When it comes to buying quality chocolate in Vancouver, one brand stands out: Purdys, a family business that’s supplied chocolate to British Columbia’s most discerning residents and visitors since 1907.
Karen Flavelle, who is Purdys’ owner and is often cited as one of Canada’s best known businesswomen, was the winner of EY’s 2013 Family Business Award of Excellence. Here’s what she has to say about Purdys’ — and her own — success.
Purdys was purchased by Charles Flavelle and a partner in 1963, when Karen was just seven years old.
After stints in marketing at various food and beverage brands, she joined Purdys in 1994 as Executive Vice President. She became President in 1997 and then bought Purdys in 2000. Her family’s influence remains strong.
“I was brought up with the importance of quality and hard work when it came to the business,” says Karen. “This was crucial, and I think it’s at the heart of any good family business.”
The business she runs is nearing 70 shops (and employs 800 staff), and Karen says the brand is at the heart of Purdys’ success.
“We are a part of the celebrations people have in their lives. We have heard our customers say things like ‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Purdys’,” says Karen. “They grew up with Purdys, and now they are passing those traditions on to their families.”
Purdys may have instilled itself in the sweet-tooth affections of generations of Canadians, but it hasn’t been an easy path to success.
Started by Richard Purdy on Vancouver’s fashionable Robson Street, the chocolatier went into receivership in the early 1920s. Accountant Hugh Forrester, who was brought in to restructure the business, ended up taking it over himself. Forrester managed it with his son up until the early 1960s when the Forrester family decided to sell.
That’s where the Flavelle family comes in. “The fact that three different families have owned Purdys is a testament to the longevity of the brand. But it’s also due to the vision and hard work of my father,” says Karen, who calls him her mentor and biggest supporter.
On the next generation
Purdys’ family employment guidelines require the next generation to work outside of Purdys for at least 10 years before joining the business.
“It’s very important to ensure there is no sense of entitlement for the next generation,” says Karen, who hopes that at least one of her children will join the family business. “That’s partly the thinking behind the family employment guidelines.”
Karen also wants to make sure that doing the 10 years outside and then joining the business is not an automatic route to the top job. She emphasized that point in 2012 when she stepped aside from the daily running of the business and appointed a non-family member to take over for her as President.
“Inevitably, you’re going to need to bring in top managers from outside of the family to fuel entrepreneurship,” she says. “You cannot rely on the next generation to bring those skills in — they may, but they may not.”
On the future
And what about the future? Karen sees expansion into the US, but is under no illusion about the huge competition in the food industry there. Whether success is born from growing the business or not, the ethos of the family business will continue to be at the center for the chocolatier.
“We will continue to talk about making memories through our chocolates and the privilege we have in being part of people’s and families’ lives in times of celebration, of sadness, of seasonal tradition ,” she says. “That is what is most exciting to us.” And that certainly sounds like a “sweet” recipe for success to me.