Philip Hitschler-Becker turns chewy candy into a viral hit

CEO and startup fan: Philipp Hitschler-Becker is the fourth generation to lead the Cologne confectionery company Hitschler.
Hitschler International

The red 1958 VW Bulli is right at the entrance to the glass office building. “Our grandfather used it to get around and deliver sweets to kiosks,” says Philip Hitschler-Becker. The heir to the candy dynasty company likes to talk about the past. Upstairs in his office on the outskirts of Cologne, the boardrooms represent four generations of family history – suitably furnished with vintage furniture from Ebay, black and white photos of the founders, old chewing gum machines, paint frames and today’s “Hitschies” brand logo.

But the 32-year-old also likes to talk about today. On how he is modernizing the more than 90-year-old family business. It starts with the fact that two years ago he moved the company’s headquarters to a former RTL production studio. Here at the “Hitschler Campus”, as the junior boss calls it, everything is open and invites you to network – similar to a startup in Berlin-Mitte: twelve meter high ceilings, comfortable leather sofas, open kitchen, long wooden tables. Hitschler-Becker always wanted to create a “creative thinking space” where New Work lives.

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Of the 50 employees, 70 percent are women, mostly young people greet the CEO on his tour. “We feel young, fresh, disruptive and want to bring the startup mentality to our company,” says the CEO, occasionally pulling out his cellphone to record an Instagram story. He regularly plans networking events on his campus, where he wants to bring contacts from the startup world together with family businesses. Hitschler-Becker considers it important to support the founders with their knowledge. For example, he advises a young startup from Münster called Glowkitchen, which produces vegan banana bread.

Many family businesses are critical of working with startups

With his openness, Philip Hitschler-Becker still meets many skeptics among the representatives of the younger generation in family businesses. In a recent report by the Family Business Foundation, more than 60 percent of the approximately 520 successors between the ages of 16 and 40 surveyed recognized the need to work with start-ups to develop new business models, products and digital solutions. However, about 47 percent of respondents said they saw different culture and work attitudes in startups as the biggest obstacle when working together.

The CEO of Hitschler can only smile wearily at this. He believes in synergistic effects: “Traditional companies can learn from startups to do this, increase speed and deal with mistakes.” On the other hand, start-ups benefit from the know-how, experience and structure in family businesses.

The fact that companies like Hitschler are getting younger, adapting to start-up culture and making greater use of digital media also has to do with generational changes. According to the SME Research Institute, around 150,000 of the approximately 3.4 million family businesses in Germany were to be handed down from one generation to the next in the period from 2018 to 2022.

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A well-known example of this is the textile company Trigema, where the successor – either daughter Bonita or son Wolfgang junior Grupp – has not yet been fully clarified. The situation is different at the baby outfitter Babyone in Münster: Last year, the siblings Anna Weber and Jan Weischer took over the management of the franchise company in order to transform it digitally. After the complete relaunch of the online store, the work culture also changes: employees can work remotely from any European location.

Hitschler-Becker also wants to position itself as a flexible employer, allowing team members to return to work after maternity leave and on sabbaticals – and consciously announces this in social media posts.

Acquisition despite difficulties

But not everything has to change at the candy company. In a family business, staying fit for the future also means preparing for the next delivery – even if the boss himself is only in his 30s. In the fall, Hitschler-Becker becomes a father: “One day, the fifth Hitschler generation will run the company. My sister already has a baby boy and our daughter is due in September. We aim for the long term.” This is what further differentiates his company from fast-growing venture capital-driven startups aiming for a successful exit.

It was always clear to him that he would take over the company from his grandfather. When he died in 2010, the youngest was just 22 and in the middle of his master’s degree in economics. Therefore, non-family managers took over until 2017. “I wasn’t ready yet. The external experience is important, because I first had to gain practical knowledge in order to be able to appear reliably in front of employees and lead them with confidence.’ At the food companies Iglo and Danone, Hitschler-Becker worked temporarily in product management.

When he took over the top job, Hitchler was struggling financially and putting up “no brilliant numbers,” the Cologne resident recalled. It had to herald change – in a startup context one would talk about a pivot. Hitschler-Becker turned things around: He hired a social media manager and became a brand ambassador on Tiktok and Instagram. Today, a total of 100,000 people follow the company on both channels.

Bet on vegan chewy candy

In addition to the classics, colorful stick-shaped chews, sour fruit gummies and fizzy drink-filled UFOs, he developed new types of watermelon and passion fruit flavored chews, mother-of-pearl mermaid puff, sour dragon tongue and tattoo chews that they tie in with the 90s. Last year, the candy maker posted sales of around 58 million euros. The company sells its products mainly through retail, and in September 2021 Hitschler-Becker also launched its own online store. His ideas were mostly received positively by the workforce.

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The heir also experiments with the ingredients. The majority of confectionery is already vegan and halal – by 2023 everything should be. For the 32-year-old, following food trends, being meat-free, not discriminating and experiencing these days is all about credibility – or as he puts it – “reason to believe”. Family businesses in particular should set a good example and adapt to market movements early on. To this Hitschler-Becker: “We are the driving force and the heart of the German economy.”

Youtube hit in South Korea

The biggest cut to date came last year: Junior decided to rename the brand to “Hitchies”, while the company continued to operate under the name Hitschler International. “It sounds international, young and happy. Whoever says the name automatically must smile.” The name also leaves room for other sub-brands, such as ‘Petschies’, under which the group sells dog biscuits.

With the rebranding, Hitschler-Becker primarily wants to promote expansion. The company currently operates in more than 40 countries. Hitschler’s popularity is growing especially in Asia: this year the confectionery producer wants to gain ground in China. The colorful chews are on the market in Japan from 2021, and South Korea was added as a market in the year of the Crown – after Hitschies went viral on YouTube via two Korean teenagers. In the videos, which now have more than four million clicks, the influencers nibble hard on chewy candies and UFOs. “This was not planned,” says the CEO. “But you can see how important social media is to companies. The demand in the Korean market was born, we just had to react.”

Your own chewy candies for influencers

The company also advertises with German influencers such as Carmen Kroll (“carmushka”). The entrepreneur met the blogger at a party with his friend Fabian Deventer, co-founder of backpacking startup Kapten & Son. “She helped herself to our candy bar and we started talking. Today we are friends,” says Hitschler-Becker.

The Cologne-based company has another collaboration with YouTuber Saliha Özcan, who produces cooking and baking videos on her channel “Sallys Welt”. The CEO has also been friends with Sally and her husband Murat for many years. “We were sitting together in their garden when we had the idea to bake a Hitschies school cone. Business considerations often cannot be turned off in private meetings,” says the entrepreneur.

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Both Carmushka and Sally now have their own chews. The special editions do not generate many sales – but Hitschler-Becker believes that this will attract the attention of consumers. “It’s a lot of work for small quantities compared to normal Hitschies production,” says the CEO. “But I think it’s important to use this marketing channel for the long term.” He adds: “It’s also a lot of fun.”

The successor has “thousands” of startup ideas

Hitschler sweets are mainly aimed at teenagers, young mothers and Instagram users between 25 and 40 years old. Thus, the target group partially overlaps with start-up customers such as Kapten & Son. There is a Hitschies pastry shop in every backpack brand store in Germany.

The Cologne-based company is also working with spice startup Just Spices and Royal Donuts: brand ambassador Hitschler-Becker runs contests on Instagram, tries Turkish baklava in a question-and-answer session with Royal Donut founder Enes Seker and announces joint projects. A pastry case for Just Spices has already been discussed, according to the Cologne native.

Hitschler-Becker does not rule out founding the company himself one day. He himself has “thousands of ideas” in his head, which so far he has only typed into his smartphone. In what direction this could go, he does not want to say. But his ideas probably have nothing to do with sweets. “Entrepreneurial and entrepreneurial spirit is in me,” he emphasizes. Right now, though, the family business needs him 100 percent. And mainly because increased prices for sugar and glucose, production losses at the Odenwald site and an increase in the number of crowns are causing problems for the confectionery manufacturer. Looks like Hitschler-Becker will have to dig deep into the experimental kit again.

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