Purdy’s CEO Karen Flavelle wraps up CKNW Series

Nov 08, 2012

Karen Flavelle, President and CEO of Purdy’s Chocolates, being interviewed by CKNW host Bill Good.

The fall series of the Chief Executives at the Beedie School of Business concluded with Karen Flavelle, President and CEO of Purdy’s Chocolates, sharing her experiences as head of Western Canada’s largest chocolate retailer with a live audience at the Segal Graduate School of Business.

The event was part of the Beedie School of Business’ partnership with prominent Vancouver radio station CKNW, which sees SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus play host to the series of live radio interviews conducted by CKNW host Bill Good which profile some of the country’s top executives.

Despite Flavelle’s father being the owner of Purdy’s Chocolates since 1963, he was a firm believer in not parachuting a family member into a position above long-term employees in the company. This prompted Flavelle to build her own career, leaving Vancouver to attend university in Eastern Canada, where she discovered her passion for retail.

Flavelle opened by reflecting on her fascination with Japanese business innovation and workplace culture. She revealed that after finishing university she made a conscious decision to spend a year working in Japan and, despite being unable to speak the language, used the opportunity to fully immerse herself in the Japanese business culture. She went on to explain that she utilizes many of the practices she witnessed during her time in Japan in her organization today.

Flavelle spoke with Good about her belief in the power of the experiential aspect of retail. She described this phrase as encompassing the need for a shop to compel its customers to enter; for it to be inviting, exciting, and have friendly, knowledgeable staff waiting inside. She went on to describe the company’s aim as striving to make every chocolate they sell delicious.

Good then asked Flavelle to define what differentiates Purdy’s Chocolates from their competitors. “We manage our shelf life more tightly than anyone else,” she replied. “Although chocolate has a long shelf life and can last a year, we believe it doesn’t taste “wow” after 6 weeks. This is one of the reasons we manage all our own stores. We don’t want a franchisee possibly not adhering to those standards.”

Asked to describe what she believes are the main qualities required to be a successful leader, Flavelle listed three keys. “Know where you are going and your company’s vision; know what you do and your mission; and hire people that overcome hurdles. Ideas are the easy part – executing them is the hardest thing to do.”

At several points during the interview, Flavelle discussed the company’s expansion beyond BC, including to Ontario, where they have opened several stores in the last ten years. Flavelle talked about the challenges they faced in expanding into Eastern Canada, describing Ontario as an area where they have the opportunity to open a further 10-20 stores.

However, despite Purdy’s Chocolate’s success in expanding into Ontario, Flavelle revealed that the company is taking a cautious approach to expansion into further territories. “The chocolate industry is an interesting market,” she explained. “We see potential in North Eastern US and in Asia but there are a lot of chocolate retailers around the world struggling just now. There is also a big question mark over the Quebec market. We would have to change our hedgehog packaging if we entered that market, but that packaging is important to us – it’s iconic.”

Flavelle also discussed the operational challenges Purdy’s Chocolates faces when opening new stores. “The locations we require don’t grow on trees,” she said. “In mature markets, the only opportunities come through mall renovation, since we need centre mall locations with a high concentration of traffic. We compete with a lot of users for that kind of space. It’s more important for us to be in one right location than ten wrong ones.”

Speaking at length about the company’s commitment to sustainability, Flavelle discussed one particular initiative launched to commemorate the company’s 100th anniversary, which involves Purdy’s Chocolates supporting cocoa farmers in Africa. With 70 percent of the world’s cocoa being grown in West Africa, they have engaged with farmers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast in order to increase the size and quality of their yield. By teaching the farmers techniques to fight crop disease and improve the quality of the soil, the company is providing the farmers with a sustainable future.

Throughout the interview, Good invited questions from the audience, with Flavelle touching upon the importance of looking for employees who can make things happen; her admiration for Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks; the impact of the recession on chocolate retailers; and the importance of the community engagement schemes the company runs.

Finally, Flavelle fielded a question as to how she and her employees learn from their mistakes. “One of the biggest mistakes we make, which occasionally repeats itself, involves the Christmas period,” she explained. “We do over 50% of our annual sales in ten weeks – it’s like being hit by a tsunami of business. Everything has to be prepared beforehand, and sometimes, when it is not, it’s a problem. We try to learn from our mistakes, but on occasion you are just not ready for the tsunami.”

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