The sweet life
Karen Flavelle, Com’79, never expected to be the CEO of her father’s business, Purdy’s Chocolatier, a premium chocolate company.
She did ask him about working for the Vancouver-based company early on in her career, but Charles Flavelle did not want to parachute his kids into the company ahead of long-time employees. Karen assumed he’d sell the business when he retired, so she set her sights on becoming a marketing vice-president of a large packaged-goods company instead.
Years later, after working for General Mills and consulting for a company called Product Development Partnership in England, she was living in Toronto and contemplating her future. She assessed her strengths and weaknesses to help her decide what she wanted to do next.
“An opening at a medium-sized retail company jumped off the page at me,” says Karen. “I talked to my father again. I was more thoughtful about why I was interested and felt I could do a good job. He was more ready this time because tragedy had struck our family, and my younger brother’s death caused him to realize he, too, was mortal and needed to think about succession.”
So he hired her – a good move for them both. Karen has now been at the helm of Purdy’s since 1994 and has increased sales while maintaining Purdy’s’ reputation as one of Canada’s top chocolate makers, as well as its largest retailer – 64 stores in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. Purdy’s started in 1907 in Vancouver and was taken over by Karen’s dad in 1963. It’s the type of company that has loyal customers, many of whom have shared with Karen their warm family memories involving Purdy’s.
She has launched a number of initiatives to boost Purdy’s success – including expansion into Ontario 10 years ago.
“It was company lore: ‘Going to Ontario can’t be done. It’s too far away,’” she says, “but this year it feels like Ontario is coming to life for us – people are discovering Purdy’s.”
Karen’s expansion into Ontario wasn’t the first time she’d left her comfort zone. She chose Queen’s because she was interested in studying in a smaller town. She was the only person from her high school graduating class to go to a university other than UBC or Simon Fraser University. Karen started at Queen’s in French and Spanish with a plan to get into international business. After her first term, she realized she was more interested in speaking languages than studying those countries’ literature. She made the move to studying business for its practical application.
The chocolate industry has changed a lot since the Flavelle family took over Purdy’s in 1963. Fair trade products are now popular, so Purdy’s has started a program to educate African cacao farmers on better farming techniques that will help increase their income.
“Consumers today are much more knowledgeable and sophisticated,” Karen observes. They’re interested in where the cacao bean came from, the different kinds of cacao beans, and the health benefits of chocolate. A company doesn’t last more than 100 years without listening to its customers.”