The story of Hotel Chocolat is one of reinvention. Set up by Thirlwell and Peter Harris 14 years ago, the pair started out selling little packets of mints to corporate clients. “We had one product and one market,” says Thirlwell. “You couldn’t have found a more niche confectionary company than that.”
The duo then added chocolates to their range, before launching a mail-order business. Next up, they hit the high street, opening their first Hotel Chocolat store in 2004. Today, the company employs 500 people in 27 shops and owns a 140-acre cocoa estate in St Lucia. Sales will hit £40m this year.
As Hotel Chocolat blossomed, Thirlwell’s biggest challenge was how to avoid getting sucked into the day-to-day running of the business. “It’s very seductive to think that if you’re busy, you’re doing a great job,” he says. “But sometimes you need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.”
So Thirlwell enrolled on Cranfield’s Business Growth and Development programme. The 11-week course costs £9,500 and is designed for owner managers of businesses that are at least three years old and have a turnover of between £0.5m and £20m.
Yes, it’s pricey. But Thirlwell says it was worth every penny. “It’s something I’d recommend to any budding entrepreneur.
“Nobody likes the type of boss who gives you autonomy to do something and then is forever fiddling around on the sidelines, trying to second guess what you’re doing. That’s a classic model of an entrepreneur who can’t let go.
“It was a great investment. Frankly, I wish I’d done it sooner.”
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