Chocolate from the Congo: A Sweet Business Model

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This originally appeared in the BBC.

Most couples who get divorced want to get as far away from each other as quickly as possible. Joe Whinney and his ex-wife Debra Music decided to take a different path – they went into business together.

Mr Whinney, 46, and Ms Music, 51, run Theo Chocolate. Based in Seattle, they make award-winning, organic, Fair Trade chocolate bars.

Mr Whinney founded the company in 2006, and had no hesitation in bringing in his former spouse to look after sales and marketing.

At that time they had been divorced for seven years following a five-year marriage.

Mr Whinney, chief executive, says: “I asked Debra to help out part-time with sales while we were starting up the factory, because I knew that she wouldn’t let anything fall through the cracks. I trust Debra completely, and as the company grew so did her responsibilities.”

He adds that while they still occasionally row, it has a positive outcome.

“In so many ways we are totally different people. The tension created often leads to successful, passionate, and functional business practices.

“During our most heated conflicts we both know that we are safe and that the outcome will work.”

Ms Music agrees, describing their working relationship as both “challenging and rewarding”.

“There can be friction between us, [but] at this point in the life of the company, and after much trial and error, we have learned how to ensure that friction generates creativity, innovation, and constructive dialogue,” she says.

Mr Whinney first became interested in high-quality chocolate when, as a young man in the late 1980s, he and a friend sailed from the US to Honduras and Belize in Central America.

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He agreed to volunteer for a small conservation foundation in the region, helping to harvest cocoa pods.

“They handed me a shotgun and rice sacks,” recalls Mr Whinney about his first day on the job. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with either.”

However, he soon learned how to do the work, and also seeing first-hand how the business and social impact side of the chocolate industry were intertwined.

Fast forward a few years, and now back in the US, Mr Whinney decided to become a cocoa broker, hoping to import high-quality cocoa at a fair price.

So he wrote letters to 12 of the biggest US companies procuring cocoa beans at the time.

One of the companies, Brooklyn-based CocoaLine, replied, and in 1993 Mr Whinney brought the first shipment of certified organic cocoa to the US.

But he says he was still frustrated. He wanted to create his own chocolate company, one that went from “farm to bar”, ensuring full transparency and fair wages for the farmers. And so the idea for Theo Chocolate was born.

Today the company employs 95 people, and its chocolate bars and other products – which are all made at its base in Seattle – continue to grow in popularity across the US.

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For the rest of the rest, please go to BBC Business.

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One thought on “Chocolate from the Congo: A Sweet Business Model

  1. --Roger says:

    Great to see how People can work things out that are bigger than themselves. We need more “News” like this. Thanks Esha.

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