We built it - and they came!

We built it - and they came!

In 2007, Matthew and Cathy Stephenson bought a struggling sweet factory in Cramlington, and made their ugly duckling of a chocolate treat into a massive success. But it’s a brave soul who spends £100,000 on equipment, with no orders for the sweets it will produce…

“The business was an old customer of mine, I used to sell them sweet jars. The owner used to encourage me to buy it, but I worked; I was on payroll,” Matthew said, and instead he embarked on a career in consultancy - that did not suit him at all.

“I struggled. I hated it. A massive company curtailed innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, and it just didn’t work for me, I became really frustrated.” And he went back to the factory owner, to discover he had planned to close it down, so he bought it – “I said I’d give it a go!”

“I felt a bit like Reginald Perrin,” he admits wryly. “I was putting on a suit and pretending to come to work, really, for the first four weeks as I couldn’t secure any raw materials to make our products.

“We’d borrowed, and spent all of our savings, and I did wonder what I’d done,” he says, “but they offered some clarity because I could make it my own, and we spotted the weakness in the business – raw material supplies. We spent the next two to three years securing our materials, and now our growth is always on the back of that.”

The core product is Choc Nibbles. A high quality chocolate product in a variety of flavours, and a little quirky in appearance.

“It’s quite an… ugly treat. Aesthetically, it’s not the best looking thing out there,” he admits.

“But we decided to stick with it as a product with a loyal customer base, and make a brand out of it by stopping production under other people’s labels.”

Cathy kept her old job for the first seven years, and the factory really existed as a lifestyle business for them, though they were growing each year. “When my children were young I spent a lot of time away from home. So for the first six or seven years, I took the kids to school, to sports games, and the business allowed me to live that lifestyle.”

016 MachinaryWith his children older (and ‘smellier!’, he says), he and Cathy decided that they did want to grow the business, and that the ability to produce retail products – bagged Choc Nibbles - was the way to do it.

“We approached Arch [the Northumberland development company] who really were outstanding, and held our hands. They backed us, supported us with funds, to allow us to create products that the retail sector would be interested in.

“But we didn’t have any orders.

“We invested in the equipment and the capacity before I even spoke to a customer. But that’s the way I’ve always done it,” Matt says, without a flicker of doubt in his voice that any other way would have been better.

The big retail contract they secured to make it all work was with national bargain retailer B&M. “One of the most innovative and entrepreneurial retailers I’ve ever worked with,” he says of the store’s confectionary buyers. “I couldn’t say if this was going to sell or not, but their support for us has been incredible.”

Choc Nibbles have been in store for a few months and they’re selling fabulously well. And in January, they’re taking delivery of a brand new line – Posh Choc Nibbles.

“I have to be honest…” he says, and there’s a big pregnant pause. A really, really big one.

“…it’s bloody lovely.”

017 Nibble

Well that’s good! They’ve taken the original, successful, Choc Nibbles formula, and coated it in milk chocolate. A simple but effective enhancement, and it’ll be on the shelves just as our well-intentioned resolutions run dry in January.

“We think it’s going to fly. Considering what the original does, as a standalone product, we think this will really appeal to new consumers.”

Two years ago, they had 4.5 staff in the business. Today, they employ twelve. “And they all want paying!” Matthew exclaims in a tone that makes me think he’s a pretty cool boss, as he talks about their ethos in offering only permanent jobs.

“I know all of our team, I know they’re good people. I believe that people should want to come to work. And if you’re a temp, and at any point you could be asked to leave, that’s not motivational.”

There’s a great culture of give-and-take, and a strong sense of family in the firm. “Without them, I genuinely can’t do anything. So we shut at Christmas and in the summer, we take care of their families, we encourage them to prioritise their children,” he says, and it’s clear that he’s created a business that all those years ago, he would have been happy to be a part of.

 

 

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