This Cologne success story begins in the city’s Ehrenfeld district: it’s 2010 and Sven-Oliver Pink, Florian Michajlezko, Oliver Steinki and Juliaan Cazin – the four founders of Ergobag – are working meticulously on the first ever ergonomic school rucksack. During the day they negotiate with suppliers and producers and at the weekend they pack 80,000 pens into the pencil cases of the first 6,000 school backpacks and go to ‘school bag parties’, where they can present their wares. Twelve years later, Fond Of GmbH – as their company is known today – is still based in Ehrenfeld. But these days their 280-strong workforce operates out of Cologne’s most state-of-the-art office building, The Ship, which has its own gym, restaurant, day-care facility, greenery-filled rooftop terrace and bar with views of Cologne Cathedral. And the campus is still growing: one of the company’s founders, Oliver Steinki, is building another fully digitalised “feel-good office”, the Vorum, next door. Fond of now distributes seven different brands (Affenzahn, Ergobag, sfoli, satch, AEVOR, pinqponq and SALZEN) and generates an annual turnover of around €100 million.
You’ve developed from a school bag start-up into a thriving medium-sized enterprise. How did you manage that?
Nils Eiteneyer: Basically, there were three factors: we approached things with fresh eyes and without having the slightest clue. And we soon realised: “Hey, there’s a gap in the school bag market!” Secondly, there is our enthusiasm for products, which is also reflected in our name Fond Of. The third factor is fearlessness: having the courage to fall on our faces every now and again and the willingness to learn from our mistakes.
Daniel Bergold: Every team player can do their best when they are doing something they are passionate about. We take the personal aspect seriously – we help our people to develop their full potential and try to see everyone as an individual.
How did the idea come about?
Daniel: We came up with the idea for Ergobag, the core of our brand, at a party back in 2010 where a physiotherapist told us that a lot of children were coming to her with posture problems. To be honest, we were blown away by our success and other brands soon followed: Satch, the backpack for secondary school, Affenzahn for kindergarten-aged kids. And as we wanted to carry cool bags ourselves, we also came up with Pinqponq and Aevor.
Nils: We obviously struck a real chord with our four areas of focus: ergonomics, design, customisability and sustainability. Last year we also started producing sustainable T-shirts, sweaters, rain jackets and winter coats. For Aevor, we see a lot of potential in the bicycle segment: bikes are replacing cars in the city so people need decent equipment such as bags that they can hang on their handlebars.
Your bags are made from recycled PET bottles – how many does it take to make an Ergobag?
Daniel: So far, we have recycled 157 million PET bottles. There are 35 in an Ergobag set. The bottles are shredded, melted down, turned into nylon threads and then dyed.
Nils: Sustainability is a priority for us, particularly because we are more than aware that consumerism itself is not sustainable. That’s why we produce functional products that are as durable and sustainable as possible. Twelve years ago, our supplier explained to us that you can make fabrics from either crude oil or PET bottles. We decided to take the sustainable path, even if it’s the more expensive one.
What makes it sustainable exactly?
Daniel: We’ve been a climate-neutral company since 2022. That means we try to reduce our emissions wherever possible. Whatever we can’t reduce, we offset in projects. Our goal is to offset the environmental impact of all our products. At the same time, we are planning to develop a second-hand system for our online shops.
Nils: We mainly produce in Turkey and Vietnam and work with external partners like Fair Wear, bluesign and GOTS, which monitor the ecological and social standards for us, such as the working conditions in factories. They ensure that we are complying with our own standards. For many competitors, getting certified is their goal. But our sustainability team shows us every single day how we can do better.
You’ve also established a start-up centre. Why?
Nils: There are lots of start-up hubs, mostly set up by institutions or big companies. We launched the first accelerator by founders for founders, the xdeck. Around 150 start-ups apply in every round and a panel of judges, in which our partners are also represented, chooses six to eight of them. For four months, they receive a free workspace at The Ship and we give them access to experts.
Daniel: The city has always supported us. Now we want to give something back to Cologne. The guys from Vytal, the deposit-free reusable food packaging system, were in our first batch. And they are now tenants at The Ship, which I’m over the moon about.
Now that working from home has become the norm, do we still need such big office buildings?
Nils: We regularly ask ourselves that question: but the answer is yes, we definitely do! After two years of living with the pandemic, I strongly believe that it is detrimental to a company’s culture when its staff no longer come together in one place. But it depends on the quality of the building itself. It has to offer flexible working, promote the work culture and, most importantly, people have to feel at home.
Do you have any recommendations for people visiting Cologne?
Nils: I love this city, simply because there is such an incredible amount of warm-hearted people from different countries living here and everyone can be themselves. Dinner at Haus Scholzen is a must – we even used to hold our staff appraisal meetings there! Plus a bike ride along the Rhine and, of course, the obligatory visit to Cologne Cathedral!
Daniel: Kids love the zoo, and a ride back to the Rheinpark in the cable car. And I also really like the atmosphere at the weekly market in the Stadtwald forest on Saturdays.
(by Anja Albert)