Life is sweet but the aim is to stay one step ahead of competition

William Whitaker is the man at the helm of the family chocolate business which has been going for 130 years and is now sending its treats around the world. He spoke to Ismail Mulla.

William Whitaker is the managing director of Whitakers and oversees the production of two million chocolates a day.

The family business has been going for nearly 130 years and William Whitaker has been at the helm for the last 40.

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Despite the longevity of the business and its global success, the company is now exporting as far afield as Russia, Mr Whitaker is still keen to see where the business can do better.

William Whitaker: The managing director says the next innovation for the company is personalised wrapping of chocolates. Picture: Simon Hulme

The goal isn’t to build a bigger empire but instead staying ahead of trends in the chocolate industry and utilising the businesses existing strengths to take advantage of opportunities.

“We want to use what you’ve already got as a stepping stone to the next stage,” Mr Whitaker says. “We don’t need a bigger business, we need a better business.”

To understand Mr Whitaker’s drive to change and adapt, you only need to look the history of Whitakers Chocolates.

The business will be 130 years old next year and was set up by Mr Whitaker’s great grandparents, John and Rebecca Whitaker, in 1889.

“He was one of 13 children,” Mr Whitaker says of his great grandfather. “He was the son of a farmer in the local district of Crosshills and he said I don’t want to be a farmer.

“So he set up a grocery shop with his wife.”

John and Rebecca would go on to have three children. One of those children was Ida Whitaker, a creative lady who learnt to become a baker and confectionery producer.

This is where the origins of chocolate lie with the Whitaker family. Ida Whitaker first convinced her parents to install a bakery into the shop they ran. She was then taught how to make chocolate by a vicar’s wife.

“That’s one of the most remarkable bits of the story,” Mr Whitaker says of the idea of a vicar’s wife knowing how to make chocolate in that age.

When William’s own father, John, who still maintains an interest in the business today, took over he decided to pivot the business away from the bakery and focus solely on chocolate.

William Whitaker said: “In 1959/60, my father would have been 23 to 24-years-old. He’d done his national service. He looked at what was going on.

“He looked at what he wanted to do and declared to his mother that baking wasn’t the way forward, it had to be chocolate.

“Five years later he and his mother borrowed £25,000 in 1964 to build an extension to the bakery and call it a chocolate factory.

“They didn’t have any machinery or sales and borrowed the money against the house.”

What started off as a farming family, has gone from running a grocery business to setting up a bakery to supply chocolates across the globe.

The switch to producing chocolate initially was “a real struggle”, says Mr Whitaker. But the business caught some breaks along the way.

A relative decided one day to take leftover bits of chocolate and add peppermint oil and glucose to them. The mint crisp would go on to become a staple of the Whitakers’ range.

While his father was setting up Whitakers to become a chocolate powerhouse, William Whitaker was still away at school. But it was here that his father captured his imagination and a career in chocolate was set.

Mr Whitaker said: “A lot of the time I was away at school and my father used to write now and again telling me what he was up to. He captured my imagination at that time when I was wondering what I wanted to do.”

In 1978, at the age of 18, Mr Whitaker joined the family business. He spent a year learning the processes on the factory floor.

Mr Whitaker said: “I learnt the production processes but my real desire was to go out and sell the products to hotels and restaurants.

“After doing a year here, I was given a Morris Marina van with a sign written on it and I went all around the country buying and selling the company’s after dinner mints and other confectionery that we had at the time and for five years was a customer of the business.”

This would prove to be a formative experience for Mr Whitaker. “In that time I learnt an awful lot as to what the market, that we were in, was doing,” says Mr Whitaker.

“That was really important for me and the business to learn and to absorb that information,” he added.

He returned to the family business in 1986 at the age of 26 to assume the role of managing director.

At this point the Whitakers was at another crossroads. Mr Whitaker says they had a choice of either selling the business, as they had maxed their capabilities, or they had a lifetime’s work to do.

“We’re still here,” says Mr Whitaker with a smile.

The managing director said: “Without doubt the biggest change which has differentiated us and allowed us to evolve is the introduction of wrapping of chocolates.

“ In 1988, when we closed the bakery eventually and used it for the development of chocolates, we did not wrap a chocolate. Today, we can wrap over two million chocolates a day.”

The business also has 100 employees on its book at any given time, with seasonal peaks seeing staff numbers hit 160. Despite this success, Mr Whitaker is seeking other opportunities to ensure the firm keeps its edge.

One of its next innovations is in personalised wrapping of chocolates.

Whitakers will be launching the product in July, which allows customers to place orders of as little as 100 bars of personalised chocolates.

Mr Whitaker said: “How we’re going to personalise it and produce it gives us a lot of advantages over people who are already doing it.

“The very big boys are not interested in personalisation and the smaller people who are haven’t got the equipment and facilities to do it in the way that we’re going to do it.

“It also takes us into the promotional and gifting markets and we’re less reliant on the existing areas of the markets that we sell.”

Whitakers also provides half of the grocery sector with own label chocolates.

After 40 years of being at the helm of the business, Mr Whitaker no longer feels the pressure.

He’s also got a team around him that shares the burden and allows him to seek other opportunities for the business.

And at the end of the day being surrounded by chocolate surely can’t be a bad thing.

Curriculum Vitae

Title: Managing director

Date of birth: July, 1960

Lives: Ilkley

Favourite holiday destination: Croatia

Last book read: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

Favourite film: Top Gun

Favourite song: Everything by Michael Buble

Car driven: VW Golf R32

Most proud of: My family and friends

Education: Uppingham School