2003: three journalists, Maurice Dekkers, Teun van der Keuken and Roland Duong discover that a huge part of cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate, is produced by (child)slaves working in horrible circumstances in Ghana and Ivory Coast. They also uncover that the big chocolate companies are totally indifferent to do anything about this huge problem. 2005: the rebellious journalists want to change the industry and take matters into their own hands, starting a slave-free chocolate bar: Tony’s Chocolonely. 2010: Henk-Jan Beltman becomes the Chief Chocolate Officer of Tony’s and the company quickly transforms from an activistic chocolate brand to a commercial company.
Now, Tony’s Chocolonely is the market leader in chocolate in The Netherlands. You simply can’t go anywhere without finding the bright-colored wrappers on the shelves. The Blog Team interviewed Maurice, the founder of Tony’s Chocolonely. You might also know Maurice as a documentary maker, a TV maker, and shareholder/adviser of Tony’s. Next to Maurice, we also interviewed Maudi Admiraal, the International Brand Builder of Tony’s Chocolonely. Discover both sides of Tony’s Chocolonely in this paradigm-shifting interview!
Maurice, you’ve been involved in growing Tony’s to a huge company, how has it become so successful?
‘My business model was; Journalism is marketing. We found out there’s a lot of problems in the chocolate industry, which makes a perfect story. My goal wasn’t to create a great company but to tell a great story. The bigger the problem, in this case, the slavery in the cacao industry, the better the story, the more likely people will buy the chocolate bar. Most executives of other companies find a product for the lowest price, call in the most expensive marketing bureau to make a story about it and sell it for a high price. What we did is the complete opposite; we had a great story and based our product on top of that. This approach is for sure one of the biggest contributors to Tony’s success. I hope Tony’s will grow even larger and actually changes something. The nice thing about the brand is that it inspires people to make a positive change in the world. That is what you get with a good story, it’s a snowball effect.’
The Tony’s Chocolonely bar is divided into uneven pieces, which symbolizes the inequality in the chocolate industry, do you think that in the future, there will be a straight bar on the shelves?
‘No, I don’t think so. Perhaps, the circumstances will improve but there are too many bad guys in Africa. I think we should at least try to do something about it, otherwise, we’ll become indifferent. We should create a world where everybody should get an opportunity, in which everyone can make their own decisions.’
You made a documentary about Tony’s story and a book has been written about Tony’s creation. Which part of Tony’s story never came out to the public?
‘Tony’s Chocolonely is now fifteen years in the field and no one, no journalist, nor any newspaper has wondered where Tony’s sugar comes from. While there’s actually more sugar than cacao in the chocolate bars! Lots of the cacao farmers we interviewed in 2005 for the Tony’s movie, work half a year on the cacao plantations and the other half of the year on these sugar farms. Here, they are treated like animals, beaten up and not being paid. The other founders and I never brought this out because it wasn’t marketing technically convenient. Honestly, people don’t really care where Tony’s gets its sugar from. People have double standards.’
Besides the cacao industry, in which market do you see the biggest opportunities for improvement?
‘Concerning slavery, the biggest problem isn’t in the chocolate industry but in the tobacco industry. The tobacco plantations have terrible circumstances and nobody does something about it. They all say, ‘smoking is bad’, and leave the problem for what it is, which is ridiculous. So I brought the idea to the table of selling Tony’s cigarettes but Henk-Jan didn’t allow it. It’s such a closed and criminal industry, you can’t get in there, this makes it interesting at the same time. It’s an untold story.’
So do you have any ambitions to start your own slave-free cigarette company?
‘Well… I just stopped smoking. If I start smoking again, I’ll do it.’
What is your advice for young entrepreneurs?
‘Don’t overthink when setting up your business. If you start to think how you are going to do it, how it will happen, whether it will succeed; nothing will happen because you realize it’s too hard. You’ll face struggles anyway, so you can better start and see what comes on your path. This goes wrong with too many people, they think something will cost too much energy so they don’t do it at all. There are enough things to do in the world, just think, travel, get inspired. Also, you must be enthusiastic, have the energy for it. If it’s not fun, you won’t persevere.’
In order to find another perspective on Tony’s Chocolonely, the blog team went to the headquarters of Tony’s to interview the International Brand Builder, Maudi Admiraal. Maudi is the only one in the international marketing team. Her main task is to deliver Tony’s story and brand to the rest of the world.
First of all, Maudi, when I came in the Tony’s Office a few minutes ago, I was received by a girl with a huge smile on her face. All the people working here are smiling, the vibe feels great, it must be fun to work here?
‘I really love to work here. To me, It’s important to work somewhere with a social mission. Everyone at Tony’s has the feeling that (s)he is working for a greater cause. That just brings this vibe along and bonds people, which I think is very special.’
Per year the revenue grows by 50%. What do you think is Tony’s secret?
‘We are indeed expanding fast, we have an office in Portland and we work with distributors in Belgium, Sweden, and Germany. Since Henk-Jan became our Chief Chocolate Officer, we grew even more rapidly. The transformation into a commercial company is often perceived as negative, but we think it’s the only way to change the cacao industry. We show that we’re capable of being commercially successful while having a good impact on this world. That’s the only way to inspire other chocolate firms to do the same. Because eventually, every company wants to be successful, if you have a good story without a revenue, how can you possibly make a significant change? Also being open and personal with relations is characteristic for Tony’s and a big part of our success.’
How do you see Tony’s in fifteen years?
‘I think we’ll be a world brand. That we are a renowned brand which has an impact on the industry, forcing the choco giants to change their supply chain. It’s hard to say how fast they will actually change their processes because they are so big and bureaucratic but I’m certain big steps will be made. Tony’s actually wants to change the industry from the inside out, we believe that companies themselves have to take their own responsibility and should not hide behind a certification. We will never have 100% market share, so in order to really have an impact, we should get other companies along.’
Finally, which quote hangs on the walls of the Tony’s Chocolonely office for the daily amount of inspiration?
‘If you think you’re too small, try to go to bed with a mosquito in your room’.
Thanks for reading! Curious for other awesome interviews with inspirational business(wo)men? Check out all our career-oriented blogs here!
Written by Sem Kotek