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Why the financial crisis and a bad easter nearly crippled chocolate brand Montezuma’s

Helen Pattinson, founder of Montezuma's, talks to Real Business about the origins of her chocolate business and dealing with big moments of doubt.
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Founded 17 years ago by Helen Pattinson and her husband Simon, Montezuma’s is set to reach a turnover of £9m this year and employs up to 150 people in peak season.

Helen, who is one of the NatWest everywoman Awards alumni, has weathered a number of storms in her journey with Montezuma’s and shared some thoughts with Real Business.

What was the single defining reason behind setting up Montezuma’s?

A desire to bring fantastic and interesting chocolate to the British high streets.

If you could go back in time and tell the new entrepreneur you were then one thing then what would it be?

Take your time! When we started the business, we were in a rush to do everything but actually a strong business has to have strong foundations and this takes time and consideration. We are still loving the business and watching it grow and flourish but we’re not in a desperate hurry anymore.

When you’ve felt the business running away from you, what has been successful in dealing with this?

Confronting the facts. I learnt very early on to face the facts, be honest with yourself about how things are going and to confront the situation head on. Often it’s the simple act of actually confronting the facts that is harder than dealing with the problems and the majority of the time, the problems are easier to deal with than you were anticipating.

What unique recruitment technique have you developed since founding that you can share?

Simon or I still meet all of our permanent staff before we recruit them. This way we ensure as far as possible that they will get on with their team, enjoy the culture at Montezuma’s and be quirky enough to put up with the general madness.

In what areas of running a business have you found mentorship has been most useful, and why?

Helen Pattinson - Montezuma's co-founderEverybody has their strengths and weaknesses so it helps to try to add mentors to guide you through your weak spots. We had no experience of running a business but we were passionate about our product so, for about the last ten years, we have had a mentor to help us with the business discipline and the less exciting parts of running a company like monthly management accounts, cash flow forecasting and budgeting (less exciting but entirely necessary for survival).

What moment do you look back to and think “that was where it all nearly went horribly wrong”?

That’s easy. In 2008, we nearly lost everything after a terrible Easter left us with high stock levels and low cash – meaning we couldn’t pay our bills or staff. A call to our bank manager would normally have sufficed to tide us over, but this was 2008 and the banking industry was collapsing and he just couldn’t help. Every morning, for three months, I woke up wondering whether Montezuma’s would survive until the end of the day.

How do you deal with moments of doubt?

I am very keen on sport and when I’ve trained for a race that’s really important to me, it’s inevitable that you are filled with doubts about your ability so instead of focussing on the outcome of the race, you have to try and focus on all the training that you’ve done, all the hard work you’ve put in.

Being in business is no different. I do have moments of doubt all the time, but I try to focus on the experience we have – all the processes we have put in place to ensure we get the products out the door on time and to the best customers rather than worry about the future.

What have you found is particularly important when it comes to building credibility?

I do find it interesting that we get asked questions like this a lot when actually it wasn’t even a consideration when we founded the business. We were naïve so didn’t even appreciate the significance of credibility but actually, in doing that, we simply built the business with our values: a quality, quirky and delicious product, honest and trustworthy people and not taking ourselves too seriously.

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About Author

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven is the editor of Real Business. He is also the editor of Business Advice, a title focused solely on a section of the business community currently underserved – micro companies. Alongside this, he is part of the team that hosts the Growing Business Awards, First Women Awards and Future 50 initiative.

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