The Netherlands: Suited for Expansion

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The workingman's friend in Europe is Amsterdam-based C. & A. Brenninkmeyer Co., whose 100 stores from Wales to West Germany outfit the whole family in middlebrow fashions at lowbrow prices. The Brenninkmeyer family itself believes in tight budgets and tight lips, regarding secrecy as its greatest strength and publicity as comfort to the competition. But competitors know that "C. & A." has annual sales of some $700 million, its own private-label factories, countless real estate holdings—and one burning ambition: to break into the U.S. retail market in grand style.

Manhattan Transfer. Last week the Brenninkmeyers were well on their way to gaining control of the cash-and-carry Ohrbach's chain ("A business in millions, a profit in pennies"), which has sales of some $75 million from five low-markup clothing "supermarkets" in Manhattan, Newark, Long Island and greater Los Angeles. The Brenninkmeyers bought an interest of roughly 47% in the chain last year, have an agreement to buy the remaining shares from Founder and Chairman Nathan Ohrbach when he decides to retire; Ohr-bach is vigorous and determined to stay on, but he is also 77. Fortnight ago, in a portent of things to come, Elmar Brenninkmeyer, 39, took over as president of the U.S. chain, replacing Nathan Ohrbach's son Jerome, whose big stock holdings in other companies (Polaroid, American Hardware) seem to interest him more than retailing.

Divided loyalty has never been a problem for the Brenninkmeyers. More than 100 family members occupy almost all the command posts in the company, which was started 122 years ago by Clemens and August Brenninkmeyer, German farmer's sons who opened a fabrics shop in the Dutch town of Sneek and whose descendants later pioneered in ready-to-wear. By tradition, young Brenninkmeyer men are sent around to the company's foreign stores to learn every facet of the operation. While there are no outside directors, the story in Amsterdam is that the Roman Catholic Brenninkmeyers always leave one chair open at management meetings "for our dear Lord."

European Formula. The Brenninkmeyers have adhered to formula, grown by manufacturing simple clothes and selling them off the rack (for as little as $2.50 a dress) with a minimum of frills. Conservatism has helped them in Europe but not in two previous attempts to enter the U.S. One C. & A. store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue failed in the 1950s, and a second store in Brooklyn is hardly a moneymaker. With Ohrbach's, the Brenninkmeyers hope to acquire the retailing flair of a U.S. company that has made a name for itself by imaginative advertising and artful merchandising of low-budget high-style Paris copies. Eventually, the Brenninkmeyers hope to expand across the U.S.