Somehow, it feels as if Befort has always been there. In actual fact, Ernst Befort, a professed Leitzian, founded his own company in Wetzlar in 1922. In 1928, he moved the company to Braunfelser Straße. And since then, the company has really always been there. Even if a lot has changed over the course of the decades.
Henner Befort is not exactly known for being particularly sentimental or emotional. But his short speech in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Befort Wetzlar, which he passed to me, does contain some succinct insights and discernments that won’t let the heart be unaffected. He was sad that not many records existed about his grandfather Ernst Befort. He raised his hat to his father who had to join the company involuntarily at the young age of 19 – and who successfully managed its affairs for more than 50 years. It is unconventional and refreshingly different when Henner Befort reminds the audience that the 100th anniversary is, after all, only celebrated every 100 years: “If you are lucky, you may be able to take part. Anyhow, we are glad that we are able to celebrate this event together today.”
Family business over three generations
This is quite true – and Henner Befort shows a good deal of appreciation and gratefulness when speaking about the company that has born the name of his family from the very beginning. It all started in 1922, the founding year of the optical workshop “Ernst Befort Optische Werkstätte”. Since 1928, the company has been located in Braunfelser Straße. They manufactured microscope mirrors, graticules, and scale divisions on optical substrates. Precision optics made by Befort were in high demand, their workforce was growing. From a display cabinet, Henner Befort takes a fanfold with photographs of a staff outing on July 11th, 1936. The following years of the war put more than one worry line on the forehead of Ernst Befort. After the Second World War, he was hired by the Americans to photograph so-called “displaced persons” who were released from war imprisonment or concentration camps. Also commissioned by the US Army, he produced dazzler mirrors for returning allied soldiers which, curiously enough, are evocative of modern iPhones.
In 1948, Ernst Befort begins with coating precision optical components in series and this makes him one of the pioneers in the field. After an apoplectic stroke, he made his son Peter discharge his responsibilities. This was in 1963. Peter Befort follows in his father’s footsteps and outgrows them. In 1976, he takes over the management and fashions the “workshops” into an ultramodern enterprise. Apart from manufacturing, Befort Wetzlar relies increasingly on development and engineering. First and foremost, they have dealt with special solutions or small series production in negligible quantities: from individual lenses to accurately fitting system integration, from special optics to opto-mechanical sub-assemblies and systems. Together with his father, Henner Befort has been managing the family business in the third generation since 2004, from 2014 as sole managing director. His wife Sandra has been responsible for marketing and human resources since 2017.
New ideas and innovative products
Of course, the history of the family and the company has not been just as straightforward as this short chronicle implies. “The Beforts have always had a mind of their own”, Henner admits. And at this juncture, it certainly has a positive connotation. For not even the unconventional ideas and decisions flashing up in Henner Befort’s eyes or just spilling directly out of his mouth can hide the fact that he always knows exactly what he is doing. For him, the one is unthinkable without the other. He is a doer, but he also does many things in quite a different way. From that originate new ideas and innovative products for customers who require more than ready-made solutions off the shelf – no matter if these are about developing customer specific precision and laser optics or realizing highly complex optical systems, precision mechanical components, or high-quality coatings.
As a result, Befort Wetzlar still ranks among the leading providers of precision optical products. Almost 60 people are employed in the family business, 80 percent of them highly skilled specialist workers, technicians, and engineers. That’s what Henner Befort puts great store on: “In our business, it is important that the customers benefit from our experience and our expert knowledge. That they get it from us, on short notice, from a single source, and in faithful collaboration, that is what our customers really appreciate.” These qualities have top priority at Befort – from the initial product idea all the way through to final inspection.
Investing sustainably in the company
During a tour through the company, it becomes clear that it is not possible to make good on such ambitious standards with noble intents alone. “If you want to keep the ball rolling as a medium-sized company, you have to permanently invest”, says Henner Befort. In employees and in machinery. And doing so in a long-lasting way. There is no end to this matter because time, by its very nature, does not stand still. And since Henner Befort is in his early fifties, he sometimes gives thought to his own future and the future of the company.
“We decided to position the company in such a way during the next 5 to 10 years that it will have a promising future”, Henner Befort explains. Digitization has already found its way into the company; machine processing is more and more done with CNC grinding and polishing machinery. Now, they venture on robotics in the production of optics. This is not a standard in photonics by a long stretch. It is planned to feed the energy supply sustainably and ecologically responsibly by means of a photovoltaic system. At least just as important is finding and retaining skilled young professionals so that the immense knowledge and experience of longstanding employees can be transferred. This is also why the company has an above average number of apprentices, says Befort. One employee is currently studying to take his master craftsman’s diploma to become head of the mechanics department; one other employee is upgrading his education to become quality manager.
»We decided to position the company in such a way during the next 5 to 10 years that it will have a promising future.«
Successful family business (f.l.t.r.): Peter Befort, Sandra and Henner Befort.
Prospects that give rise to optimism
Taking a look at the growth industries for which Befort is working, the overall view is quite optimistic: The spectrum ranges from metrology and medical engineering to sensor and laser technology and to environment and aerospace technology. “The competition certainly never rests”, Henner Befort is aware of that, “but the market we are covering in Europe is manageable. I don’t have any cause to be concerned about the next 100 years.” If there will still be a Befort in charge then? “Who knows”, replies Henner Befort when we say our goodbyes. Totally unsentimentally and without becoming emotional.