What originally started off as selling fashion accessories like tie pins in student digs has in the meantime grown into a leading import company for promotional products: LM Accessoires GmbH is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The company offers the promotional products market a complete collection of customisable products under the brand name Reflects – ranging from pins to lanyards, watches and calculators, through to designer items. The CEO and proprietor, Meinhard Mombauer, who set himself the aim of making the distributors’ lives as easy as possible by offering them comprehensive services, employs a workforce of around 100.
When students are hunting for a lucrative parttime job, they are often extremely creative and generally try to find something totally different from their world of studies. This was also true of Kai Lühr and Meinhard Mombauer at the end of the 1980s. Both were at University in Cologne, Lühr was studying medicine and Mombauer law. In an era when the Internet still seemed to be a vision of the future, it was possible to earn a bob or two supplying products.
Lühr and Mombauer turned their attentions to a special product segment: personalised tie pins. There was plenty of demand so the enterprise took off well. In 1988 the two friends founded a private company, they derived the company’s name – LM Modevertrieb – from their initials. At the time nobody could have imagined that the foundation had been laid for an impressive success story on the promotional products market: that of LM Accessoires GmbH, which arose out of LM Modevertrieb a few years later.
“We weren’t even aware at the time that there was something known as the promotional products industry,“ recalls Mombauer. “We merely registered that there was demand for customised fashion accessories. We produced tie pins with whisks, airplanes or champagne bottles – in line with the customer’s requirements.“ Badges and key fobs were added to the product line-up – then as the business began to expand the time soon came when it was no longer possible to run the company and continue to study at the same time. So, Lühr and Mombauer sold the company, which however didn’t continue to flourish without its two original proprietors.
Whereas Lühr forged on with his career as a doctor, Mombauer had discovered his passion for business. He bought back the company and in his capacity as sole managing partner has ensured that the firm has joined the upper ranks of the European promotional products business. “We have showed constant healthy growth,“ confirmed Mombauer in hindsight. “We have gradually expanded our line-up, the premises and our workforce and we have always reinvested the profits in order to increase the efficiency of LM Accessoires.“ In 1991 Mombauer employed four people and occupied office space in Cologne.
A year later the company set its sights on the Far East. Mombauer established contacts in Taiwan, shook hands on his first contract with an Asian manufacturer – who has remained one of the Cologne company’s business partners until this very date.
Important strategic decisions were also taken regarding the staff. From a very early stage Mombauer relied on the advice of a professional goldsmith, hiring Peter Hohmann, who still works for the firm. Today, Hohmann is a real veteran and absolute expert in the badge manufacturing business. In 1993 Elke Stills-Wolfsdorf joined the company and in the subsequent years she also played a significant role in shaping the destiny of LM Accessoires.
At the time LM Accessoires was expanding its sales structures on the promotional products market more and more. In 1993 the company exhibited at the Marketing Services for the first time, made the acquaintance of several influential promotional products distributors, which in turn enabled it to get to know the market better. In the meantime badges made up the core business. In 1994 LM celebrated its premiere at the PSI Show in Düsseldorf. Since then the company has exclusively been supplying to the promotional products trade: “We distance ourselves from selling directly to industry customers,“ commented Mombauer.
This decision has certainly not had a negative influence on the economic growth of the company, on the contrary: In 1996 the company moved into another building, the premises accommodated both the offices and a warehouse. When the warehouse became too small, external storage facilities were rented in the year 2000, however these too were quickly outgrown. The next logical step was to build own premises. As is appropriate for a Cologne-based firm, the foundation stone was laid one day after the beginning of the Carnival period: on November 12, 2002. In 2003 the building that had been erected on a field in Cologne-Marsdorf was ready to move into. The result is 5,500 m² of office, warehousing and production space on a piece of land covering 13,000 m². “The advantage of having one’s own building is that we were able to plan and build it to meet the exact demands of a modern, service-oriented service provider in the promotional products sector,“ explained Mombauer. Approx. 100 employees work in the Toyota- Allee in the meantime, the production area accommodates machines for pad-printing, laser engraving and for the goldsmith work, between 1,500 and 1,600 different articles are stocked in Cologne – the dimensions are impressive.
Badges still make up an integral part of the collection, but such a growth rate could never have been achieved with badges alone. “One item that significantly contributed towards our breakthrough was the Euro calculator with a double display,“ recalled Mombauer. “I discovered the item in the year 1999 and became the exclusive supplier in Germany. We had ordered large volumes and invested around 1 mil. Marks, which was a big risk for us at the time. But it paid off. We distributed 5,000 calculators as give-aways at the PSI, which created a certain demand on the market. Ultimately, the calculator turned out to be a best-seller, which in turn enabled us to expand our product line-up to become a full-range supplier.“
The anecdote with the Euro calculator is not only a frequently cited milestone in the company’s history, but also underlines the company owner’s good intuition for trends. “Of course not all of our items were best-sellers,“ admitted Mombauer, “some of the products we set our hopes on turned out to be a flop. But decisions have to be made and all the decisions you take don’t have to be right for you to be successful, it suffices if the majority of them are right.“ In any event the decision to launch the brand Reflects in 1998 and thus offer the promotional products market a more comprehensive range of products proved to be spot-on. Whether LED lamps or leather articles, office or bar accessories, footballs or textiles, whether jewellery, USB sticks or writing instruments – in addition to their core competence badges, LM’s product range comprising of among other things watches, key fobs and lanyards offers the right solution for almost every occasion.
“It is not only important that the products are good, they also have to suit the market well – for instance in terms of price – they have to be customisable and frequently used, so that they act as multipliers,“ Mombauer pointed out. “Promotional products can be simple, but they have to be attractive, they have to be of benefit to the recipient and they have to convey messages.“ A concept that is expressed succinctly by the company’s motto “Small things – big value“. Great value is not only placed on the design of the products, but also on the packaging, which conveys the initial impression of high quality, while at the same time offering additional surfaces for design possibilities and also the opportunity to communicate the brand name Reflects, because each of the stock items brandishes the Reflects logo on the packaging at least.
Wealth of ideas
In order to distinguish itself from other import companies and offer unique products, own designs constantly take on a bigger role among the company’s portfolio. “One often has a specific perception of a product, which is however not offered in that precise form. We create such products ourselves in cooperation with several industry designers and subsequently have these designs manufactured in the Far East.“
Good examples of this approach are the wrist watch Lolliclock from 2012 and its successor the table clock Lolliclock Rock, which was recently distinguished with the Promotional Gift Award. Their success – the Lolliclock turned out to be a best-seller last year, the first reactions to the Lolliclock Rock are similarly promising – is above all due to their designs, which boast great attention to detail, for instance importance is placed on attributes such as the size of the bezel, the haptics or fresh colours.
Furthermore, the watches were manufactured so that they are perfectly suitable for the needs of the promotional products market. Both models are not only available in many colours, the movement of the Lolliclock Rock can be taken out if desired and combined with a different coloured case – this is an advantage for warehouse stocks and also offers the best logistical prerequisites for their further processing.
As was the case with the Euro calculator and many subsequent highlights from the LM collection, a large number of Lolliclock Rocks were distributed at the PSI Show. The company is renowned for its attention-grabbing appearances in Düsseldorf. LM Accessoires is one of the exhibitors with the largest stands and regularly employs promoters, who attract visitors to the stand with vouchers for give-aways. Prize-draws – as in 2007 for example when they raffled off a trip to Las Vegas – round off their PSI participations. “It is important that the individual marketing tools fit in well with the overall stand concept,“ emphasised Mombauer. “We invest a lot of manpower in our trade fair participations, our PSI team comprises of around 70 employees, so the details have to be well-coordinated – as is the case with the products.“
LM Accessoires is well-known in the industry as a frequent participant of trade fairs, who treads new ground in the process. At the end of the 1990s the company offered the dealers at the PSI an all-inclusive carefree package – the “Showbase” (previously “Homebase”). Moreover, since 2010 LM has regularly sponsored the WA Community Event and is also the co-initiator of the Welcome-Home Tour – a cooperation between eight promotional products suppliers. “The idea behind the tour is that we invite the distributors to visit us at our companies, where they can get to know us, our employees and our work processes and thus develop a better understanding for how our products are manufactured and further processed,“ explained the LM CEO. “We have achieved a good mixture with the eight supplier partners so that this event is of benefit to everyone involved. Here – as with many other measures in the event and exhibition sector – it is primarily about reinforcing the relationships with the distributors.“
Competence and Stability
The partnership-like relationship to the distributors is reinforced by joint events, but also results to a large extent from the pledge of trust that LM Accessoires has earned itself among the trade due to its high reliability and the high service level it provides. The company has had the increasingly more complex Far East business under control for many years, as a result of their long-standing relations to experienced agents. Regular on-site quality controls are the order of the day, the legal requirements – from the REACH guideline through to the product safety law – are meticulously adhered to. “The import business in China has become difficult,“ confirmed Mombauer. “Not only because the legal demands are becoming stricter all the time, but also because the market is changing dynamically, price increases due to rising labour costs are also the order of the day. Newcomers can quickly get out of their depth here and last but not least one has to be familiar with and take into account the mentality of the Chinese suppliers.“
Competence and stability are what distinguish the LM team. Many of the employees have been on board for years and have the respective know-how in their specialised fields. “I have always endeavoured to keep the hierarchies within the company flat,“ emphasised Mombauer, “so that reliable decisions can be taken fast. This is how we secure the necessary flexibility.“ The sales department, which is under the direction of the Sales Directors Frank Krüger (Germany) and Stefan Fergen (Overseas), currently comprises of 27 employees – all of the customers have their own personal contact partner to advise them on all matters. “We want to make the distributor’s life as easy as possible. When he assigns an order to us, we take care of the complete service from the product design through to the picking and packing.“ The company’s own graphic team comprising of eight graphic designers is responsible for creating design drafts for the customers as well as producing customer logos and the LM’s own catalogues. Mombauer is also proud of the fast reaction times. “Laser engraving samples that are ordered by 3 pm are lasered and sent out to the customer the very same day.“ Extensive warehouse stocks and the in-house customising department also enable last-minute enquiries to be dealt with fast.
From Cologne to Europe
With such a broad alignment and positioned to meet the exact requirements of the promotional products market, it is not at all surprising that LM Accessoires has long since established itself way beyond the German borders. “Incidentally, it is definitely an advantage that we are based in Cologne,“ confirmed Mombauer. “Cologne is a well-known metropolis, which radiates zeitgeist and cosmopolitanism. This is perceived positively on the international stage.“
Mombauer estimates the company’s export share at over 30%, 10 employees serve the European distributors, where possible in the customer’s native language: English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Czech, Polish, Romanian – the variety of languages spoken by the export team is immense. Frequent participation at the trade shows in Warsaw, Milan, Madrid, Lyon or Jönköping have additionally contributed towards increasing the brand awareness of the company. Hence, it is no wonder that the result of Mombauer‘ s stock-check of his company after the first quarter of a century is thoroughly positive: “We work in an attractive and exciting industry. I have got to know very many great and lovely people, we have a partner-like relationship with a lot of our suppliers and distributors, which extends beyond our business relations and which have in some cases developed into real friendships. The first 25 years have definitely whet my appetite for more. We are curious and fully motivated, we strive to achieve continual improvement.” In fact, Mombauer always has, even back in the days when he was selling tie pins to finance his studies.