Tony's Chocolonely: Turning Customers Into Activists
We’re in a former industrial area, now home to a vibrant cultural site, recreational facilities and, oh yes, offices. In this office, all colors of the rainbow surround us – and some tasty flavors too.
We are at one of the most popular consumer brands in The Netherlands – and Bucket List pioneer – Tony’s Chocolonely.
Tony’s Chocolonely was set up in 2003 with a clear purpose: “Together we make chocolate 100% slave free”. The company pursues that purpose by producing and selling chocolate. Depending on where you live, you might be familiar with their eye-catching packaging.
Tony’s Chocolonely was founded in a remarkable way. Back in 2002, journalist Teun van de Keuken was shocked to discover that most chocolate was produced by child slavery. He felt the need to take matters into his own hands.
He recorded himself eating 17 bars of chocolate. Subsequently, he took himself to court for “knowingly purchasing an illegally manufactured product”. When the public prosecutor refused to prosecute him, he found 4 former cocoa child slaves from Ivory Coast to testify against him.
While awaiting the judge’s decision (in 2007 the case was dismissed because of jurisdiction issues), Teun tries to convince chocolate manufacturer Nestlé to start producing slave-free chocolate. Their response: nope. Teun decides to start making his own chocolate. In 2005, Tony’s Chocolonely was born.
A promising start
In terms of sales, Tony’s was a success right from the start. They grew rapidly as their sales numbers rose and market share increased. But for Tony’s, it’s not just about these traditional metrics.
During our visit to the annual Tony’s Fair – where among other things, their radically transparent annual report is presented – we learned that it’s not just about sales and market share. They invest heavily in creating awareness through education and training of farmers and consumers. They pay a premium (higher than fair-trade premiums) to farmers to ensure proper pay.
They actively track down and combat child labour. Their beans are 100% traceable to ensure transparency and fairness. In short: Tony’s Chocolonely puts its money – and chocolate – where its mouth is.
Crazy about chocolate, serious about people
At Tony’s, they believe that the only way to get closer to achieving their purpose, is to work with the most passionate and involved people. So, they invest a lot in creating a great culture to keep these people involved and happy.
During our interview with Ynzo van Zanten – Choco Evangelist – he talks about the five groups of people that are important to the company. Moving from important to most important he starts with suppliers, then retailers, followed by consumers. In number two place are the farmers Tony’s works with in Africa. But at number one are Tony’s employees.
Because it is hard work at Tony’s, the company makes a major investment in the people there. Here are a few of their core working practices:
- The week starts with a 30-minute Monday stand-up meeting of the whole team.
- Staff can take home as much chocolate as they can carry. To compensate, free running shoes are provided.
- Staff have unlimited vacation (with a minimum of 28 days) and line managers are held accountable that employees take the days.
- They organise boot camps, yoga, skiing trips and the teams sit together at their cafeteria to eat a healthy lunch and exchange chit-chat.
- Teams set their own goals and objectives for the year on a one-page document.
Furthermore, Tony’s has created a safe culture where their people are encouraged to speak up. At ‘Critical Sessions’, they cover such subjects as diversity. Once a year, the team travels off-site to the ‘Chocademy’ for two days to focus on a topic. Since they are growing like crazy, they talk about work pressure – and how to take and keep control of projects. Tony’s people work hard and must be protected from burn-out.
They’re the market leader in The Netherlands, almost everyone knows the company and their chocolate, and in 2018 they generated revenues of over € 55 million (a 22% increase). Surprisingly, they've never spent a dime on advertising!
To determine if people are still happy at work, passionate and involved, Tony’s uses the 'Quest-Cheer-Naire' (their survey to measure fun at work). Being passionate and involved are the two main axes. But also, how much do staff enjoy their work? Are they still having fun? Are they still connected to the bigger mission?
Clearly, Tony’s has grown to become one of Europe’s top Great Places To Work. In all honesty, some of their practices are – in our humble opinion – a bit paternalistic:
- There’s a 'Maintain your BMI' bonus to make sure the love for chocolate doesn’t get out of hand.
- There is a baby bonus upon the creation of a ‘Tiny Tony’, and you get an extra month paid parental leave.
But besides (maybe) a few paternalistic practices, the company is truly – as they say – serious about its people. The people who work at Tony’s are those that help the company achieve its purpose—and are treated in a way that reflects their importance.
When the shit hits the fan, lots of companies cut into their investment in employees. By doing so, they harm their culture. At Tony’s, it’s quite the opposite. The belief is that investment in company culture helps them achieve their targets – and therefore their purpose—in good times and bad.
The power of purpose
At the moment, it’s mostly good times at Tony’s. Under CEO - or in Tony's dictionary CCO (Chief Chocolate Officer) - Henk Jan Beltman, the company has grown from 30 to 130 employees over 3 years. It’s the market leader in the Netherlands, and is now conquering the USA, UK and other European markets.
Interesting fact? Tony’s Chocolonely has never spent a dime on advertising! Can you believe that? They’re the market leader in The Netherlands, almost everyone knows the company and their chocolate, and in 2018 they generated revenues of over € 55 million (a 22% increase) while not spending a single Euro on advertising!
They do love to speak at conferences, talk about their purpose in the media, and invite customers to actively share their story so they jointly create more impact.
Profit as a means to an end
In Ynzo's view, as a member of one of the most successful purpose-driven companies in the Netherlands, what makes Tony’s so successful? “It’s about being mindful of the following:
- Never think you are too small to make a difference. Everyone can make a difference within an organisation. Speak up.
- Invest in your culture above and beyond what is expected – and disproportionately so!
- Pick what you want to do and know why. Tony’s Chocolonely is an impact maker, not a chocolate maker. Chocolate is the medium to make impact. Being financially successful is a means for us to get closer to our purpose, it’s not a goal in itself.”
Being financially successful is a means for us to get closer to our purpose, it's not a goal in itself.
As we wrote Bucket List do– that purpose and profit are a powerful combination.
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Tony's website says nothing about the welfare of animals used to produce their mostly-milk chocolate products. Factory farming is a huge problem in the Netherlands (https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2019/04/more-giant-factory-farms-in-the-netherlands-activists-call-for-a-ban/). So, perhaps not entirely "slave-free" yet?
The idea of self-management tends to be received with both interest and cynicism. Amongst the varied reactions, there is one recurring doubt that I hear time and time again. That doubt is deep. That doubt, is trust.