Surprisingly, when entrepreneurs Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris first went into business together in 1987, chocolate was not on the agenda. “We had the most niche business you could imagine: company-branded peppermints for corporates,” Thirlwell recalls. “After a while, we realised that chocolates were good for creativity and had an emotional relationship that mints didn’t have.”
They were early adopters of e-commerce, with a website that delivered chocolates. For years they built a small business that grew organically. The pair ploughed the profits back into the business and kept it as lightly indebted as they could.
The big breakthrough came in 2005, when the business decided it was in a position to take on the luxury chocolate market head-on. “Creating the brand name Hotel Chocolat gave us a turbocharge,” says Thirlwell. “Fundamentally, we are in the business of making people happy through escapism.”
By then, the company had become interesting to private equity houses. “We had lots of cups of cocoa with people who liked the strength of the brand,” says Thirlwell. “It was interesting, but it didn’t fit our vision of what we wanted to do. We have always been long-term about our thinking and we like to keep adapting and innovating. With private equity, there was a two-to-five-year timeframe and then all bets were off. We wanted more.”