The Rákospalota factory produces thirty tonnes of products – 8-10 tonnes of sweet and savoury biscuits and 20 to 21 tonnes of wafers – every day, the entire amount is sold immediately. “We always pack them fresh, we have virtually no inventory”, says business director Péter Fajván to illustrate the fast-paced daily routine. The family business that employs almost 250 people is managed by five people, including him: the owners, László Benei and his wife, their daughter, Kinga Fajván Benei, and their son, László Benei, Jr. They all have their own clearly-defined set of tasks. The advantage of a family setup is the lack of bureaucracy and faster decision-making, as well as the trust and cohesion so crucial for successful management, explains Péter Fajván. One drawback however is that it is hard to tune out: they are in the factory from Monday to Saturday, from morning to evening, and they often end up talking business over Sunday lunch as well.
There is certainly a lot to talk about. The story of Benei és Társa Kft. began more than a hundred years ago, a few hundred kilometres east of their current Budapest centre. Already in the early 1900s, the Benei confectionery had made a name for itself in Berettyóújfalu. The owners later moved to Debrecen, then to Budakeszi, where they opened the business in their garage in 1983. In a few years, they were supplying the ÁFÉSZ, Közért, and Csemege national store chains. Events sped up after the regime change: automation started, the first wafer-making production line opened in 1992, and in 1995, they began producing for export. Today, export (mostly to Austria) accounts for more than one-third of their business. They intend to increase this ratio to 50% in the next period, primarily because of the much higher profit margin that can be achieved abroad.
But let us not skip too far ahead! The greatest step in the life of Benei és Társa Kft. so far has been the move to its current Rákospalota site – after much development, production started here in 2000, with over 100 employees. The investments necessary for reaching the next level of production quantity were primarily made with their own funds; they were only once granted a subsidy for development, the business director recalled. At that point, they built a new production facility with an investment of almost HUF 2 billion – funded from tenders, their own money, and outside resources – and modernised the production infrastructure. Thus, they transitioned from manufacture to production line without a decrease in quality. Their products, made from the same recipes for 50 years, are considered premium products in Hungary and abroad – a factor which is crucial to their success on Western markets. Diversification is important: almost a third of Benei biscuits and wafers become house-brand products of foreign and Hungarian chain stores, while the majority of products are sold under the Benei name.
Their primary export targets Hungary’s neighboring countries. As mentioned above, their biggest market is Austria, where the wafer market is saturated, therefore their primary export is their biscuits. They export to 12 countries, including Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Croatia, but occasionally even to the United States, where longer expiry periods are required. Then, half a year ago, the “Asia Express” started. As Péter Fajván said, they were initially wary of the size of the Chinese market, but as they “only” export to Shanghai (the city is almost three times as populous as the country of Hungary), they still have enough capacity. European goods have an advantage in China, for although they are much more expensive than local products, they are reputed for their strict quality assurance systems and for being GMO-free. According to the business director, to make its operations profitable, the company needs the foreign trade margin that is almost five times that which can be achieved in Hungary. The entire confectionery industry in Hungary, including Benei és Társa, has been hard hit by the introduction of the public health product tax in Hungary. Their weekly tax bill amounts to HUF 15-20 million, a sum that could be used for automation – a factor identified by the expert as hindering growth in the sector. They must compensate for this through their sales abroad – but they do not wish to produce for export only, as they are proud of their roots as a Hungarian company.
Because of their family style, they prefer having direct contact with both partners and customers. For example, the owners perform product tastings in stores themselves, where they reap compliments from consumers. “We know where we come from, we started small, so we treat our small customers just as well as our big ones”, said Péter Fajván. Their “Benei” branded vehicles make deliveries directly to shops of all sizes, greengrocers, grocery stores, and even pastry shops, receiving important customer feedback.
They place a special focus on quality assurance: they perform extra checks several times a year for both their own branded products and for international shipments. Recently, they have begun to aim at new market segments, producing kosher and lactose-free wafers.
As these are labour-intensive production processes, the issue of the entire Hungarian economy’s labour shortage necessarily comes up. According to Péter Fajván, this currently is one of their biggest challenges. While there were times when there were so many applicants for a job opportunity that 50-100 metre queues formed before the entrance, today, employees almost have to be “roped in”. Most of the workers are not employees, but work in temporary employment, due to the industry’s seasonal demand that usually increases just before the Christmas period. However, experience has shown that this type of workforce makes it impossible to plan precisely, and can even put production goals at risk: the company cannot permit itself to lose the trust of customers because of late deliveries. The lack of employees, capacity issues, and market demands are all factors that push them to automate processes as much as possible. For some time now, robotics have not been exclusive to the technology-intensive automotive industry – the incredibly precise machines of the confectionery industry can virtually eliminate rejects, while customer demand for novelties and special products can be met safely and quickly.