Sophi Tranchell: Divine Chocolate's radical boss
- 5 May 2014
- From the section Business
As company bosses go, Divine Chocolate's Sophi Tranchell is considerably more left-wing than most.
Happy to describe herself as "still a radical", in her youth she was a committed anti-apartheid activist who picketed outside the headquarters of UK companies that did business in then white-ruled South Africa.
Today the 49-year-old is a leading light in the fair trade movement, which aims to ensure that farmers and workers in the developing world get better prices and working conditions.
The business Ms Tranchell has led for the past 15 years, London-based Divine Chocolate, is not just fair trade, but actually 45% owned by a collective of cocoa farmers in Ghana in West Africa.
The farmers get the same percentage of profits, and have two seats on the board of the company.
Ms Tranchell, who criticises what she sees as a global shift of power in recent decades "from elected governments to corporations", hopes that Divine more than shows that fair trade companies can be successful.
"I have always been interested in who is controlling what... and I'm very keen that people don't feel hopeless," she says. "If we all do something we can make a difference.
"I think the anti-apartheid movement made a difference, as does fair trade. We are proving that you can do business differently, and do it well."
Divine Chocolate was set up in 1998 by the Kuapa Kokoo collective of Ghana cocoa farmers, and Twin Trading, the UK fair trade company that established coffee business Cafedirect.
Investors who came on board included Christian Aid, retailer Body Shop and Comic Relief.
Meanwhile, the UK government's Department for International Development recognised the good work that Divine could do in Ghana, and so gave a loan guarantee to help the company secure bank finance.
Divine placed a small advert in a newspaper for a boss to lead the new company, and Ms Tranchell applied and got the job - despite having no chocolate industry, or even retail sector, background.
Instead, London-born and bred Ms Tranchell had been running a film distribution and cinema business, bringing foreign-language films to the UK.
She says that Twin Trading was instead likely to have been impressed by both her campaigning background and her experience of doing business overseas.
Also her lack of experience meant she questioned everything.
It was Ms Tranchell's work running campaigns that helped Divine get its chocolate bars - which are made for it under contract by a company in Germany - into UK supermarkets.
After Sainsbury's agreed to stock Divine's products at 50 of its stores, she came up with a plan to get this extended nationwide.
Ms Tranchell did this by teaming up with Christian Aid to do a mailout to its UK members. Each got sent two postcards, one a money-off coupon for Divine's bars and the other a request for Divine's products to be stocked in someone's local store if they currently were not.
"And so we had Christian Aid members across the UK handing in these postcards," she says. "And it really worked. It absolutely proved the power of purchasing."
With Sainsbury's going on to stock Divine's products UK-wide, the other big supermarkets then followed suit.
In 2006, seven years after it was launched, Divine made its first profit.
'Strangled our growth'
However, the growth of the company has not always been smooth, and it was badly affected in 2008 and 2009 by the global financial crisis, which, Ms Tranchell says, "gave us an absolute kicking".
"We have always had a risk register, of things that could go wrong. And suddenly everything on the list happened."
While Divine was hit by the falling value of the pound and higher cocoa and milk prices, the UK's supermarkets cut back on how much space they gave to luxury chocolate brands like Divine, recognising that fewer people would be able to afford them.
With Divine's profit margins badly hit, Ms Tranchell says she had no choice but to to cut back on its promotional work, which meant it lost ground against its competitors. However, it did not have to cut any jobs among its 15 UK staff.
"It really strangled our growth," she says. "But you can't spend what you haven't got."
The business has since recovered, and is now growing again, by 8% per year. However, with annual UK sales of £7.5m in a market worth £3.9bn, it remains a tiny company compared with market leaders Mars, Kraft and Nestle.
'Dream is possible'
With a degree in philosophy and politics from Warwick University, Ms Tranchell has no formal business training.
Yet proving that social activism and financial prudence are not mutually exclusive, she says she has always had a good head for figures.
"Running a business is not rocket science," she says. "You just have to keep on top of it, and don't hide from the figures. Don't spend money you haven't got."
Focused on the continuing growth of the company, Ms Tranchell says she is pleased that the success of the business has proved a lot of people wrong.
"People said it [the company] wouldn't work," she says.
"I do hope that Divine will inspire people to think that their dream is possible, because it was so unfeasible that we would make a success of it."
Ms Tranchell also finds time to be an ambassador for the Business is Great campaign, which aims to highlight the numerous publicly-funded schemes and organisations that offer help, funding and guidance to small businesses.