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Karen Flavelle, CEO of Purdys, on her family’s 52-year love affair with chocolate—and the advantages of keeping it local

As far as work perks go, owning a chocolate factory is pretty sweet. Karen Flavelle admits that she has happily “overloaded” on chocolates through the decades—be it playing hide-and-go-seek as a child among the production lines to regularly sampling testers, both at work and at home. “It’s all a fantastic part of my job,” enthuses the CEO of R.C. Purdy Chocolates Ltd. as we settle down to a tandoori-chicken spinach salad at the Secret Garden Tea Company near her Kerrisdale home. “I’m a definite milk chocolate fan—I love the creaminess.”

This month sees the Vancouver-based chocolate manufacturer—Western Canada’s largest—enter its “tsunami,” as Flavelle calls it, where the company makes 50 per cent of its sales within a 10-week stretch, from the lead-up to Christmas through Valentine’s Day to Easter.

KAREN FLAVELLE'S FAVOURITES

1. Although I gave up drinking coffee years ago–I used to be a 20-cup-a-day person–I like a cappuccino at Faubourg (2156 W. 41st Ave., Vancouver).”

2. “If I’m celebrating a special occasion, then it’s Seasons in the Park (W. 33rd Ave. and Cambie St., Vancouver) at Queen Elizabeth Park.”

3. “For a lunchtime hit that’s walking distance from work, this Greek restaurant called Tops (2790 Kingsway, Vancouver).”


The intense pace is something Flavelle is now quite used to, having joined her father, Charles, in 1994 as Purdys’ executive vice-president. (President from 1997 to 2012, she bought the company—which Charles had held since the early ’60s—from him in 2005; he remains as its chair.) Purdys starts preparing before the previous holiday season, she explains, looking at trends in tastes (this year: Himalayan pink salt caramels, cocoa nibs or quinoa with hemp heart) and colours. Continually walking a line of nostalgia and what’s in vogue, Flavelle has recently made the 107-year-old company’s purple hue more dominant on its packaging and in its stores for stronger branding, as well as changed seasonal wrapping from red and green to red and gold.

“It’s always about encompassing more communities, such as the Chinese, who love these colours of celebration, while still satisfying our traditional Christmas customers,” says Flavelle, who balances her own chocolate intake with a longtime love affair with biking. (A Gran Fondo regular, she clocks 300 kilometres weekly and takes riding holidays to countries such as Cuba and Croatia with her retired banker husband Jamie McIntosh.)

When it comes to the higher costs associated with manufacturing in B.C. versus abroad, Flavelle says a passion for freshness keeps Purdys in the province where it employs 900 workers: “There’s a big difference with manufacturing here and offshore because it can’t be on a boat coming from somewhere; shelf life is really critical.” She says the company—which uses local butter and cream, and cocoa from the Ivory Coast, Ecuador and Peru—owns its 57,000-square-foot East Vancouver plant (its only one) as well as its retail stores to ensure quality control.

Under her watch, Purdys has grown substantially—from 43 to more than 70 stores, with an expansion into Ontario and Alberta —and has built an e-commerce site. Flavelle, who has a commerce degree from Queen’s University, was no shoo-in to run the family business, however. It took numerous requests to her father to join before there was a role for her.

“He wasn’t going to plug me in when there wasn’t a hole,” says Flavelle, who launched her career outside B.C., serving first as a marketing
executive in the Greater Toronto Area with General Mills (1982-1987) and Cara Operations (1988-1994) before returning to B.C.

Running a family business can be full of emotions, explains the mother of three adult children, but it can also benefit a company with longer-term thinking and pride. “It’s difficult to know where mine will net out,” Flavelle says. “They all know they have to come in at the executive level, so that means they need to go off and follow their dream. If that brings them back to Purdys, that would be wonderful, but I don’t want them to fall into it because it was easy.”