Rogers' Chocolate boss builds on legacy

Larry Sullivan has been at the helm of Rogers’ Chocolates for just over a year now, and the chief executive of the 128-year-old Victoria company still marvels at the power of the brand.

It struck him as he first stepped into the role, taking over from departing CEO Steve Parkhill, and continued during a conversation this week. “Coming in, I didn’t realize the emotional attachment people have for the brand and the strength of the brand and the expectations that come with it,” said Sullivan, a veteran executive with roles at Alberta Distillers, Pillsbury, BakeMark and Labatt’s.

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“Rogers’ is owned by shareholders who love the company and who are willing to invest in it, and the community at large is a great supporter,” Sullivan said. “But the strength and loyalty of people to the legacy and how important Rogers’ really is to Victoria and to people around the world was surprising.

“It’s a wonderful foundation to build upon and that bodes well for the company and where it wants to go.”

The depth of feeling and attachment people have for the company appears to be one of the reasons Sullivan is at the controls. Rogers’ board of directors was looking for someone to guide a course change.

“Boards change CEOs because they don’t like the direction of the ship, it’s not that they don’t like the ship,” said Sullivan, who said he has been working on charting a more definitive course over the last year.

“This is about defining the future and the vision — a direction that has some longer-term, sustained growth possibilities.”

That future includes a big role for the company’s past. The firm was founded in 1885 by Charles Rogers. While it has grown to include eight stores, a large online and mail-order business and wholesale network, the heart of the company remains the historic Government Street store.

“We have to be respectful of the fact we have a legacy,” said Sullivan. “When I talk of a ship going in the wrong direction, really it was not paying enough attention to that legacy and wanting to be something different.

“But really your legacy is something you build on, not something you desert or walk away from. It’s your foundation — you build on it, you modernize it.”

He points to the decision to move away from the traditional burgundy colour Rogers’ has been known for as symptomatic of that disconnect. “People got very upset about that,” he said. The company is working on bringing it back, while realizing it needs to be done with a contemporary flair.

Sullivan is keen to focus the company on what it’s good at — making and selling premium chocolate but mindful it must continue to modernize and evolve.

Rogers’ sold Sam’s Deli on Government Street along with the neighbouring Rogers’ Chocolates Soda Shoppe to former employee Kate Phoenix. “It is a wonderful business, and the Soda Shoppe is a beautiful store, but it’s not really the chocolate business,” Sullivan said.

“For us to be really successful, and quite frankly profitable, we need to manufacture chocolate at our plant just up the road and sell it.”

Sullivan, who is still putting together his management team in an attempt to strengthen the core of the company, said there will be upgrades to infrastructure particularly when it comes to technology.

But even decisions over that are taken in the context of the company’s legacy, especially at its manufacturing plant.

“A lot of what we do is by hand, and so to the extent we should mechanize we will, but to the extent it’s made by hand and it’s part of what we do we won’t,” he said. “It’s the fine balance of not becoming Hershey’s and remaining a premium chocolate company.”

At this point, he said the focus is on rebuilding the company’s core.

“It doesn’t mean we won’t open stores, but realistically not in the short-term,” he said. Looking out five years, Sullivan can see more stores, a stronger online presence, better relationships with wholesalers and new products as the company is committed to continual research and development.

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