Profile: William Whitaker

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William Whitaker heads a chocolate empire which is based at the gateway to the Dales. He met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright

ANYONE seeking a feminist icon really ought to study the life and times of Ida Whitaker.

In the early 1900s, the suffragettes were still fighting for the right to vote, and the path to further education was blocked for most women. But it was an era in which the formidable Ida had a dream. More than a century later, the business she helped to create can produce millions of chocolates every week. If Willie Wonka had been blessed with a Yorkshire accent, he would have cast an envious eye at Whitakers Chocolates,

“Ida was some woman,” said William Whitaker, who is the managing director of the family run firm, which has just marked its 125th birthday. Whitakers was founded in 1889 as a grocery and drapers shop in Cross Hills, which lies between Keighley and Skipton, by Mr Whitakers’ great grandfather, John Whitaker, and his wife Rebecca. It could have remained a business of modest proportions, if it hadn’t been for the drive of their daughter Ida.

“She was a woman of great tenacity, who was a painter, potter and artist’’ said Mr Whitaker.

Ida started making chocolates, in 1903, with help from the wife of the Vicar of Kildwick, which is within walking distance of Cross Hills.

“She convinced her father to change the shop into a confectioners’ shop,’’ said Mr Whitaker. “At a time when women weren’t allowed to vote, she managed to convince her parents to change the shop overnight.”

By 1926, the company had moved to the bright lights of Skipton high street. In the 1960s, it opened its first chocolate factory in the town. Today it turns over £11m and, during peak periods, employs 150 staff. The firm once had a bakery, which closed in the 1980s. As a result, Whitakers has been able to focus on developing its empire, and its fast growing personalised chocolate business, which has become nimbler, and able to accept niche orders, due to investment in technology. Back in the 1970s, Whitakers developed the after-dinner mint, and today you can tuck into the company’s chocolates in some of Britain’s top restaurants.

Mr Whitaker, who is the fourth generation of the family to run the business, is acutely aware of the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. The recession coincided with volatility in the commodities market and rising inflation, which affected the cost of raw materials like cocoa. However, during these testing times, the business was busier than ever, selling its own branded chocolates to hotel and catering businesses and supermarkets Aldi, Morrisons and Tesco. The company has thrived thanks to its long term investment in new equipment, while at least three competitors have fallen by the wayside.

“Between 7am and 10.30pm, which is the normal operating hours for two thirds of the year, we will produce about two million chocolates a day, half of them will go into the restaurant, catering food service trade and the other half into retail,’’ said Mr Whitaker. “Ninety per cent of what we do is for other people in those markets.”

Mr Whitaker believes the company’s success and longevity is down to decisions made by previous generations.

“They were very careful with their money, they bought good land and good buildings,’’ he said. “The retail market is full of big name brands from around the world. We don’t aspire to be them. Our niche is food service.”

Whitakers has spent half a century creating deep-rooted distribution channels with major clients, such as hotels and restaurants, so it’s hard for competitors to overtake them.

He added: “What we need to do now is smaller investments on top of the bigger ones we have made in the past, to develop the business.”

The company is developing printing technology so it can take care of smaller wrapping orders. For example, Mr Whitaker is proud of the fact that he was able to supply an airline with “personalised” chocolate pieces. He wants to build the capacity to supply one off events, so the company continues to attract a diverse customer base.

“It’s about not being told by your biggest customer what you have to do, and at what price,’’ he said. “It’s having that choice and those options. That’s really the difference with us. We’ve created markets and we’ve created products into areas where not a lot of people have gone. In terms of overseas markets, it’s definitely easier closer to home. We supply hotels in Paris, that we send through normal courier distribution. Scandinavia is our main overseas market. We’re going to concentrate in the areas where we’re already strong, rather than spread resources into new territories.”

Outside work, he’s an enthusiastic fund raiser. In 2010, he joined cricket legend Sir Ian Botham on his annual 200-mile Forget-Me-Knot walk, which passed through 10 cities on consecutive days. He joined the Bothams on their 25th walk, which raised cash for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. Whitakers became involved with fund-raising for Leukaemia Research in 2007 when they joined forces with the Calendar Girls of nearby Rylstone WI - who famously stripped for a charity calendar - to produce special fund-raising chocolates.

“We have a flexible, multicultural and multi-lingual workforce,’’ Mr Whitaker said. “The fact we don’t struggle to find staff is in part due to how we operate and the skills of the management. It’s a business that’s got to perform for everybody’s benefit.”

The redoubtable Ida would surely have approved of this inclusive approach.