For entrepreneur Calum Haggerty, the takeover of luxury chocolate brand COCO Chocolatier in 2013 represented a unique career change.
He had always wanted to work for himself, completing a degree in business and finance at Heriot-Watt University after leaving school. However, following graduation, he enlisted with the fire service after seeing an advert in the paper and served for eight years before deciding to revisit his business ambitions.
He saw that COCO Chocolatier was up for sale, and drawn to the chocolate industry and its appeal to the public, identified the opportunity to transform the company into a premium lifestyle brand combining unique flavours with art and design.
“When I first took over COCO it had three retail shops which most of the company’s resource was spent running. My first step was to replace this approach with a business-to-business focus - selling to other retailers who would sell for us. I wanted to create a product with strong shelf appeal to attract the customers’ attention, which is where our art and design element comes in. We collaborate with independent artists to wrap our products in original designs, meaning customers get a piece of artwork with their chocolate, as well as the story behind that artist and that specific piece. The wrapper isn’t just there to protect the chocolate, it’s a key part of the experience.”
While the changes to the business model and packaging were significant, the most important step Calum took was to completely change how the chocolate was sourced.
We’re very proud to have fully established the fundamental values of COCO – creating quality ethically-sourced chocolate and championing the best of Scottish art and design.
“Chocolate is an industry that people are fascinated to learn about, and the provenance of your product is key. It’s not just important to me that my business does the right thing, but for the consumers who want to know the story behind the chocolate as well.”
The vast majority of producers buy their cocoa beans from farmers in West Africa at the lowest possible price. These are then taken to the US and Europe where the value is created, with the growers receiving less than 1% of the value of the final product. Calum was determined to do things differently, and after buying the business, spent months searching for a source that would result in high quality chocolate whilst meeting his ethical standards. It was at a tradeshow that he met manufacturers from Colombia who invited him out to see how their chocolate was produced.
Calum explains: “We have as much of the chocolate-making process as possible completed at origin. As well as growing the cocoa beans, the origin country also carries out the next step in the process to create chocolate couverture – high-quality chocolate buttons which we then use to create our products here in Scotland. This means that the origin country gets a much higher percentage of the final value, a bigger tax take, and we continue supporting opportunities for the local people to develop valuable skills.
“It wouldn’t be feasible to produce our chocolate in volume like this, and it’s not typically how things are done in the business. We’re a challenger brand in this way – investing in origin as opposed to buying the cheapest product we possibly can.”
The new COCO brand, with ethically-sourced chocolate and art and design-led packaging, launched in 2015, and is now unrecognisable from the company Calum took over in 2013. Last year saw the company sell over 500,000 chocolate bars, with more than 1000 listings in 16 countries throughout the world. Around 15 staff are employed at the Edinburgh premises, where the COCO products are made and distributed.
Available from lifestyle and department stores and through COCO’s own website, the range includes unique flavours such as Isle of Skye Sea Salt, Earl Grey, and Haggis Spice, while more than 15 artists have been involved in collaborations. Calum aims to strike a balance between giving emerging artists a platform for their work, and working with well-known established artists who can help promote the COCO brand. In early 2020, COCO teamed up with iconic Scottish design brand Timorous Beasties to produce two limited edition chocolate bars marking its 30th birthday.
In 2018, Calum was accepted onto the Scottish Government’s £4m Unlocking Ambition programme, which helps high-potential entrepreneurs scale-up their business and develop their leadership skills through an intensive support package. This has helped him refine the way the company operates, communicate COCO’s unique ethical stance, and look ahead to expansion.
Calum says: “The Unlocking Ambition programme was really flexible and we were given a lot of freedom to access the support that we knew would be of the greatest value towards our individual businesses. For me, COCO’s unique provenance story is key – it speaks to the quality and fairness of our product and reflects on our wider ethos as a whole, so I used a grant from the programme towards producing a series of videos that tell that story. The videos shine a light on the growers and producers in Colombia and their vital contribution to our product, and allow the customers to see the difference they are making to these people’s lives when they buy from us.
“Unlocking Ambition also introduced me to like-minded people facing similar issues, both personally and professionally. I’ve exchanged recommendations of valuable business tools with other cohort members that have helped streamline operations, and we’re always there to support each other. I’ve also got some great insights from some of the masterclass speakers who have shared their own business challenges and successes, and I’ve learned about more effective people management and communication. I understand that not everyone thinks like me, and that different perspectives can be really valuable in a business.”
Looking ahead, support from Unlocking Ambition has helped fund the initial phase of development for a new brand that COCO will be launching in 2020 as part of its strategy to move into new markets. Also in the pipeline are plans to relocate to a much larger premises which offers more space for production and distribution as well as a shop, café and visitor centre where the public can learn about the origins of COCO chocolate.
“We’re very proud to have fully established the fundamental values of COCO – creating quality ethically-sourced chocolate and championing the best of Scottish art and design. We’re really excited to now focus on bringing our products to more people, and share with them the unique story and how they are supporting the cocoa growers and artists we partner with.”