Whether it would be selling cars and bicycles or photographing nature and birds, “for a long time I wondered whether I wanted to make my passions my profession or not,” says Benji Kontz. Ultimately, he resolved the question by deciding to take over the Arnold Kontz family business.
Founded in 1917, the company now employs 220 people across four car dealerships and a cycle shop, and has a turnover of around €100m. “My great-grandfather started out by opening a bicycle workshop at the railway station,” says the great-grandson. “Like every company, we’ve gone through complicated times. During the Second World War, there was less demand for bicycles. So he specialised in the repair and sale of radios, a popular commodity at the time.” After the war, the sale of bicycles resumed and motorised two-wheelers were added. Then came cars, from the beginning of the 1960s, with BMW. The company has continued from generation to generation: Benji, who joined its ranks in 2005, represents the fourth.
Before that, he studied law, with the idea of joining the family business. “I knew that it would be useful for me.” He also spent a year with his sister in London to take up photography, “just for fun”. Four years older, she chose to devote herself to music by becoming a composer.
“I was always attracted to business,” he explains. “When I was 11, I started working in the cycle shop, which was still on Avenue de la Gare, during my holidays. What interested me most was the contact with the customers, the fact of selling.” The pocket money he earned enabled him to buy binoculars for bird watching and cameras.
The handover went smoothly. “I ran the business with my father from the start. We shared an office, so I was immediately immersed in the management. He gave me a lot of room to manoeuvre, from day one.” This fluidity is reflected in the family decision-making. “We seem to think in the same way. At the beginning, employees who did not get the answer they wanted from one of us would try to get it from the other. This soon stopped, because they realised that the answer was always the same.” Tommy Kontz’s health forced him to step down in 2011, when he officially handed over the reins to his son. “He is still very interested in what’s going on in the company, and I still talk to him,” says the current CEO.
Like every company, we’ve gone through complicated times.
Under Benji, the company took a strategic turn with the sale of the BMW business in 2015. He has continued to market English brands like his father, while also opening the new cycle shop at 3, rue de Strasbourg, a triumphant return to the neighbourhood after the closure of the historic shop in 2006 (when the owner sold the building). Sitting at the table of the Akor café, a cafeteria in the heart of this new business, he says that “it has taken on a whole new dimension” with the crisis and the demand it has generated. “In five years, we must have multiplied the volumes by ten.” Cars still represent the majority of the turnover, however. “We also bought a car dealership in Belgium in 2020, our first foreign location.” All this comes at a time when a shortage of semi-conductors is affecting the automotive sector, which is already transforming towards new electric capabilities and norms.
For the future, “our challenge is to get through the crisis. This is something we do differently, as a family business. We assume our responsibilities: even if this comes with a drop in profitability, we don’t put anyone out of work, because we have a different relationship with our employees. Even in normal times,” Benji continues, “we don’t try to maximise profits but rather to maximise pleasure--while remaining profitable.” Thus, no new acquisitions are in sight. “Our desire has never been to become the biggest. But sometimes an opportunity arises, as was the case in Belgium.”
Curious young people
The shareholding belongs to “our small family”, he says, without elaborating. This means that the young children of Benji’s sister could, one day and if they wish, take over the company. As could his own, aged five and eight.
Our desire has never been to become the biggest.
At the moment, “they like the bike shop the most, just like I did back then. When they get here, they already start putting the displays away. They’re all about presentation,” he laughs. The company arouses their curiosity. “They ask questions about being a business owner. They try to understand what I do all day.” Like his father, however, he doesn’t want to put pressure on his offspring. “What a company needs is people who want to take it forward.” That’s what has kept it going, for over 100 years.
This article was originally published in Paperjam. It has been translated and edited for Delano.