New beginnings

Moving from senior corporate roles into your own business can bring its challenges, but Susan and Des Vize of Chocolate Brown are well and truly in expansion mode.

Susan and Des Vize are not ones to rest on their laurels. Just two years after buying the successful Chocolate Brown café, chocolaterie, retail store and corporate gift and catering business in Warkworth, they have recently purchased a chocolate factory on Wellington’s Kapiti Coast that had gone into liquidation.

The new factory, which they are upgrading and remodeling, is capable of much larger scale chocolate manufacturing than the couple’s artisan handmade chocolate enterprise in Warkworth.

Susan says the Kapiti business is a big step for them and they’re serious about what they want to do with it. They’ve been busy upgrading the premises and facilities and have rebranded it as Chocolate Brown – but it’s posed a few challenges with the experienced office manager having an out-of-work accident the weekend they opened. She now has to be off work for a prolonged period.

Susan says the last few months have seen a rebirth of the whole business and they are excited about what they can do in Kapiti using the technology that is there, especially with Cadbury moving out of manufacturing in New Zealand. She says that leaves a gap in the market, although she doesn’t want to go into detail except to say that they are developing a product range which will give consumers more choice when buying local chocolates made by Kiwis.

Another market that the Kapiti business targets is tourism – through gift shops, hotel chains and suppliers to the accommodation industry. They are also starting an education centre looking at the history of chocolate which Susan hopes to have up and running by September.

The couple moved to Warkworth from Tauranga when they bought Chocolate Brown and while they would love to be closer to their Kapiti grandchildren, they love Warkworth, have made friends there and Susan loves being part of a smaller community. 

As to why the big investment so soon after bedding down the Warkworth business, Susan says they saw the opportunity with their existing business when they bought it but realised they could never grow the business from the artisan end of the market to the degree they could with manufactured chocolate. 

Expansion like this can be stressful and Susan admits they are working hard to keep their heads above water with both businesses.

Susan’s background is in sales and marketing in senior roles at a global IT company, while Des also worked in senior roles in IT project management. Their skills complement each other. 

Susan says they split the business between them in Warkworth to play to their strengths. She is responsible for the shop and cafeteria and Des looks after the chocolaterie and the kitchen.


New work-style

When they bought the Warkworth business the first challenge was coming to terms with a different work-style – from corporate to non-corporate. 

In the corporate world Susan says “you have a job and a job description; you report to a manager and get on with what you have to do”.

“In hospitality it is quite different. Staff are more transient, their lives are more transient and you are at the coalface with people. It’s about learning how to manage staff; learning when they need help, when to help and when to leave them alone.” 

Susan and Des employ 30 staff in Warkworth and ten in Kapiti.

Amongst their long term employees they have a great team of managers who have worked with them over the past two years and they can now easily go away for two weeks and be assured that everything keeps running well.

The couple are ‘late starters’ into their own business. Susan is 56 and Des is 65 and she says going into business at a more mature age is good because you have that experience. 

“But I wish I had done it earlier as the energy you need is immense.” 

They currently regularly work ten to 12 hours a day, although try to have a few days off a week. 

As well as managing a seven-day business the couple have also been implementing quite a few changes in Warkworth in the past year – bringing in new point-of-sale hardware, a new payroll system, new rostering and implementing a new inventory management system, as well as a new CRM and online ordering.

Bringing strong management skills to the business has still meant working differently and Susan points to the much more personal relationship with customers and staff. 

“Customers know who you are, and come in to chat and want your business to succeed.” 

One thing they have struggled with coming from the corporate sector is that their teams there were highly paid and hospitality is not always well paid. Susan says they have a goal to have all their long-term staff on a Living Wage or beyond.

She was also not prepared for the staff movement in hospitality either and believes the sector doesn’t put people through enough training and upskilling. It can be a great career, says Susan, and she’s introducing training through Service IQ, the industry training organisation.


Balance and preparation

As for her business philosophy, Susan says it is about being very balanced – looking at how well they are doing financially, how the operations are being run, how well their customers are, how well the staff are, about commitment to the community and how well they, themselves, are. 

So, her advice to those thinking of going into business?

“Be prepared for the hours and be prepared for the high commitment and the things that keep you awake at night. 

“But be prepared for the immense feeling of satisfaction in having your own business.”   

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