensuring activation programmes match opportunities. While our competitors are making promotional investments, the quality and the distinctiveness of Lotus Biscoff means it doesn’t need ‘over promoting.’ Our Group strategy, driven by the Boone family, is to focus on longer-term goals, rather than seeking opportunistic wins. Only a sustainable growth plan, offering the right formats, attracting different shopper segments and playing in the right channels with the right propositions will guarantee future success.” 

Now “the basics are in place” and progress made in developing Lotus’ flagship brand, Nathalie revealed a gradual shift in focus for her team. Following its acquisition of UK based Natural Balance Foods and Urban Fresh Foods in 2015, Lotus Bakeries has integrated the popular Nākd, TREK and Bear Fruit healthy snacking brands into its portfolio. And starting in the Netherlands, the business has now successfully launched these products in Belgium and the USA, while continuing to grow them in the UK. Nathalie admits these acquisitions were somewhat challenging for Lotus Bakeries, given the business had no prior health food experience. It's a wise move though, she says, due to the increasing importance for retailers of placing indulgence alongside healthy snacking.

A key message in achieving the smooth integration in the USA, the Netherlands and Belgium, she explained, has been Lotus’ emphasis on healthy snacking being important for consumers, rather than simply a trend. And Nathalie expects this approach will work in Germany too, as the market catches up with the rest of Europe:

“The German snacking market is changing. Consumers here want to enjoy cookies regardless of the sugar content. But they’re also increasingly conscious about what they eat, with a preference for healthy snacks. This is also impacting how retailers define category assortments and activity programs. We started developing this segment in late 2017, ensuring all our products have the correct packaging from a legal perspective. We’ve also worked on category strategies to help guide the trade in retail and ‘out of home’ channels. Nākd, Trek and Bear Fruit are now almost ready to launch in Germany – it’s another huge growth area for us.”

Like in other countries, however, cookies are the key to unlocking the market, says Nathalie, and it’s a clear Group vision to “become the biggest cookie brand in the world” together with a supportive and collegial culture, that has been instrumental in Lotus Bakeries’ rapid growth in recent years.

Once construction of its new Bear Fruit manufacturing facility in South Africa is complete, Lotus will surpass 2,000 employees worldwide. However, Nathalie stated, gaining over 500 people in two years hasn’t impacted the entrepreneurial and familiar spirit present across the whole company.

Teams across Europe, the Americas and Asia enjoy regular interaction with each other and Lotus Bakeries' Belgian headquarters. This positive flow of information across territories ensures strong internal knowledge, the sharing of best practice and a “one Lotus family feeling.” Twice a year all European colleagues come together face-to-face, and there’s also an annual Lotus Bakeries Group conference. Collaboration between countries occurs when opportunities arise and a dedicated HR programme prioritises embedding the business’s core values – Team spirit, Open Dialogue and Passion.

Lotus Bakeries has been able to make the transition from a Belgian to an international player thanks to its intelligent, committed, passionate and driven people, says Nathalie. To ensure it only recruits those who meet its high expectations and fit the culture, the business has a long and detailed selection process, involving multiple interviews with different people across the organisation. While sometimes frustrating for candidates, Nathalie believes this rigorous approach is worth it as a rewarding career awaits once you’re hired:

“There isn’t a standard development path at Lotus Bakeries, but if you work hard and perform well it’s noticed and rewarded. And the possibilities to prove yourself and progress are endless – you gain expertise in a variety of areas through the opportunities you are afforded. With few hierarchies, it means decision making is fast too. This gives you a feeling that you’re making an impact and that your opinion is valued and heard – that’s very motivating.”

Nathalie benefits from the regular communication, support and trust she receives from the Boone family and Executive Board. And with her own team, she too adopts a personable leadership approach. Describing herself as a “coaching leader,” she works hard to create an open and stimulating work environment and ensures people have the right tools, framework and autonomy to find their own solutions. Lotus Bakeries prefers to fill vacancies internally, she says, and therefore getting people outside of their comfort zones as early as possible, means they grow fast and become effective employees and leaders.

“It can be tough, but exciting too,” says Nathalie. “I love seeing what someone can achieve when you believe in them.” Of course, the capabilities, enthusiasm and ambitions of the person need to match the challenge, but in general, she finds this a great way to motivate people. Yes, mistakes are sometimes made, but encouraging her team to learn from them, builds trust and alignment: “The personal contact is very important at Lotus. As a leader, I’m challenged to facilitate this. We discuss a lot, work hard, but also have fun. I know my colleagues appreciate this approach.”

With a clear strategy in place, as well as a coherent structure for the German team, Nathalie says they have an exciting journey ahead. 

She added: “We’re convinced that we can be an effective partner to the German trade and develop our target categories. Lotus Bakeries has the advantage of scale to influence customers, and flexibility to meet changing market conditions and consumer tastes. It's a great place to work. The business is growing year-on-year, we have a long term perspective, a positive atmosphere across the Group and delicious products too.”

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