Wilf Marriott, Islands Chocolate
Wilf, how did you get into chocolate?
If I am being completely honest, it was a massive stroke of luck. Until I was 21, I was trying to become a professional cricketer. In the meantime my father had started up the St. Vincent Cocoa Company and I found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by the company. In fact, I sold the first cocoa beans that were ever produced to one of the top traders in Europe whilst still pursuing my career in cricket.
After my passion for cricket subsided, I was on the lookout for a job that was slightly different so decided to explore the cocoa industry and see whether it was for me.
Still a cricketer, not yet a chocolatier!
How did you do that?
I travelled to Malaysia and the Philippines to work on cocoa farms before coming back to England to work for two other chocolate companies. This gave me invaluable experience of cocoa farming and processing, chocolate making and also in chocolate sales. By the end I had an understanding of the whole supply chain which is quite rare.
The family business at that stage was selling cocoa, not finished chocolate, and I was put in charge of the global sales. I enjoyed this role but had a burning desire to start my own chocolate brand. Bearing in mind that we had a really unique story and fantastic cocoa coming off our farms, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. So I pitched the idea to my father about starting up Islands and after a lot of convincing he gave it the go ahead!
What is your role in the business now?
I run Islands Chocolate so the job pivots between sales, marketing and general management of the whole operation. It’s been a steep but incredible learning curve and working alongside my father has taught me many things about business and also about managing people.
With Joshua Meisman (former Head Pastry Chef at Caravan Restaurants)
discussing the development of the incredible 'Islands Chocolate Croissant’ made with
Old Forester Bourbon, American Oak Chips, blackberries, sage and our 85% chocolate piped inside.
How does Islands compete against the might of Cadbury’s, Lindt, Green & Black and all the other brands?
At Islands we have a point of difference – we farm the cocoa ourselves and therefore manage the whole process all the way through from seed-to-bar. The companies you have just mentioned above don’t have this traceability element and provenance to their supply chain.
The benefit of controlling the supply chain from seed is that we can guarantee that every step of the process is ethical and that the people at source i.e. the farmers are being treated fairly. What’s more, we can alter the flavour by varying the cocoa varieties we plant out. Cocoa is similar to wine in the sense that if you plant different varieties on different plots, you produce different flavours. When you buy Islands, you can be certain that every step of the process has been meticulously managed to give you flavours you’ve never tasted before. For foodies and environmentalists alike, The Islands Way is the only way.
Are we getting more sophisticated as consumers in the UK?
Yes, people are becoming more open to and accustomed to unique flavour profiles. Gone are the times where only bulk chocolate is available on the market. Today there is beautifully crafted chocolate from all regions of the world with flavour profiles that are challenging the 'norm'. We want to be at the forefront of this movement.
How many bars will you sell in 2020?
If all goes to plan then around 50,000. However, you never know. Touch wood!
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Having to learn everything very fast
Winging it with developing our cashflow forecasts. Working out our gross margins for all of our products (all 45 of them!). Learning how to sell. How to close a deal. How to manage clients. How to know when to hold your ground. Knowing all the answers to questions so that the client has complete confidence in working with you. I look young and it therefore takes them a while to put their trust in me.
Juggling everything day-to-day
Managing a business, staying fit, having a girlfriend, seeing friends, spending time with family - it’s a juggling act from the moment I wake up, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Prioritising my time between jobs which all seem equally important!
At the end of the day, it’s prioritising jobs which will make money and keep the business afloat. Once these jobs are complete, then it's making sure they are done correctly and in a sustainable way. After that, making sure that our actions are viewed by our customers in a positive way i.e. getting the marketing spot-on.
I have had experience captaining school and Oxford sports teams but I have never done it in a business sense - so I have done lots of reading and lots of picking people’s brains on what works and what doesn’t. Although, at the end of the day you have to come to your own conclusions on how to manage as it is all very subjective.
Convincing my friends that my job is serious!
What puts a spring in your step?
Knowing that everyday I have the opportunity to make a difference to lots of people. Whether it be giving our customers a special experience through the flavour of our chocolate or helping our farmers in St. Vincent to earn enough to live a happy life. Each day is a challenge but I know it’s up to me to go the extra mile and if I do that every day, I have a good chance of making a positive difference to a lot of people.
Patricia, manager of the gene bank on our farms out in St.Vincent
If someone gave you £5m to build the business, how would you spend it?
Go on holiday with the team to brainstorm ideas! On returning I would hire more salesmen, invest in a retail store, buy an electrical delivery van and give my team a pay rise because they deserve it.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve made in your business career?
I’ve made many mistakes. I haven’t made any huge ones yet but the recurring mistake I make is rushing things. Don’t rush. Take your time. When you think something is ready to go, give it a few weeks before actioning it. Let a decision settle in your mind before clicking GO.
What’s the best decision you’ve made in your business career?
Channeling our business in a new direction over the last year by identifying a niche that works for us. We have altered the focus at Islands from selling chocolate bars (retail) to supplying cooking chocolate to hotels, restaurants and caterers (trade). So far our chocolate has been a great success with chefs who really appreciate the traceability, provenance and flavour of our chocolate.
Do you offer any guidance to chefs on how to use your drops in recipes?
Yes, we've got some great recipes on our blog/website and we have also just started a ‘Chef Series’ of video content. Check out our Youtube Channel.
Do you have any heroes, in life not just business?
Alastair Cook, I watched him bat for 2 days in Australia and it was epic. Didier Drogba is also up there, a Chelsea legend.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing what would you like to be doing instead?
I’d be running my own clothing business or coffee chain; two other ambitions of mine.
Lastly, and most importantly, where can people buy Island Bars and Drops?
You can buy them online as well as in stores such as Selfridges, Daylesford and other independents like Sourced Market.
Thanks you Wilf!