Founder Focus: Helen Pattinson of Montezuma’s
Inspired by their travels through South America, Helen and Simon launched Montezuma’s – a quirky chocolate maker and retailer, that prides itself on always practicing fair, ethical, and sustainable trading. An idea born by wide-eyed newlyweds on a cocoa plantation, it’s safe to say that, almost twenty years on, Simon and Helen’s dream to bring the authentic tastes and flavours of South American chocolate to the UK market have well and truly come to fruition, with Montezuma’s now boasting five shops throughout the South East of England, and the ability to deliver internationally to Europe, the USA, and Canada.
We chat with Co-Founder, Helen Pattinson, about the magic that went into making Montezuma’s a success, the challenges of the chocolate business, and the company’s big sustainability goal for the end of 2019.
What was your eureka moment?
Walking around the beautiful town of Bariloche san Carlos in the Argentinian lake district during a year long adventure with my husband Simon, having escaped our legal careers to discover ourselves and South America. It was filled with chocolate shops – from tiny boutiques to a chocolate supermarket – but all boasting the most amazing chocolate, and demonstrating retail theatre like I’d never seen before. I was hooked and determined to bring the ideas back to the UK where the chocolate offering on our high streets was incredibly unexciting.
What was your elevator pitch for Montezuma’s?
Bringing the best chocolate to the high street – inspired by our South American adventures – and creating fun and quirky flavours with ethically sourced cocoa all under our trading fairly scheme. It’s changed a bit since the early days but essentially fun, quality and trading fairly still form the backbone of the business.
How did you test your idea?
We didn’t really! We were naïve and excited by what we were bringing to the high street and just felt so sure that people would agree. Luckily they did – but maybe I wouldn’t be quite so blasé next time!
What advice would you give someone thinking of starting a business on their own?
Don’t wait for the perfect time or you’ll wait forever. So many people say to me that they’d love to start their own business when X, Y, Z…. I hear so many reasons why it’s not a good time but there honestly never is a great time to put your career on hold, give up financial security and take a lot of risks. So at some point, you’ve just got to go for it.
Do you have a mentor or are you one?
We have had a mentor in the past who came in to our business to instil the discipline of the boring stuff like management accounts, board meetings etc. He got us back on an even keel when things were chaotic and the business was in danger of going under purely down to the lack of controls. Now I enjoy talking to entrepreneurs about their challenges. In 19 years of setting up and running the business, we have seen some incredible ups and downs so I would like to think that we could navigate our way through them. I am a firm believer that there is always a
positive to be taken out of any situation – but sometimes finding it is the biggest challenge.
What’s your plan B?
I would like to think there is no need for a plan B! I certainly never had any intention of returning to the law. But if I had to choose another career it would involve sport. I am a cyclist and a runner, and physical exercise has been my saviour during some stressful times. In another life, I would love to train as a sports nutritionist. Clearly there would be a daily dose of chocolate in my athlete’s diets!
What is the most worthwhile investment (time, energy, money) that you have made?
Investment in good people has always been worth it. But as we were growing, we often didn’t have the money to pay the highest salaries, so we invested in our culture instead and that drew people in. For us, life is about so much more than a well paid job. If you can leave at 5pm and go and enjoy the beach or a bike ride on the South Downs that’s worth a lot. But it’s only possible if you spend time creating a culture that encourages that to happen. That’s what we tried to do at Montezuma’s.
What one failure are you glad you experienced?
In 2008, we nearly lost Montezuma’s after a snowy Easter left us with a stock mountain of Easter eggs we couldn’t sell. Realising too late that I couldn’t pay the VAT bill, we suddenly found ourselves without enough cash to pay suppliers, staff and HMRC. This was all despite the business having been profitable for several years. At the time the banks were going through their own terrible times so the call to our bank manager got us nowhere. We spent the next three months drawing up business plans and a five year forecast to try to demonstrate to the bank that we were credit-worthy and I woke up every day wondering whether the business would survive the day. Amazingly, our bank manager got us what we needed and we could get back to doing the day job. It was a terrifying experience, but it made us realise firstly that what we had created was too precious to lose, and secondly, that we had to take control in order to ensure that something like this never happened again. From that day on, we focussed on the numbers, planned for the future and made sure everyone in the business knew where we were going.
What is coming up for Montezuma’s?
Creating new chocolate concoctions is what we love best. I can’t say exactly what will leave the factory first but I’m hoping it’s got a lot to do with nut butters and our 100% cocoa blend, Absolute Black! We have always strived to ensure our packaging is as environmentally friendly as possible, but with hundreds of bits of packaging, a few things have inevitably slipped – and we aren’t that happy about it. So by the end of 2019, all of our packaging will be 100% recyclable and biodegradable. I am also really excited to be taking us through B Corp certification. B Corps are forming a community of businesses that believe business should be used as a force for good, and recognising that they shouldn’t be the best in the world but the best for the world.
What is the book you would recommend that everyone reads and why?
I recently read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, which is definitely dark in some places, but is a real life love story that serves as a stark reminder of why we should seek to unite communities and countries, not drive them apart. It should be compulsory reading in all schools and for all politicians!
How do you find balance?
Exercise is my place of solace. Not only is it an excellent stress-buster, but it is often the place I have the best ideas. I have also learnt to say no over the years when I simply don’t feel I have the time to do something properly. I had got to the stage where I was doing everything thrown at me, but never doing anything very well. Saying no can be a positive thing sometimes.