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Convinced of further growth: Bergfreunde bosses Ronny Höhn (left) and Matthias Gebhard

Photo: Bergfreunde

The US outdoor specialist Backcountry is parting ways with the German online retailer "Bergfreunde". According to information from manager magazin, the new owner of the fast-growing former family business from Kirchentellinsfurt near Tübingen will be the globally active French sporting goods retailer Decathlon. Bergfreunde confirmed the deal on Monday, but did not disclose the purchase price. The sale is expected to close in the first quarter of 2024.

Even under its American parent company, Bergfreunde attached great importance to operational and organizational independence. This is not expected to change under Decathlon. The outdoor specialist will operate on the market completely detached from the core business of the new owner, it is said. The two long-standing managing directors Matthias Gebhard (43) and Ronny Höhn (44) will remain on board in this function.

Bergfreunde is one of the shooting stars of recent years in the narrow German online outdoor segment. The company has long since left competitors such as "Globetrotter" and "Bergzeit" behind and has rapidly increased its sales and profits. In the 2022 financial year, which was marked by a slump in demand due to high inflation, the specialist increased its sales by 19 percent to 242 million euros. According to the 2022 annual report, Bergfreunde expects growth of up to 2023 percent in 12 as well.

However, this also means that the momentum continues to weaken: Due to the pandemic, sales growth was still 2021 percent in 31 and even 2020 percent in 41. At the same time, net income more than halved last year to around EUR 7.7 million – mainly due to higher personnel costs and investments. The number of employees climbed by around a quarter to 580.

The development does not come as a surprise to the management: At the end of 2022, the Bergfreunde managing directors had already spoken in a double interview of one or two "uncertain" years that lay ahead for the entire outdoor industry. However, little will change in the long term in the megatrends that will drive the topics of outdoor and online retail. "We still have many strong years ahead of us," co-boss Gebhard had confidently declared.

Growth momentum is flattening out

Even though the momentum is flattening out, the Tübingen-based company is still growing faster than the market – and remains profitable. For the time being, it remains unclear why the U.S. mother, who joined the company in December 2013, is giving up Bergfreunde. The parties involved did not give a specific reason for the separation. Bergfreunde himself speaks of a "great collaboration" over the past decade. "We are proud of Bergfreunde's growth during the ten-year ownership of Backcountry and look forward to continued success with Decathlon for Bergfreunde," Backcountry CEO Melanie Cox (63) is quoted as saying.

With Decathlon, the Tübingen-based company is of course striving for further growth. They are convinced that with the new owner they have "a smart, financially strong and long-term partner at their side". "We can learn and benefit from each other in many areas: be it in the area of sustainability, internationalization or scaling," says Co-Managing Director Matthias Gebhard.

The sporting goods discounter obviously sees Bergfreunde as a strategic acquisition: The new partnership is intended to complement the global outdoor portfolio with a premium brand with high brand value. "Thanks to their strong presence in several European markets, including Germany, Europe's largest outdoor market, Bergfreunde will expand our ecosystem alongside bicycle specialist Alltricks," Decathlon CEO Barbara Martin Coppola (47) is quoted as saying. The French online bike shop Alltricks also has a German-language sales page and was acquired by Decathlon in autumn 2019.

The French have defined Germany as an important market and want to grow here, especially offline: While retail stores are increasingly saying goodbye to German city centres, Decathlon is opening one branch after another in this country. Whether in Stuttgart, Augsburg or now in Elmshorn near Hamburg – the number of branches is growing continuously. By 2026, there are to be 110 in Germany.

Decathlon focuses primarily on its own brands and, according to its own information, sells equipment and clothing for 75 different sports. The Group operates 1751 stores in 72 countries worldwide and has around 105,000 employees. Last year, Decathlon generated sales of 15.4 billion euros, an increase of 12 percent compared to the previous year.