Introduction: He could have been a top-class soccer goalkeeper. Instead he became one of travel retail’s most influential and respected figures and enduring personalities over more than four decades. Now, Gebr. Heinemann Chief Commercial Officer and Executive Board member Kay Spanger is retiring after a stellar 41-year career with the German travel retailer. He talks to Martin Moodie about a journey that he says defined his private and professional life.
In early September 1979 a young man called Kay Spanger walked into the Gebr. Heinemann offices in Hamburg for the first day of a two-year internship. It would be the start of a four-decade journey that would see him rise through the ranks of the family-held German travel retailer and wholesaler and become an enduring influence in the company’s burgeoning national and international success.
At the end of this year, Kay, now 62, steps into a well-earned retirement, a closure of sorts but also the beginning a new chapter in a remarkable life story.
Back in the late 70s, the young man was more focused on soccer than business. After school and during a stint in the army, he was playing in Germany’s second division as a goalkeeper, intent on studying sports while simultaneously pursuing his dream of making the big time as a player and then as a coach.
The Spanger family had just moved from Bremen to Hamburg due to Kay’s father having joined Chanel Germany from fellow beauty house Lancaster (now Coty). Concerned about his son’s future as a result of earlier modest school results, Spanger senior advised him that if a university education was out, he should opt for “something basic – an apprenticeship”.
Mr Spanger checked the classified advertisements in the local paper and marked five vacancies with crosses, noting “These are good companies”. The young man duly wrote to all five.
The first reply prompted the only job interview he would have in his life. It was from Gebr. Heinemann, a traditional Hanseatic company at the time celebrating its 100th anniversary. Having impressed the Human Resources boss, the 20 year-old Kay was introduced to Helmut Heinemann (father of current co-owner Claus) – “a real Hanseatic gentlemen” – and the warehouse and logistics manager.
“He has his baccalaureate, but he also has a driving licence from the army, so even if he doesn’t complete his apprenticeship, he can drive our trucks,” Mr Heinemann told his associate.
Kay never got to drive the trucks, instead spending “fantastic” months learning the ropes across various disciplines, from purchasing to sales to logistics. After completing his two-year apprenticeship, he was asked whether he would like to stay. “Why not?” he answered.
An education in relationships
His first company trip, accompanied by Heinemann’s ace salesman of the time, Peter Oetting, was to Heligoland, an official duty free zone set on a small German archipelago in the North Sea. This involved education of a very different kind.
“I learned to share a glass or two with customers and saw that Peter had built such a relationship with customers that he could go into their stores and make out the orders for them without them having to control anything. He was held in such trust. It was my first example of how you develop relationships with customers.”
Gebr. Heinemann was much smaller in those days but the company culture mirrored that which still pervades today, Kay recalls. “Today we have a different size and a different professionalism, but it is no different. It’s all about people, taking care of each other and respecting each other.
“I have often asked myself over the past ten years, if, say, we had a tough year, was this way of doing things still right? To build such personal and good relationships? I took up that approach from the beginning and did it in my way, with my style. I still think the Heinemann way is valid, not only for today but also for the future.”
Having spent nine months in the liquor, tobacco and confectionery purchasing department, Kay was asked by Gunnar Heinemann (who together with cousin Claus – son of Helmut, who passed in July 1991 – now ran the company) if he would accept a sales role. “I think Mr Heinemann, with my open way of approaching people I could do something good in sales,” Kay replied. “It also fits with my personality and the fact that I already know our products quite well.”
The move was sealed. In those days, beauty products accounted for just 15-18% of company sales (in 2019 they were 34%) but the perfume category was the major interest for the young newcomer to sales – “unusual for a young man of my generation”.
Kay became the go-to man for presenting perfumes to the key ferry trade, developing a highly professional approach to the craft while working alongside old-style liquor & tobacco salesmen who would drink Long John or White Horse whisky and chain smoke cigarettes with buyers in meetings. He would take great pride in showcasing the perfume range by style and price point with a hitherto unseen degree of sophistication and product knowledge.
The ferry business between Germany and Denmark was huge in those days – fragrances were as big for one leading account as at Frankfurt Airport – and such was Kay’s success in the marine sector that he was soon asked by long-time Managing Director Heribert ‘Harry’ Diehl to accompany him to the annual negotiations with the French beauty houses. Armed with a little book that showcased the onboard ferry displays, Kay would argue passionately why any houses missing from the shelves should come onboard.
“The young man is good,” Diehl told Gunnar and Claus Heinemann soon after. “He likes France, he speaks some French and I have a good feeling about him.”
The sentiment was mutual and the Harry Diehl, Kay Spanger double act became a fixture on the brand houses’ annual calendars for many years. The two men would base themselves in a Parisian hotel over three weeks to conduct their robust but always respectful annual negotiations for Heinemann and the company’s buying pool of the time with Aldeasa (now part of Dufry).
All that time spent with Diehl, then and now a company legend, had a huge influence on Kay, albeit sometimes in unexpected ways. The older man was a connoisseur of fine Habanos cigars from Cuba and before long Kay had taken up the habit. Not that he had much choice. “Harry would be smoking cigars all day,” he recalls. “My eyes were becoming tired so in the end I started smoking them too. At that time we might smoke five cigars in a day in a hotel room during meetings. Can you imagine?”
“I considered him my business son,” recalls Harry Diehl, now 87. “And he also would call me Papa. I always considered that he had more perfume in his veins than blood.”
Spanger x two
Ten successful years on, Kay was asked by Claus and Gunnar Heinemann if he knew anyone who could replicate his success in fragrance purchasing in the burgeoning accessories category. “After some days of thinking, I said, ‘I have a proposal. But you have to make up your mind first if you would be able to live in the company with two types of Spangers’.”
That was a reference to his brother Raoul (now Chief Operating Officer responsible for all retail and distribution, and an Executive Board member). The affirmative answer would trigger another decades-long Gebr. Heinemann success story. “If you look to any management book today, any business coach, any advising company, and you asked them, ‘Would you propose to two cousins who own a company to have two brothers on their board, you would get a 100% ‘never-ever’ reply,” says Kay.The two brothers have enjoyed successful though not always easy years in their relationship at Heinemann, Kay notes. “But that was lucky for the company – because if Raoul and I always had the same opinion, Heinemann would have only needed one of us!”
Kay says the brotherly bond probably looked easier to outsiders than it was in reality. “It’s funny, if you are brothers and work together, in private you tend to avoid talking about some things from the company, for example if you might have had a clash in discussions.”
That occasional tension was neatly articulated by Raoul during Kay’s (virtual) farewell to the board a few weeks ago, when he said: “Kay, I’m also looking forward to the times when you are no longer my brother and my colleague, but just my brother.”
“But overall look at the results we had together. They were fantastic,” reflects Kay. “We should look beyond this difficult year of 2020. 2019, for example, was one of the three best years in Heinemann’s history.
“When I said thank you to the owners recently, I said that my biggest luck in my personal private life is also Heinemann. I would do the same thing all over again – even my mistakes – because the whole thing fitted to me. They gave me every freedom you could imagine. I always kept Claus and Gunnar informed but I never had to ask them about any decisions except the very big ones, which anyhow we made together. This company made my life – both business and private.”
The two combined to profound effect in the 1990s. Having volunteered to be stationed in Frankfurt for some time to fix a company problem, Kay spent 18 months there. During that time he met Ute, a young woman who was running Heinemann’s 18 landside stores at Frankfurt Airport. The two fell in love and when Kay returned to Hamburg, she came with him, becoming his wife (now of 24 years).“When I got back, Claus and Gunnar said, ‘You have done a fantastic job. The only bad thing you have done is take this very good young lady away from us.’ I said, ‘Guys, you cannot have it all!”
In his mid-30s, Kay was tapped for various jobs by beauty houses, including attractive roles in New York with Estée Lauder and with Chanel for Eastern Europe. They were the only two offers that took him even a single night before rejecting.
“More you cannot see in your life! If you love the products and if you love this business, it’s a dream”
By staying with Heinemann, he fulfilled many aspirations, including a two-hour interview with famed Chanel perfumer Jacques Polge, and meetings with industry luminaries such as Christian Courtin-Clarins, Jean-Paul Agon (long-time Chairman and CEO of L’Oréal Group), Marshall Farrer at Brown-Forman, Glenn Gordon of Willliam Grant & Sons, Reinold Geiger of L’Occitane en Provence, Raymond Cloosterman of Rituals, Marc Puig and many more.
And it wasn’t just big companies that inspired him, individuals such as Gin Sul founder Stephan Garbe, Henk Jan Beltman of Tony’s Chocolonely, and Thomas Just Karberg of Hans Just Group were all great entrepreneurs, he says. “More you cannot see in your life! If you love the products and if you love this business, it’s a dream.
“I generally have respect for everybody with whom we worked, but especially for those people who also built their family companies on a long journey over generation by generation.”
Asked about those who have helped shape his philosophy down the years, Kay begins with Gunnar Heinemann. “He had the guts to ask me whether I wanted to go into sales. He was not only a mentor, we worked together one and a half years, side by side, in visiting customers, and trying to sell our products.”
And then of course there was his ultimate mentor, the inimitable Harry Diehl. “The times we had together in Paris were fantastic though I must admit I only discovered his feeling for people after a while.
“Harry in all ways was my mentor, including how you approach a business. We both have a very extroverted temper so as I became more self-confident and found my own way, it was not easy sometimes to work together. But we managed and we always had super respect for each other.
“It was Harry who created our first real HR successor programme. He did it more with gut feeling and his brain than with some written formula. At the point Harry was slowing down, he proposed to Gunnar and Claus that Raoul and myself should join the board of Heinemann.”
The Hanseatic traditions of gentlemanly respect that Kay had first witnessed with Helmut Heinemann are long ingrained in Kay Spanger. To this day, he still calls Gunnar and Claus ‘Mr Heinemann’. And it was only when he turned 82 that Harry Diehl turned to him and said ‘Kay, it’s been so long now. You can call me Harry now.”
Those dignified principles of human dignity manifest themselves in other ways, too. “I had respect for those people who from the beginning treated me as somebody who was on their level, even though at the time I was not,” he comments.
“I respect people who treat everybody on the same level. When I visit people, I still try to buy some German chocolates or other little gifts from Hamburg Airport to bring to the assistants of the top managers I meet. It is a type of gesture that says we should have respect for each other and show it in a good manner.”
Asked what has driven him down the years, Kay replies without hesitation, “It’s the passion for the things I like to do. Passion – it’s such a simple word yet it goes very deep. My aim was and still is that I know about every new product earlier than my director of purchasing. Now I don’t achieve this any longer because they know me! But this was always my aim. I love details.
“I got respect from suppliers, knowing their products so well and treating them as my babies. I’m so curious, I want to know every new thing. I’m still searching for new ideas, so much so that I often feel I am the one who is 40 in meetings and others are 60, not the other way around.”
That relentless search for the big idea manifests itself time and again during the interview, particularly around one of his great personal and professional passions, wine.
“I was just saying yesterday to Pier Giuseppe [Torresani, Sales Director at Italian wine producer Masi Agricola -Ed] that now is the time for retailers to sell more magnums in airports. They fit with people spending more time at home because of COVID and they make the ideal gift. They are not commonly available on the domestic market so there’s no real comparison. People say they are too heavy. But what’s the difference between a magnum and two bottles? We just to need to pack them nicely.”
Kay backs up the argument, chuckling with laughter as he recites one of his favourite quotes, from Winston Churchill, “A magnum is the perfect size for two gentlemen over lunch, especially if one of them isn’t drinking.”
His love for and understanding of products and their intrinsic qualities manifests itself in an anecdote about his beloved Hermès Sac à dépêches, which he bought when he was just 25.
“I bought it because of Harry’s close relationship with Hermès. I don’t remember the exact price, but it was more than one and a half months’ salary for me at the time. So when the bag and the invoice came, I had to stay home for eight weeks to let my bank account catch up! But if you see the bag today, it’s 37 years young so it was the cheapest bag I ever bought.
“It’s the same when you are in Valpolicella looking at Amarone production; when you are in in Cuba or Dominican Republic seeing how cigars are made; when you are in Kentucky to see how bourbon is crafted; or in Scotland for whisky, in Cognac, inside great confectionery houses and so on. I always had a passion for all the categories.”
“If persistence had a face, it would be Kay’s”
If passion is one of Kay Spanger’s hallmarks, so is persistence. For over two decades, Heinemann had a glaring gap in its German airport portfolio – Jägermeister, the famous German digestif – thanks to an inability to be price competitive with the local market.
Gunnar and Claus Heinemann had tried to break the impasse, so had Raoul Spanger. Asked by the-then new Purchase Director Liquor, Tobacco and Confectionery Ruediger Stelkens about the conspicuous omission, Kay arranged another meeting with the company – where a former Bacardi executive, Michael Volke, who understood travel retail well, was now CEO.
Kay and Ruediger travelled to Mast-Jägermeister’s headquarters in Wolfenbüttel, Lower Saxony but were making little progress on price negotiations. During a break, Kay walked along the company corridors, where the brand’s history almost oozes from the walls through a museum-like framing of historic moments, products and campaigns.
He stopped at the sight of a 2007 example from the UK, where a local market exclusive had been launched in a metallic package. It was a eureka moment. “Guys, if you pack the litre in this metallic coverage, we have a travel retail-exclusive and the price doesn’t matter any longer.”
That was the breakthrough and Jägermeister has been an ever-present partner with Heinemann ever since. It was a classic example of ‘Wir bleiben dran’, loosely translated as ‘We persevere’ – a trait that company insiders say runs deep in Kay Spanger. “If persistence had a face, it would be Kay’s,” says Gunnar Heinemann.
Starting a new chapter
Kay’s passion is now set to manifest itself in other aspects of his life. He plans to devote more time to Ute and their two daughters, Tatjana (24) and Carolina (22). A dog lover – he and Ute have a German Shorthair Pointer, a Vizsla and a Braque du Bourbonnais – he will spend several weeks a year on a husky farm in Innset, Norway, above the polar circle, training the local sled dogs for their tours.
Kay will remain on the board of Scandinavian perfumes & cosmetics distribution company Sæther, while he has just joined the Advisory Board of Nobilis Group in Germany, a leading distributor of luxury, prestige and lifestyle fragrances in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which underwent a management buy-out a year ago.
“I will only do this when I like the people involved and what they are doing,” insists Kay. “It’s not a question of money or the size of the companies. If I like what they are doing, then I will join them and hopefully this keeps my brain going.”
And so the story draws to a close after 41 years. Over the ten weeks or so leading up to the interview, in which Kay has been introducing his successor, Dr. Dirk Schneider, to suppliers (albeit virtually due to the pandemic), they have heard a regular refrain. “We can count on Heinemann. There is a continuity and I always know who I am talking to.”
Going forward, they will have to talk to others. But one suspects that the Kay Spanger influence, one based on passion, persistence and principles, will endure long into the future.
A Heinemann with his heart – Tributes to Kay Spanger
Dermot Davitt and Martin Moodie spoke to some of those who have known Kay Spanger down the years to curate this special tribute.
Heribert ‘Harry’ Diehl
“I considered him my business son,” recalls Harry Diehl, now 87. “And he also would call me Papa.
“I always considered that he had more perfume in his veins than blood. His destiny was to be in the business in charge of supplies, logistics and all that. Especially in terms of the relationship to the perfume companies, because there was no-one better than him in terms of success.
“After we had our first experience together in France [with the perfume suppliers], he saw that if you really want to be successful in France or in any country, you have to understand their mentality. You cannot come with a German mentality and teach the French, for example. You have to adapt to the French mentality and use the German one only in case of a need to get the whole thing organised! And this is what he picked up – he learned from me and therefore I was his father in the business.
“His character is straightforward but he is also very communicative. He makes friends and he sticks to his friendships – he is very honest. He also understood how to serve a family business and this is important. It’s different from being a manager in a corporation, in a public company, to being the servant of families running a business. He understood this perfectly, and also understood the suppliers. He always looked for a win/win situation for both sides.
“So I’m sure that he will be busy after he retires from Heinemann because he’s too young to sit in an armchair.”
Donatienne de Fontaines-Guillaume, Managing Director Travel Retail EMEA & Americas, Moët Hennessy
With Kay we have known each other since 1988 when I attended my very first TFWA World Exhibition in Cannes. The first memory that comes to my mind is the buying pool meetings organised by Heinemann together with Aldeasa we usually had in September for the annual talks.
They were taking place in Paris at the ‘Interconti’ then at The Sofitel Le Faubourg. I can say it was the golden times, tough negotiations and great fun, with Harry Diehl (our beloved mentor to both), Pucci, and Peter Wegner crunching numbers in the background … and the Aldeasa gang, Luis Rodríguez, Pilar de Garrastazu…
Since day 1, Kay and I became ‘partners in crime’, with the ‘work hard & have fun’ mindset.
We all know Kay’s volcanic temper: once I left in the middle of our negotiation meeting as we had explosive discussions. The next day I received a beautiful bunch of flowers at the office with a note of apologies. Very elegant. And talking about elegance: his Hermès ties are legendary.
I also used to tease him decades ago about his perfumes and cosmetics team, mainly composed of beautiful and also talented ladies, some of them are still around – Inken Callsen, Katja Diehr.
Then we shared the time where we were showing each other pictures of our children, stories about their studies, their first love story. Now it is all about his dogs and winter husky tour… even his mobile background shows picture of his dogs. We are getting older or shall I say we are young since longer than others, and we still have fun together. Time flies but longstanding friendship remains intact.”
Parfums Christian Dior Senior Vice President Travel Retail Olivier Dubos
“When I joined travel retail (some time ago!), I was told it is a great industry for two reasons: entrepreneurship – speed of development, spirit of conquest, endless possibilities to develop our brands and retail excellence; and also an opportunity to meet great people – with a unique vision of the world and customers, a feel of community and very strong humanist values.
“And this is our dear friend Kay! Kay embodies perfectly the great spirit and expertise of this industry. I can recall the Heinemann days in Hamburg where Kay demonstrated stunning leadership with his team and the industry, always very strong on his positions but with elegance, respect and a point of humour.
“His passion for people, for perfection, and his personal commitment to success are a great example for us to follow. Thank you Kay for being such a great role model for all of us!!!”
Brown-Forman Corp Senior Vice President, President of Europe and member of Board of Directors Marshall Farrer
In one’s career, you work with and meet thousands of people but when you finish up there will be a small number who you recall as making a strong impact on you, personally. Kay Spanger is certainly among that list for me. He has served as the commercial face of Gebr. Heinemann for decades and led its business to new heights, overcoming challenges again and again.
Perhaps Kay and I connected so well because we both represent 5th-generation family businesses (founded only nine years apart). Perhaps we both enjoy the people connections travel retail and the spirits industry afford us. Or, maybe we enjoyed each other because we embraced our differences and enjoyed our similarities.
Our relationship began with our businesses not enjoying a comfortable position commercially. We quickly laid out our differences and went about making progress to address them and move our businesses forward. Our teams aligned, began listening to each other, and building deeper and deeper business relationships; all with the goal of mutual growth. That foundation still stands despite COVID, despite Kay preparing to retire, and me now leading a Brown-Forman division outside of travel retail. I very much believe it stands and prospers because of Kay Spanger.
I have said it before but Gebr. Heinemann is the most accountable business partner in travel retail. In short, they do what they say; always. Kay has led by example in this space. It gives us tremendous confidence that when we make commercial decisions they will be honoured and seen through.
As I look back, Kay and I have spent time together in no less than seven different countries. We have attended conferences, visited distilleries, such as Jack Daniel’s and Ben Riach, and of course enjoyed Woodford Reserve Whiskey Sours in Hamburg, Germany. I am sure we will enjoy more of those too as he embarks on this next journey.
As lucky as I have been to know Kay and Brown-Forman has been to work with him, it is travel retail globally that has benefited most.
He championed the channel, strove for a retail offer that was second to none, and pre-pandemic grew it to incredible heights. When the business returns, it will do so because Kay, and others like him, have made their indelible marks.
On behalf of our entire company at Brown-Forman, I would like to extend our most sincere thanks and congratulations to Kay Spanger and wish him nothing but the best going forward. Thank you!
Puig Chief Operating Officer Javier Bach
My first contact with Kay was many years ago when Gebrüder Heinemann used to host suppliers at a suite at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris. It is interesting to see how things have changed, since in the past it was our clients hosting us…
In those meetings you were supposed to show the novelties and then came the hard part of negotiating price increases, space and location, promotions and conditions.
I was amazed to see the combination of Kay and Harry Diehl. One thing was clear to me, you could not leave the room feeling indifferent about those two gentlemen. Harry was a character himself, expansive, outspoken, a legend of the industry, and Kay came up not short and with his own profile. Those were for me the early days.
I also had the pleasure of being in quite frequent contact with Kay at the board of PDH, a JV that Puig and Heinemann had created in the 1990s to develop Puig brands in the German local market. It was a pleasure to see his great combination of Hanseatic approach to business with what I always thought was almost a Mediterranean passion. That is quite a unique formula.
That JV went on for several years, but at some point, we felt that it made sense to part ways, and Kay and I were asked to find a proper solution. It is in those situations where you really come to know a person. And the fact is that we found a proper solution, after several discussions and some tension. I came to see in Kay a very rooted understanding of what fair play is all about. Our relationship became much closer after that.
Kay has been a recurrent attendant to our international conventions and relevant company events. With his ability to relate to people at any level, he came to know most of the key members of our organisation. It was great to see his energy giving feedback to our new projects. Always generous, constructive and straightforward, his feedback has been always highly appreciated and has contributed to our success.
At a more personal level, I have always enjoyed the lunches and dinners with Kay and Ute, always with a good bottle of wine and a great conversation. Kay understands the value of personal relationships and how important they are in good and bad times. I am sure this will go on in the coming years whenever he is in Barcelona.
For these and more reasons, Kay has become not only a reference in the travel retail industry but also a good friend.
Luxottica Global Travel Retail Director Enrico Destro
In the last decade in which I have had the honour and the pleasure to meet with Kay, he has been a truly inspirational companion, a natural leader with witty vision, but above all a genuine friend to walk side by side with on this steep path.
I have a lot of outstanding memories about Kay but one in particular is very dear to me. Martin [Moodie] was there too when a few years ago we invited Kay to collect a partnership award during the Sunglasses Workshop in Cannes.
He literally jumped on stage and made a speech about the mutual and pioneering collaboration between sunglasses producers in the travel retail arena. He monopolised the attention of the audience with his charisma and credibility, becoming the first ambassador for our category. I think that was the most memorable endorsement for the sunglasses brands ever.
We should clone characters like Kay. If our beloved industry has reached such high standards it is thanks to people like Mr Spanger.
For his successor it is a great privilege to follow him, as well as being a heavy heritage.
Vincent Boinay, L’Oréal General Manager for Travel Retail Worldwide and member of L’Oréal Group’s Executive Committee
“Nothing is permanent in our life and the COVID-19 crisis has been another lesson for us all. Leaving is never easy, and saying farewell virtually in 2020 is not pleasant whatever way we do it – via Teams, Zoom, emails or phone calls.
“People come and also go with time. But the great things that remain are memory and souvenirs. We will miss your presence Kay.
“I still sum up Kay as I did on the occasion of his 40-year anniversary with the company, with an acronym based on his first name. K – Knowledgeable A – Action Man Y – Yes.
“Kay is the sustainable and elegant Kaiser. He is not only a long-time serving and ‘sustainable’ executive, but he is also a role model for many of us in the way he handled his career and how he helped professionalise Heinemann.
“On top of that, he is always knowledgeable and curious about brands and products, he is generous with teams, and he cares about relationship and trust.”
The Moodie Davitt Report Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie
What a pleasure it has been to prepare this tribute to Kay. Listening back to the interview I did with him in preparation a couple of weeks back, I am struck by how often it is punctuated equally with laughter and then with rapid-fire bursts of passion on his favourite subjects. Once Kay explodes into full flow, he’s nigh irresistible, as many have discovered down the years.
Perfume and wine, as is well-documented in this article, are among those passions. But so are his beloved family, his dogs, his colleagues and, of course, the company he has served so well for 41 years and which, he admits, has defined him as a human being.
Kay’s enthusiasm is infectious, it feels as raw and uncynical today as if he were still that young man walking into the Heinemann offices in 1979. I have witnessed that zeal numerous times down the years, most commonly in fact when we talk of our shared love of wine but just as often on professional matters from concession fees to ‘the Trinity’ (on which, let’s say, we did not always disagree) to the need for greater imagination in the business.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Kay nearly became a full-time goalkeeper. For very little got past this consummate professional and guardian of the family company down the years. The kind words and anecdotes so generously shared by others here capture various aspects of his career and personality. But all echo to a common refrain, of a passionate, principled, committed and loyal man who gave his all to the company and to our industry.
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