Chronicle of the tea trading company Dethlefsen & Balk GmbH, Hamburg

Tea culture since 1836...

It is a historical fact that in the year 1836, Mr. Gustav C.H.J. Bal(c)k (then still written with a -ck-), established an import company for Miscellaneous Spices and Tea in the old part of Hamburg at the address Neue Burg 20. His business worked out so well that in 1837 an assistant was employed. In the same year, the company moved to Admiralitätsstrasse 39, where a retail business was established.

n the course of the year, Gustav C.H.J. Balk changed his main business activities to the import of tea from China . China was at that time the classical tea country.

f today we enjoy a cup of tea, we should remember that all knowledge about tea had its origin in China where tea has been a part of the way of life for centuries. The way teas were packed in China in those days was a work of art. Wooden chests lined with mats of hemp on the outside and a foil of lead on the inside were manufactured for exportation. Finally, the precious contents of those chests were fit for the long voyage to Europe .

n the meantime, Gustav C.H.J. Balk concentrated his business on tea only, although his company was still registered under Export and Import of Miscellaneous Spices and Tea. 1846, he rented a whole house in Admiralitätsstrasse 37 and employed eight assistants, an indication on how well his business was doing. Soon, even this larger domicile no longer met his needs and in 1858 the firm moved to Rödingsmarkt 79.

For the first time, the company opened a Banco Conto under its own name at the Norddeutsche Bank. For a company to have its own bank account was in those days no matter of course but rather an honor for a trading company.

When the company’s founder Gustav C.H.J. Balk passed away in 1870, he left the company, which with good cause was to be regarded as his very own lifetime achievement, to his son Gustav. Gustav had already been active for several years in the paternal company. In the same year Gustav Balk merged with the merchant Amandus Dethlefsen and expanded the business under the company name Dethlefsen & Balk – Theehandlung en gros. At the same time the company moved to Kleine Reichenstraße 21 and in October 1870 they enrolled at the trade register.

From 1875 on, the company had a bank account at the Commerz- und Discontobank in Hamburg . Finally, in 1878, Dethlefsen & Balk had their first place at the commodity exchange at Pfeiler 14. This was at that time a place where merchants met daily to discuss and conclude deals.

In the 1880s, the free port area within the Hamburg harbour was established and from 1881 to 1888 the largest connected warehouse complex of the world, the so called Speicherstadt, was built. Dethlefsen & Balk moved again in 1892 and rented an office and store rooms in the Speicherstadt at Holländischer Brook 22.

In 1893, Amandus Dethlefsen left the company after 23 years of activity as shareholder. At the same time, Heinrich R.G. Balk joined the company. The Balk family business was in its third generation.
When Gustav Balk left the company in 1899, his son Heinrich R.G. Balk became sole proprietor. In keeping with the technical progress, the first telephone in the company was installed at that time.

In 1904, Heinrich Balk received a special honor. He became member of the Versammlung eines ehrbaren Kaufmanns zu Hamburg e.V. (Assembly of respectable merchants in Hamburg ).

Heinrich Balk retired and sold the firm in 1905, thus giving up Dethlefsen & Balk as a family business.

The new owner, Hugo Emil Erhardt Baumgarten, restructured the enterprise. In the same year he introduced the still well-known telex address PECCO. Unfortunately we do not have information about the company’s activities at that time. However, probably so that he did not have to run the comapny alone, Hugo Baumgarten took Caesar Christian Albert Bethe into the comany as a shareholder and established a general partnership (Offene Handelsgesellschaft) under the new address Pickhuben 6.

During the years of World War I, inflation and the economic crisis led to great problems for the enterprise but thanks to good business relations, the company survived the hard times.

In 1931, Dethlefsen & Balk was changed into a company with limited responsibility and a capital of 20,000 Reichsmark. Managing directors were the two shareholders Baumgarten and Bethe. After Hugo Baumgarten’s death in 1932, Albert Bethe was left as single managing director. In 1933 the employee Curt Julius Peter Schmoller received the power of attorney and in 1935 he became managing director.
In 1937, the owners Curt Schmoller and Albert Bethe dissolved the Ltd. Company and an OHG (general partnership) was formed with the same capital. At the beginning of World War II, Albert Bethe died. Curt Schmoller ended the general partnership but continued to run the company as sole proprietor.

During the hard time after World War II, which brought the business to an almost complete standstill, the reconstruction began. Because with tea import alone the business could not be sustained, fishery products were also imported. However, since business was generally bad, this line of business was abandoned in the following year.

From 1950 onwards the tea business picked up again. The business relations to customers both abroad and inside Germany picked up. The business premises were in the meantime at Sandtorkai 2/3.

In 1970, Curt Schmoller sold his company. The enterprise was changed into a Ltd. again. The following managing directors were: 1972 Erhard Buettner, 1973 Walter Stahl, 1974 Dr. Klaus L. Diemer and Günter Petermann, 1974 Mathias Kloth and Walter Stahl.

In the mid-seventies Dethlefsen & Balk GmbH additionally started to deal with tea accessories and, by doing this, made an important step forward to secure its future.
In order to be able to serve the rapidly growing market of new specialty tea shops quickly and efficiently, in 1978 the head office of the company was shifted from the center of Hamburg to Wandalenweg 26 where a further warehouse was built. The import warehouse remained in the free port area where all tea specialties were stored for prompt dispatch.

esides the tea import, export and wholesale, Dethlefsen & Balk has specialized in the supply to tea shops. For this line of business, D&B offers approximately 300 different tea qualities in the standard catalogue assortment, practically packed into retail bags containing 1 kg of tea.
The accessories wholesale line, which ranges from tea filters to samovars, from tea sets to all kinds of sugar, from mugs to decorative tins and tea balls, etc. makes up almost half of the turnover today.
In order to optimize the storage and logistic procedures, under the direction of Mr. Hans H. Nack, the complete company moved in 1990 to Moorfleeter Strasse 40 in the Hamburg Billbrook trade area.

In 1992, Dethlefsen & Balk took on new partners and Mr. Martin Preuninger then took the lead as managing partner for the enterprise. The success of the company was strengthened continuously. A unique catalogue was created and the exclusive assortment and a modern customer service are the basis for the steadily growing success of Dethlefsen & Balk.
At the end of 1998 Mr. Preuninger left the post of managing director, and assigned Mr. Jens Meier and Mr. Marcus Clausen as managing directors. Both have acquired a solid experience over the years.

The acting managing directors have picked up Mr. Preuninger’s lead and are pursuing it with emphasis. New ideas have been introduced and new paths have been trodden, and the result is a modern, progressive company.
Let’s begin at the beginning... the first step was to renovate our warehouse and introduce a new logistics system. This optimization enabled us to enhance our service and reduce delivery time. As a consequence, our company has become even more reliable.

e also expanded and optimized our tea assortment and focussed on the creation of innovative flavours. Alongside many classic teas we also have several originals; these have become a precious complement to our assortment by proving their value as an ever growing market segment. Several times a year we inform our customers about our latest inventions.
Our accessories assortment has rapidly brought us to a leading position in this sector. We have so successfully designed and created our own products, that today they guarantee for quality and profit. Our clients have shared their knowledge of the consumer market and helped us along in developing a strategy by which our exclusive products present a design which everyone recognizes at a glance, thus making D&B products even more competitive and trendy.

The year 2002 was extremely important for the company. In order to do justice to the ever growing demands on our warehouse and on the administration, we moved into a building which offers excellent warehouse possibilities. This step was decisive for the optimization of our offices and work.
The move was not the only important step our company took. After extensive research and preparation we presented our new coffee selection. With a choice of 15 selected coffee specialties and an exclusive selection of coffee accessories we set yet another milestone in D&B’s history. The success of this new catalogue was well above our expectations. This section of our products is also steadily growing.

All of these changes have contributed to our success as one of the few market leaders in the tea, coffee and accessories fields. Due to the good cooperation with our customers, we are able to provide a very good service. We naturally guarantee for the quality of our exclusive products.
It must also be said, that all this success would never have taken place had we not had a young, motivated, energetic team.
We try very hard to communicate and to live by our company philosophy: to be number one in the service offered, in the care of our customers and in the selection of products. This brings us to the present... but don’t worry, we are already planning the future! Curious? Just wait and see!

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