RBTE interview: Hotel Chocolat co-founder & CEO Angus Thirlwell

Headline news reports this week reflected on business leaders attaching their names to a public message urging the UK to vote "in" during the forthcoming referendum on whether the UK should stay or leave the European Union (EU).

In a letter to The Times, 36 FTSE 100 company chairmen and CEOs including those representing retailers such as Kingfisher, Marks & Spencer and Vodafone put their signature to a note arguing that if the UK left the EU it would deter investment, threaten job security and put the nation's economy at risk.

Of course there were a greater number of FTSE 100 businesses who didn't add their names to the list of execs, including the largest UK grocers Tesco and Sainsbury's, but with the noise surrounding the EU in/out debate accentuated by slanging matches between the major political parties and within government itself, it has felt like a bombardment of opinions on the electorate.

Angus Thirlwell, CEO and co-founder of Hotel Chocolat, whose retail organisation is in the process of expanding internationally, says it is not for business leaders to force their opinion on the UK population.

"Whatever the British public think is the right thing to do will become the right thing," he told Essential Retail.

"As a business we're resilient, we're mostly Britain-based and as long as the economy is sound everything else works for us. It's a case of listening to the arguments and everyone making the right conscious call."

Talking ahead of his appearance at next month's RBTE conference in London, he added: "I wouldn't put my name to any list for or against. I run a brand and business – it's for individuals to make up their own minds."

Thirlwell says that Hotel Chocolat is, however, in the business of "making people really happy". That is the company mandate.

And judging by the latest trading figures, which saw group sales in the year to 28 June 2015 rise by just over 10% and the business record EBITDA of £7.9 million, following a loss in the previous 12-month period, a growing number of customers are becoming fans of the brand which had 81 UK stores at year-end.

In 2016 there will be a concerted focus on the retailer's digital offering, which is seeing sales grow at a faster rate than the company's stores, with a new website planned for the summer. The new portal is also expected to aid the business's capability to build a presence in new international markets.

Describing the eCommerce project, which has been around a year in the making, Thirlwell said it is like conducting a brain transplant. With the new site plugging into and linking up various areas of the business, from its online shop to its Tasting Club subscription service, there are so many components to get right before an official launch can be confirmed.

"There's been a lot of tidying up and integration under the bonnet but what it all means for the customer is a seamless, easier journey that enables them to do various things at the same time and make purchases in one transaction," he explained.

"It's all about checking the different interactions a website has with different stakeholder groups, for example the customer-facing side, the way our supply chain works and the way it integrates with different delivery companies we work with. We've got a very active search team as well.

"There are so many areas it touches. It's a bit like trying to do a brain transplant – working out where all the neurons go and making sure you are not doing anything to surprise them."

But Thirlwell describes his team as "veterans at launching websites", based on the company's history which involved the CEO and his co-founder, Peter Harris, start selling chocolates online in 1993, becoming one of the UK's earliest ever eCommerce businesses and predating Amazon and eBay. In 1998, they created The Chocolate Tasting Club, a community of chocolate tasters who receive unique selections each month, before opening the first Hotel Chocolat store in 2004.

Offering an insight into the process of launching a new-look website, he added: "What we like to do is get it ready really early and then run it parallel with our existing website for a pretty long time so we are absolutely certain everything is as it should be, and then we just flick a switch and it happens."

A significant level of research and testing is going towards the retailer's next stage of development, too. Hotel Chocolat wants to be a pan-European retailer and currently operates three stores in Denmark.

The Scandinavian country is being used as test bed for future European operations, and the summer launch of a multiple language and multiple currency website is expected to open up new international opportunities, no matter what the outcome of the EU referendum.

"Our plan is to use a relatively small but, in many respects, exciting market in Denmark to become match fit in doing international," Thirlwell remarked.

"What has become clear to us is that you have to master several new disciplines to be able to do international really well. It's not enough to do exactly the same as the UK market, as there are cultural, logistical, legal and economic considerations."

He added: "We're a few years into growing a business in Denmark, which is up to three physical locations now that are doing well. We are getting the business match fit and that will enable us to do further international developments, particularly looking to larger economies."

Thirlwell believes that Hotel Chocolat's growing sales and move into profitability, which was reported at the start of 2016, is indicative of a young brand that is now coming of age. He also suggests that the company's foundations from online into stores has given the business a certain advantage over competitors as the traditional retailing model comprising vast store estates has become increasingly difficult to generate margins from.

"We took several learnings from our digital model and stitched those together with a refreshing approach around empowering customers to find and choose the right chocolates," he noted.

"Spending a lot of time on that over ten years ago meant that when we did open our first store it looked very different to anything in the chocolate world before and we've just kept everything on the front foot but not had to change anything fundamental about that model."

Other notable ways that Hotel Chocolat looks to stand out from the traditional retail community include its five-year partnership with the Baftas, which Thirlwell views as a natural coming together of two British, artist and creative worlds, while a deal with British Airways to serve its chocolates to First Class and Club passengers is also seen as a positive brand move.

In addition, the business owns hotels, runs chocolate cookery schools and operates the Hotel Chocolat Cafe concept, one of which is located in John Lewis's York store and is set to be the template for numerous cafes of this type around the UK, adding a further level of customer engagement that is perhaps lacking in other high street confectionery retailers.

"Where there is a natural affinity it makes sense to work together," Thirlwell noted, adding that he would not ally his brand with the mainstream grocery market, which happens to be a key part of rival chocolate manufacturer and retailer, Thorntons', current strategy.

The chocolatier's views on succeeding in business, embracing technology and making people happy by selling chocolate in a unique way are expected to feature when he appears on stage at next month's RBTE, which will take place at London Olympia on 9-10 March.

The retail CEO will be interviewed live on stage by former director-general of the British Retail Consortium, Stephen Robertson, at 14:10 on Wednesday 9 March.

"We've always been digital at heart; we had a strong digital business before we opened the first Hotel Chocolat physical space, so we're approaching retailing from that angle rather than having to stick digital onto the back of an existing business," said Thirlwell.

"We started as a digital company and then became multichannel, so consequently we have always been very much on the front foot in terms of developing our digital skills and ways that our customers can interact with us."

Thirlwell will be speaking at RBTE on 9 March at 14:15 in Theatre A. 

Click here to  register  for your free RBTE ticket.

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