Sweet taste of success for Lancashire chocolate company

One of Britain’s oldest chocolate makers, which opened its doors in Lancashire in 1920, faced closure less a decade ago but, with the vision of its new owners and a six-figure funding package from HSBC, Beech’s Fine Chocolates is now enjoying a period of unprecedented growth.

Beech’s Fine Chocolates makes quality traditional British chocolates from its factory in the centre of Preston. The family-owned firm employing 55 permanent staff is an institution in the town. It supplies its gourmet chocolates to customers throughout the UK as well as creating ‘own brand’ chocolates for a select number of retailers. The business is now implementing a major new export drive, selling its products to the USA, Kuwait, India and Japan.

But the firm’s story wasn’t always so sweet. In a highly competitive, commoditised market, the firm was feeling the pressure and it faced a decision. “It was a loss making business for a number of years,” explains Andrew Whiting, chairman at Beech’s Fine Chocolates. “Even when it became profitable, the business lacked the boost it needed. We were stagnant. We had a choice: sit there and fail, or adapt, be brave and face the challenges of the future.”

The financial backing from HSBC enabled Beech’s to invest in its products, plant and its people. “We’ve introduced a new range of truffles, increased the cocoa content of our chocolate, and rebranded and relaunched our product range,” added Andrew. “We also recognised that we needed to be able to respond much more quickly to customer demands otherwise we ran the risk of being left behind. We had to speed up our processes so that our chocolatiers could experiment with a range of ingredients to have new ideas implemented much quicker for clients. Our chocolatiers now have the tools to respond to clients within a week with new ideas for chocolate products.”

These developments have seen the firm secure new UK stockists from well-loved household retailers to top high class London department stores. Consequently, revenue is forecast to grow by 10% in the next twelve months. Tony Fulton, HSBC’s Area Director for Lancashire, said: “It’s fantastic to see a family-owned business which is almost 100 years old, investing in new products and growing its customer base so successfully – both in the UK and abroad. Turnover is increasing and the company has taken on a number of new employees, so the future looks extremely bright for this family enterprise.”

The challenge of transforming and relaunching the Beech’s brand to attract new customers was a vital turning point. “I think packaging is the most important thing,” said Andrew. “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, that’s why we put packaging at the forefront of our new business creations. We have to make the cover just as appealing as the delicious treats inside. As Beech’s is a premium product, customers need to see this in the design of the packaging.”

Another challenge for the business is managing the seasonal nature of chocolate sales, explained Andrew. “The business often needs a cash influx during the summer and autumn as we prepare for Christmas. For example, we’ll swell our production line to over 80 people between July and October to cope with increased demand.  Having worked in partnership with us for a number of years HSBC understands how we need to work and have been able to provide us with the funding we need to achieve our ambitions.”

Beech’s has also recruited more office-based employees to cope with expansion, further cementing it as a major employer in the region. It’s also something of a Lancashire legend. In line with a company that is rooted in Preston, the firm recruits from the surrounding area and is proud of its local workforce. Its longest serving 20 members of staff have a combined employment service of 600 years. “With a new vision, we are not resting on our laurels,” added Andrew. “We’re excited about the future as we expand into new markets across the globe.”

The firm’s success today started with humble beginnings. Beech’s was founded by Edward Collinson who chose Preston because it was a busy port with good road links for distribution to the rest of the country. His family already operated a chain of successful tea and grocery shops and his venture into chocolate-making appeared to him to be a logical next step.  At first, the chocolate products were sold at fairgrounds but, by the end of the Second World War, Collinson had successfully penetrated the top end of the luxury market – large department stores and most major, traditional retailers became stockists.

Beech’s remained in Collinson family hands until it was bought in 1966 by a family of Yorkshire wool merchants. They in turn sold the business to a Swiss group whose business interests in the chilled food sector had little in common with the ideal distribution for Beech’s chocolates. That’s when Whiting and his colleagues stepped in to lead the business to a bright future. “We’re extremely proud of our quality British chocolate and look forward to future growth and expansion. The funding from HSBC has made all of this possible,” concluded Andrew.

Beech’s Fine Chocolates is one of the first small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to benefit from a £10bn lending fund for SMEs across the UK. The fund represents HSBC’s commitment to help British businesses realise their ambitions for growth.