Matthew Stephenson is the man in charge of Sweetdreams Ltd, which manufactures the popular Choc Nibbles range of sweets. He talks about the challenges of marketing an ‘ugly’ sweet and how he plans to grow the brand further over the next few years.
What is it the company does?
In simple terms we make chocolate sweets. Our biggest brand is the quirky Choc Nibbles range – a nibbly nobbly treat made with chocolate, biscuit and caramel. We have also recently invested in a state of the art panning and coating operation. This allows us to coat and polish food centres with chocolate, yoghurt, flavours etc.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words:
My Myers Briggs profile states I am a starter, but struggle to finish long term projects, so I’ve embraced that. I lead Sweetdreams, but surround myself with fantastic people who can deliver the detail. This way I can run a busy factory successfully (and profitably).
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I started working for my dad selling plastic containers to the confectionery industry. I then moved on to be a consultant for a multi-national company, but that didn’t suit me (I couldn’t do the politics of a big corporation) so needed to be my own boss. The Sweetdreams opportunity presented itself, and the rest is history (I also had a 6 week stint as a pharmaceutical rep, as well as making pizzas in Bultlins and Minehead).
What do you believe makes a great leader?
A great leader has empathy to others needs, but has a strength and conviction in their own beliefs too. If you embrace a balance of this, you have a good chance of being a leader.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
Building Choc Nibbles as a brand. It’s an ugly, quirky treat that doesn’t sell well visually, but this ugliness is also its strength - as Choc Nibbles are not only incredibly moreish but visually unforgettable. Getting buyers to overcome their first visual impression was a major challenge. We are now all over the high street, thanks to brilliant buyers like B&M, but it did take a little time to achieve this.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
The usual – gym, kids, eating out, spending time with my wife Cath (who also works in the business).
I also add to my stress out of choice, as I follow Sunderland AFC and I can assure you stress levels reach atomic levels most Saturdays watching them.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be like my dad – he was initially MD in some big multi-national companies, then went on to own a couple of his own. He travelled the world, was wise, ran my football team etc. I wanted that type of position from an early age. I also found I could sell anything to anyone so Sweetdreams has been a natural progression. Thinking about it though, I really, really wanted to be a professional footballer and be able to afford Adidas mundial football boots.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
People not doing what I have asked them to do in a time that suits my own agenda and needs. I regularly forget that I have built a team that is busy, doing a great job – and I have empowered them to get on with that. This means they are very busy, and not waiting to respond to an email or request from me. As such, I have had to force myself to be patient.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
It will be at least three times the size it is now, supplying the major supermarkets and stores on the high street. Firmly entrenched in Northumberland, we will have a product range, factory and team to be proud of that is profitable and a great place to work.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Go back to school – I put myself through an MA at Durham Business School to challenge my own thinking in operating a business. Also, get yourself a mature mentor or colleague – someone you trust, who understands you and is willing to listen, challenge and provide advice. In the early years, this was my dad (who I still turn to) but now I have a management team that can fulfil this mentoring need.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
How slowly things can happen. As I mentioned earlier, I am a starter, an ideas man. I can make a decision (good or bad) and want it to happen straight away, but the reality is that the world doesn’t operate this way and you need to be patient, detailed and persevere.