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Like water for chocolate

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What is it that really drives entrepreneurs?

You might not believe this but arguably one of Australia’s greatest purveyors of fine chocolate is a reformed investment banker. And his pathway out of high finance, to something that some say is on par with sex, came from Shane Hills’s willingness to give free business advice.

Hills was a regular at a Melbourne-based candy store called Suga, which was famous for making confectionery on show for potential customers. Not one to be afraid of offering business ideas, he had a chat to the then business owner and not long after he and his wife-to-be Mirka opened Suga’s new Chadstone store. And in typical investment banker style, along with his father-in-law, they staged a buyout.

“I was enthusiastically looking for an opportunity to get started in business,” Hills said, thinking back on the time. “Our customers now can visit any of our five stores and experience rock candy being made.”

After getting a taste for the fun and the money that can be made out of sugar, the next business hit was to be Koko Black.

Hills said the movie Chocolat has been a business inspiration and it comes with a very different feel and customer base.

“Chocolate is a food of romance and mystery and for female customers,” he suggested. “A bit naughty and with a ‘I really shouldn’t but I can’t resist” flavour.”

And while Koko Black has the beyond business aura, especially after absorbing Hills’s passion for his creation, there has been a cold and calculating business approach, typical of a competitive investment banker. There has even been a role for an enlightened government.

“We started with the assistance of a grant from the City of Melbourne for our first salon,” he explained. “It took 18 months from idea to launch.”

The research was both arduous and a labour of love including Hills attending famous chocolate schools such as Germany’s ZDS Chocolate School and recruiting a world renown chocolate master from the home of chocolate — Bruges in Belgium.

The first store opened in 2003 in Melbourne’s Royal Arcade and there are now a total of six Koko Blacks in Melbourne, and one shop in Canberra.

And while the investment banker inside of him says grow, his chocolatier side tempers it all.

“It’s natural that we want to grow but not at the expense of quality,” he insisted. “Overall, I believe our authenticity and congruency sets Koko Black apart from other chocolate stores.”

It might be something that developed after his time in banking, and as a consequence of engaging with the highly emotional product called chocolate, but Shane Hills stands out as unique from ordinary folk when he explains what motivates him, though he shares something special with a minority.

“The desire to create something special,” he admitted motivates him. “The bouts of pure happiness among all emotions that go with something you love. The feeling of adventure. The responsibility of it all — to my family and to everyone in the business. The dream that I can devote and sustain my life to it and sometimes, the reaction to inner doubt.”

In case you missed it, what you have just read is a priceless insight into the core of a business builder. It could have been said by Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Anita Roddick of the Body Shop — it’s like water for chocolate for anyone wanting what Shane Hills is making.


Work out why you want to be in business. It’s a recipe for success.

  • Look for business opportunities where you least expect it.
  • If you start a business, remember that you need to be in it for the long haul, so you have to believe in it.

If you’re looking to work on your business rather than being stuck in it, book in for a complimentary business assessment today with Switzer Business Coaching.

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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