A chandlery to satisfy classic-boat junkies

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Ah, the intoxicating aroma of oakum, tar and hemp. Rays of light reflected by polished brass and gleaming varnish. Floorboards creaking underfoot. Stepping into the retail store of outfitter Toplicht is a symphony for the senses and a trip to the realm of nautical retro-culture.

Toplicht can feed the jones of any classic-boat-junky - sorry, no electronics here.

The dictionary suggests the term “chandlery” for such a place, but that’s an insult, with all due respect. If classic-boat junkies could dream up a joint that satisfies (almost) all of their passions, this would be it. To them, this is Nirvana and Shangri-La in a family pack. If they can’t get their fix elsewhere, it’s Toplicht to the rescue.

The German company doesn’t just list stuff in its 432-page, black-and-white catalog with hand-drawn cartoons sprinkled in, or drop-ship items directly from manufacturers. No, 95 percent of the more than 14,000 items offered are in stock and right in the warehouse, which occupies a good deal of the premises and then some in this complex of industrial red-brick buildings close to the light-rail stop of Bahrenfeld, a suburb on Hamburg’s west side (toplicht.de/en).

“Same-day shipping” is not just a slogan for Toplicht. It’s the company’s lifeblood and the reason this business has been in business and thriving through all of the traumatic social, political, technological and economic upheaval that has occurred since founder Michael Thönnessen hung out his shingle in 1981. “Even in bad times, wooden boats need good care,” he says with a wry smile. “Our customers live and breathe the culture of classic boats. They might postpone the purchase of sexy bronze turnbuckles, but they won’t skimp on the necessities for maintenance and upkeep.”

Thönnessen was one of seven enthusiasts — or “crazies,” as such people are commonly called — who got it into their heads to save old and decrepit workboats by restoring them to their original condition, with original materials, including massive bronze bollards, manual anchor windlasses, tarred wire or fenders made from sisal.

As one of the co-founders of the museum port of Oevelgönne, nearby on the Elbe River, Thönnessen initially sold rope, wooden blocks and wood tar, which he imported from Scandinavia by the barrel and packaged into smaller containers. It was a side business in the basement while he used the brand name Toplicht (top light in English) to import candles from Denmark, which kind of financed his tar habit. But the candle supplier quite literally went up in flames, so Thönnessen decided to pursue the procurement of rare and hard-to-find supplies for workboat restorations.

Dealing with organic products initially, he also embraced organic growth and stayed away from risky loans. By today’s startup standards, which demand targeted product development, aggressive fund-raising and a dog-and-pony show for investors, Toplicht was a perfect antidote: low-key and limited to a tiny niche.

Times have changed, but its philosophy hasn’t. Toplicht stayed the course and remained small, with one store, the antithesis of West Marine if you ever saw one. Nobody here thumbs his nose at large chains, venture capitalists or banks — these guys are way too modest and classy for that — but they enjoy their status as a respected supplier that thrives in a niche others abandoned long ago.

Shunning debt and outside investors

So what’s the magic sauce? Much of it is timing. Toplicht was there before restoring old boats became a fashion, dealing with nickel-and-dimers who rescued historic vessels on shoestring budgets. Later, when retro became hip and real money started to flow, the company smartly jumped on the bandwagon and has been riding it ever since. “Through it all, our biggest success is remembering who we are,” says Kai Bruhn, the first officer behind Thönnessen, who once taught French, philosophy and sailing before he started making sails. “We have not forgotten that we deal with humans. If you look at our warehouse, it makes sense to people, not computers. You want a shackle? Well, you’ll find it where you’d expect it, with all the other shackles.”

Toplicht’s employees are recruited from the biotope of workboat culture and wooden-boat restoration. No matter who’s at the counter, they don’t carry radios to call for backup or a part number. If Toplicht hires, which happens once in a blue moon, it looks for experts, not associates. The company goes by personal referral, not by LinkedIn, Craigslist or Monster.com. It wants people who have solid reputations and credentials, which can’t be faked online.

Toplicht owner Michael Thonnessen marches to his own retail drumbeat.

Jochen Gnass, Toplicht’s rigging expert, runs his own business adjacent to the firm’s warehouse, and during Soundings’ visit he put the finishing touches on the standing rigging of a 120-foot schooner that is about to be launched in Turkey. “Specialized know-how is key for us,” Bruhn says. “Sometimes though, the amount of advice we dispense is borderline ridiculous. We ought to start billing some customers’ health insurance for counseling.”

Bruhn also opines that making no sale is better than making a bad sale that brings the customer back to the store “to cry on my shoulder.” That’s counterintuitive to common retail practice, which puts revenue ahead of everything else, but Toplicht has fared well, growing from Thönnessen’s basement into a business with annual revenue in excess of $5 million. “We are profitable, and we have maintained our financial independence,” he says, “but our expectations are much more modest because we don’t have to kowtow to shareholder interests. Instead, our decision-making is guided by what’s best for the customer because that’s also what’s best for the business — and the people who work here.”

A controller’s nightmare

If Toplicht had a hard-nosed controller, he’d go nuts over the company’s extensive and expensive warehouse, Thönnessen suggests. It’s the opposite of the mainstream retail strategy, which aims to cut inventory and associated costs. “Stocking a windlass that sells once a year would not go over well elsewhere,” he says.

But being able to supply unusual stuff at the drop of a hat is precisely why Toplicht succeeds. That’s what customers love, and that’s why they come back and bring friends. And like Lasse Johannsen, an editor at the German sailing magazine Yacht who owns a 1970s- vintage Vindö 40, they increasingly buy “regular” stuff, as well. “I don’t mind paying a few extra Euros for the convenience of crossing off all items on my shopping list when I walk out of the store,” he says.

Conspicuously, the one category that’s nearly non-existent in the catalog is electronics. “As soon as you order this stuff, it’s outdated,” Bruhn says. “Ages ago, we had a few Lorans in stock, which went from the warehouse straight into the trash. We do much better with items that won’t go out of style even if they are sitting on a shelf for 20 years.”

However, Toplicht is looking for new niches to cultivate. Of late, it has been making inroads in the mainstream market with paints and oils. It already supplies pretty much every restoration yard under the European sun (and many places elsewhere), plus federal and state authorities and cruise-line operators. Over time, the company’s clientele has changed, mixing gruff old salts with Beemer boys, who often belly up to the Toplicht sales counter side by side. They might be looking for different kit, but the thread that binds them is their view of boats not as objects of utility but as sources of pride.

Another specialty of Toplicht’s business is the reissue of items that are no longer in production. Thönnessen, who keeps the shelves of his cramped office full of supplier catalogs — neatly labeled with a felt pen and stacked on top of one another — is also a master of dredging up artisan craftsmen across Europe. From caulking irons made by a blacksmith in Denmark to oakum and ladles with a spout to pour tar pitch, Toplicht has it all because the company knows where to get it. Thönnessen also enlists his wife, Jytte, who makes baggywrinkles and the Rolls-Royce of canvas rigger’s bags by hand, one stitch at a time.

Quaint, not stagnant

Would advertising help move more product? “Hardly,” says the boss. “We sell specialized products. Therefore, we don’t have to chase the mainstream market. Who wants what we have will come through these doors.”

Toplicht attends several boat shows, including boot in Düsseldorf and the Marine Equipment Trade Show in Amsterdam, to show new product and interact with suppliers, but it doesn’t plaster its company logo all over the place. It relies on word-of-mouth promotion. The strategy for advertising is coyly defined as “restrained.”

If all this sounds quaint and nostalgic, Toplicht is anything but standing still: One-third of its business is done online. It has established partnerships with French and Dutch retailers, though none in the United States, where promising talks did not produce a presence, according to Bruhn. “Exports to the U.S. face multiple challenges,” he says. “There’s the currency exchange rate and the shipping cost but also complicated and expensive certification requirements for products made from wood or natural fibers.”

As much fun as it would be to imagine a U.S. version of Toplicht, Bruhn and Thönnessen decline to indulge in such fantasies. “We never entertained opening a second location,” Thönnessen says. “Our concept can’t be franchised.”

This September, Toplicht will move to new facilities, more than doubling its store size and warehousing capacity. This could be seen as moving one step closer to big-time capitalism, but Bruhn is calming such fears. “We are selling an image, yes, but we’re not hawking an illusion.”

That means the smell of tar and hemp and the flashes of light reflecting off brass and varnish probably will dominate the new ambience. And if Toplicht pulls it off, it proves once again that this icon of retro-culture survives and thrives in a time of constant change.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

July 2013 issue