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Stores of love


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  • | 11:00 a.m. October 23, 2015
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Executive Summary
Company. Norman Love Confections Industry. Retail Key. Controlling growth takes self-discipline.


When Norman Love launched his chocolate business in 2001, retail stores were never part of his plan.

Love had just left a grueling job as corporate executive pastry chef for the Ritz-Carlton, on the road 42 weeks a year to help open 39 hotels worldwide. He settled in Fort Myers to slow down the pace of his hectic life and to spend more time with his wife, Mary, and two young children.

Love rented a 700-square-foot room in a medical office building east of Interstate 75. Friends who owned the building charged him $200 a month in rent, including utilities.

The idea was to quietly make small batches of chocolates for wholesale distribution to hotels and restaurants. Mary answered the phones and wrote orders by hand. Total initial investment: $10,000.

But as everyone knows now, that didn't last long. “You've got to be careful what you wish for,” Love chuckles. “I'm still desperately seeking balance.”

Here's why: Today, Love makes 7 million chocolates a year as well as other confections such as gelato and cakes that he sells through four stores and at wholesale to Princess Cruise Lines. Together with the Internet sales, the retail shops generate 65% of the company's sales. (Love declines to disclose financial results.)

More stores are coming: Sanibel, south Naples and the east coast counties of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are among the possible expansion targets. A revamped website will generate more business, now already 15% of Love's total sales.

 


Employees of Norman Love Confections prepare boxes of chocolate for shipping from the company's headquarters in Fort Myers.

Store was afterthought
As Love started making chocolates in early 2001, word quickly spread about his work. Each chocolate is a work of art, with distinctive colors and shapes that catch the eye.

When customers unexpectedly started knocking on his door to buy chocolates, Love decided to open a small store. It was an afterthought, but success was immediate: The store turned a profit in just four months and had $1 million in sales the first year.

Then came this bolt of lightning: In January 2002, USA Today hailed Love as one of the top artisan chocolate makers in the country. Love says he never sought the publicity. “I don't know how they found me,” Love says, recalling that he didn't even have a credit card machine to process orders at the time. “The phone never stopped ringing,” he says.

Then chocolate purveyor Godiva contracted with Love to produce millions of chocolates. Love shakes his head: “It was out of control,” he says.

But making chocolates for Godiva gave the team at Norman Love valuable insights into producing hand-made premium chocolates in large quantities. And the store showed Love that retail was a worthwhile pursuit.

Still, chocolates are a discretionary purchase and in 2007 Love felt the first winds of what would be a massive recession. “We took a much more conservative approach,” Love says, crediting Mary with holding back plans to open a store in Naples. “She's much more realistic,” he says.

Instead, Love put his energy into new products such as gelato, pastries and cakes. He also boosted his charitable work, volunteering hundreds of hours to help a wide variety of causes in Southwest Florida and generating goodwill.

Fort Myers jeweler Mark Loren remembers the first time he met Love. “We did a mother's day promotion seven or eight years ago; the economy had tanked,” Loren says. “We said if you've lost your job and home, come over for a free mother's day gift. Mary rushed over with a bunch of chocolates. That told me where they come from.”

Managing growth
When the economy started to rebound, Love remained conservative, focusing on quality rather than rushing to open new locations. “The product dictates our growth,” Love says.

Except for some traditional bank financing by FineMark National Bank & Trust, Love has funded the growth himself and he and Mary continue to own the company.

So far there are four stores: Two adjoining stores in Fort Myers, one in Estero and another in Naples. “He and Mary are very protective of the brand they built, so it's not diluted,” says Loren.

Love, 55, acknowledges that he gets plenty of offers from investors who want to help him expand with many more stores. “I have two on my desk now from Dubai,” Love says.

Two years ago, the chocolatier and Princess Cruise Lines (the same cruise line of Love Boat television fame) created a partnership in which Love provides chocolates and trains the chefs to make pastries for the line's 18 ships.

With more than 1.7 million passengers annually, Love's confections are becoming a well-recognized brand, which will help the retail operation. A cruise passenger recently recognized the chef as he was boarding a plane; she had recognized him from a photo on the ship promoting the chocolates.

But most important, Love says his priority is making sure the products he sells are up to his standards. Opening dozens of stores in a few short years holds no appeal. “In my world I call it greed,” he says. “You lose the focus on product.”

Plus, opening stores is expensive. Love estimates it costs about $250,000 to $300,000 to open one.

Joseph Catti, president and CEO of FineMark, says Love possesses the rare quality of self-discipline: “Growing a business and then maintaining culture and quality is extremely difficult, so you have to be really careful with the growth,” he says. “It takes a lot of checking yourself and making sure that you don't just grow for the sake of growth.”

When he does grow the operation, Love says the staff and equipment need to be in place first. For example, he's seeking a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer who can help him open new stores. “That's the next step for us,” he says.


Creative Beings
It may be hard to believe, but Norman Love doesn't create the new flavors of his signature chocolates anymore.

“I love taking a back seat today,” says Love.

Since he's been in business nearly 15 years, Love says he's only lost three key employees. That's a significant accomplishment in a high-turnover industry. What's more, Fort Myers isn't exactly at the center of the culinary universe like New York City or Chicago, so attracting new talent is doubly hard.

Love's three ingredients to attracting retaining top staff: pay competitively and create a learning environment that empowers them to develop innovative products. “We're all artists and creative beings in this business,” says Love.

“In order to maintain quality and culture you have to retain the very best people,” says friend and banker Joseph Catti, president and CEO of FineMark National Bank & Trust in Fort Myers. “He has a very servant leadership management style.”

For example, Love encourages his chefs to participate in industry competitions. He's paying the way for Dan Forgey, a production manager, to compete at the World Chocolate Masters competition in Paris at the end of October, for instance.

Forgey, who was a chef at the Waldorf Astoria in Naples before joining Love in 2007, was selected to represent the United States at the Paris competition, which attracts the top chocolate artists from 20 countries.

Forgey, who will spend two weeks in Paris, has put in hundreds of hours, working on his creations in his spare time. “I'm going to get what I put into it,” Forgey says. Adds Love: “I can't teach him to do that.”

Forgey isn't the only winner. Chefs Brittany Mateika and Molly Rothermel won first and second place, respectively, at Pastry Live's chocolatier of the year competition in Atlanta in September. In March, John Cook won second place in the 26th annual U.S. pastry competition in New York City.

“I have many great people here,” Love says.


Learn about the history and philanthropic efforts of Norman Love Confections in the video below:

 

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