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50 years

Karen Flavelle is enjoying sweet success as CEO of the leading premium chocolate retailer in Canada, with 900 employees and 69 company-owned shops in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario

Every business faces obstacles, but there are some that only family businesses can appreciate. In this series, we scour the country in search of family businesses that have stood the test of time and ask them to share the keys to their success.

It took considerable convincing before Karen Flavelle's father agreed to let her join his business. He refused his daughter's initial two requests to join Purdys Chocolatier but finally relented to her third pitch in 1994. Today she's enjoying sweet success as CEO of the leading premium chocolate retailer in Canada, with 900 employees and 69 company-owned shops in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.

Purdys was founded in 1907 by Richard Purdy, who opened a shop on Robson Street in Vancouver and established a reputation for the quality of his chocolates. After he experienced financial difficulty and was forced into receivership in the 1920s, creditors sent in bookkeeper Hugh Forrester to save the company. Mr. Forrester eventually purchased Purdys and he and his son modernized production methods. In 1963, they sold the company to Ms. Flavelle's father, Charles, who had production and construction experience, and his neighbour Eric Wilson, who had a background in accounting. Ms. Flavelle was seven years old at the time.

Before 1963, Purdys offered dark chocolate and everything was sold from behind the counter. The partners added milk chocolate to their offerings and figured out that customers bought more chocolate if they could help themselves from the shelf. They made production more efficient and expanded to four stores, then embraced the emerging opportunities shopping malls presented. They also took Purdys into the Alberta market.

"Dad had grown up with Purdys," Ms. Flavelle says. "He was very familiar with it and had loved it since he was a child."

Any aspirations Ms. Flavelle, her sister or two brothers had to join Purdys were firmly rejected by their father, who didn't want to parachute his children into jobs over long-term employees.

Ms. Flavelle went on to earn a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Queen's University and gained marketing and retail experience through successful careers with General Mills and Cara Operations in Toronto and Product Development Partnership in London, England.

In the early 1990s when she again approached her father to join Purdys, he was receptive. The death of his youngest son in a rock-climbing accident had him contemplating his own mortality and succession, and his long-term employees wanted him to keep the company in the family rather than sell to a multi-national interest.

"I brought it up to him in a much more thoughtful way than before," Ms. Flavelle says. "I was clearer on why I thought I would be good at it and why I wanted to do it."

She relocated her family from Toronto to Vancouver and joined Purdys as executive vice president in 1994, balancing her responsibilities as a wife and mother to three young children. In 1996, partner Eric Wilson's interest was bought out and a year later, Ms. Flavelle purchased the company from her father and became president.

Having a consultant to facilitate discussions about the transition was a plus, she says. "It was important to us to have the right approach and a long term plan," Ms. Flavelle says. "I wanted to make sure that Dad and I were clear with our intent. Once I got to Vancouver, we were aligned and he was very good at letting go of things that might have been his baby."

When Ms. Flavelle joined Purdys, the packaging and retail outlets were starting to look outdated. She spent four months visiting shops to see what other retailers were doing and realized that Purdys had largely lost its signature purple colour. She brought back that strong identifier to the shops' décor and packaging. She also changed the way Purdys priced its chocolates.

"I'd also hear people wanting to buy something for $10 and we didn't have anything, as we sold everything by the pound," she recalls. "I wanted to make sure there was a price point for everyone, from the little boy buying something for his mom, to moms buying a gift for a teacher, so every season we have $5, 10 and $20 dollar items and on up."

The company's biggest challenge came a decade ago when they expanded to Ontario, Ms. Flavelle says. Purdys, after all, didn't have the history and brand recognition it did in B.C.

"Going to Ontario was a big deal as once you sign a lease, you sign it for 10 years and you are signing multiple leases a year," she says. "There is still a lot of work to do in Ontario and we are working to become a household name there. We feel we have come a long way there since we started."

Purdys owns all of its shops and does not sell franchises to maintain the quality and integrity of the brand, says Ms. Flavelle. All chocolates are made in the company's 57,000-square-foot factory in British Columbia, including favourites Himalayan Pink Salt Caramel, Hedgehogs, English Toffee and Sweet Georgia Browns.

The company sources its chocolate from suppliers around the world and ensures cocoa used in the chocolate has been purchased from farmer co-ops that meet the two pillars of Purdys' Sustainable Cocoa Program. One is the creation of sustainable farms to provide increased income for cocoa farmers' families through education of the farmers and the resulting productivity improvements; the second is creation of sustainable living conditions through building of schools, health care developed and child sensitization training to ensure children's education is a top priority.

Purdys tries about 150 new recipes a year, relying on in-house testing and customer feedback to determine which products will be added to I ts chocolate lineup. Part of chocolate's appeal is not just how it tastes, but the emotional response it evokes, says Ms. Flavelle.

"It's about being part of people's families and traditions and lives and about the memories chocolate creates," Ms. Flavelle says. "One of my favourite times is when a 13-year-old boy comes in to buy Valentine's Day chocolates for his first girlfriend or a father whose first child has just been born comes in at 10 a.m. to buy chocolate cigars."

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