January 28, 2008
Jean Thompson, CEO, Seattle Chocolate Company
SEATTLE CHOCOLATE COMPANY
The job: For chocoholic Jean Thompson, life is sweet. As co-owner and CEO of Seattle Chocolates, the 15-year-old company she and her husband first invested in eight years ago and became sole owners of in 2005, she has the delectable task of developing, marketing and packaging wholesale lines of truffles and premium chocolates.
Q. What did you do before?
A. I've been with the company now five and a half years. Before working at Seattle Chocolates, I was an at-home mom for 12 years. Before that, I worked at Microsoft as an account manager in marketing and communications for four years. I mostly worked on advertising and product packaging.
The marketing background has proven really, really helpful. Seattle Chocolates is a chocolate gift company. We buy chocolate from Germany and then we make a confection from it. A big part of what we do is packaging, making it look as premium as the chocolate that's inside. We all judge a book by its cover. It's the only way you can get people to try your product.
Q. How did you make the leap from stay-at-home mom to CEO?
A. My youngest child went off to kindergarten, and I wanted to do something outside the home. Seattle Chocolates was sort of in this steady downward spiral, where expenses were growing but they weren't making more money. So my husband suggested, "You know, Seattle Chocolates can probably use your help." I had a vision that I was going to work 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in marketing -- they didn't even have to pay me. At the time, my husband and I were majority owners of the company. We owned about 95 percent of it.
Six weeks into the job, the existing CEO quit. I didn't have any experience in running a business, but it didn't take me a nanosecond to know that that's what I wanted to do. At Microsoft I wasn't the target audience for the products. But chocolate, oh my goodness! I've always been a chocoholic, and I thought, "How fun is that?"
Q. Are you getting paid as CEO?
A. Yes. I thought that, on principal, if [the prior CEO] was getting a paycheck, I should get paid what he was getting paid.
Q. Once you decided to step in as CEO, how did you get up to speed?
A. It's really been 100 percent on-the-job training. Truly the first manufacturing facility I'd ever stepped into in my life was at Seattle Chocolates. It was a huge learning curve, and the best thing to do was to be down there with my staff and to learn and to problem-solve with them.
When I first joined the company I was in survival mode, putting out fires. The CEO before me handled operations, so I lost my operations guy. And there was only one marketing person. I pretty much had to do everything. A day in the life of Jean couldn't have been more varied, and I loved that. I'm not somebody who likes being superspecialized.
Q. What does the job entail now?
A. Today I focus on developing and maintaining a good internal structure, so making sure the staff that are in place are the best. I try to stay involved with our top five accounts. I'll go on sales calls to see what customers like and don't like. It's your best market research. All the trade shows we do, I go too because I think it's important to see what other people are doing and to talk to our customers and prospects. I try to stay away from the ivory tower.
The financial picture is not a big demand every day. We have really clear business objectives and strategies. So that frees me up to focus on other tasks. A good portion of my time is spent on product development and marketing. I give my people a tremendous amount of leash and I want them to have autonomy. But the one thing I want to be involved with is the product development. I want to be involved with the ad agency and the brand development, and I want to go to the daily production meetings.
I probably spend more time in meetings than anything else, and I spend a lot of time on e-mail. I want my people to feel like they always have access to me and input from me, and a lot of that is done on e-mail.
Q. How many people do you manage as CEO?
A. I have a president -- he and I are partners in business. He runs the operations side of the company, and I run the administration, sales, marketing and finance side. I have five direct reports: a vice president of sales, a vice president of marketing, an office manager/human resources person, a quality-control person and a financial person -- the controller.
Year-round we have 60 people who are full-time employees. Chocolate is a really seasonal business where we spike out of control around Christmas and Valentine's Day. So October to January we're more like 100 people. Those other 40 people are temporary staff in the manufacturing plant.
I'm involved with all hires, except in the manufacturing facility. I at least have to have an interview with the person to make sure of the fit. If I don't like the person, at the end of the day it's my company and it all rolls down the hill. Not everybody thrives in this environment.
The chocolatier's hat rack:
"We have a relatively small staff for what we do, so everybody wears multiple hats. One day I'll be working in sales, one day I'll be working in marketing, one day I'll be working alongside the hourly workers in manufacturing. The same is true for everyone else who works here."
Q. What's the culture like at the company?
A. It's very high-energy. It's a lot of risk-taking. We're not afraid to make mistakes. There's not a lot of process; we're not that bureaucratic.
I'm kind of the mother of the organization. I want my employees to be happy because when they're happy, you get better results. If there are conflicts among people, it always comes to me. I spend a lot of time on the people part of it, how to motivate them. Are they compensated well? Are they happy in their jobs? Are they comfortable in the building? Are they proud to work here? I really do have an open-door policy -- if somebody has something to say, they can come into my office and I will be available to them.
Q. What hours do you keep?
A. It really is a 40-hour-a-week job, and a lot of that is thanks to my president, Niel Campbell. He works ungodly hours. He's so essential to our success. Most small business owners have to work 120 hours a week. Whatever happens -- whether the machines shut down or the air conditioning goes on the blink or the alarm goes off -- it falls on you. But that's hard to do as a mother. Normally it would be me that handles that, but Niel handles all that. And I can go to my daughter's recitals, I can go on a field trip, and if she's sick I can stay home with her and the company doesn't grind to a halt.
Q. What advice can you give hopeful entrepreneurs and chocolatiers?
A. I tell people that I hire right out of college that you have to have a big company and a little company on your resume. At the big company, you learn the importance of structure and communication, and you learn about the downside of meetings and bureaucracy. And at a little company, you get exposed to all disciplines. You might be in marketing, but you'll know all the struggles and victories that go on in operations. So you gain a better understanding of how the business works.
If I had had time to do anything [when assuming this role], I would have supplemented my knowledge base by understanding finance better. I'm sure having an MBA would be helpful, too, but I don't think it's necessary.
Reading lots of books has been the biggest thing that has helped me. I've enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" and "The Tipping Point." The "Business 101" books, like "Good to Great" and "Success Built to Last," have helped me realize you need to do one thing and do it well. And one of my favorite books is "Purple Cow," about not being afraid to do something different.
I also read the trade journals. There's one called Professional Candy Buyer, and there's Confectioner magazine. By reading them, I know what my customers think is new and hot. There's also an industry organization called the National Confectioners Association (NCA), and they have a daily newsletter that keeps you in the loop.
Q. What are the most important personality traits for a CEO?
A. You have to be very decisive. You can't need to have a tremendous amount of data to make decisions. You have to be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. And you can't punish people for their mistakes.
You need to be able to multitask very quickly. One minute you might have a press interview and have to put on that hat, and the next you might need to be a down-to-earth, approachable person who a worker in manufacturing on the [production] line can feel comfortable with. You have to be able to switch your marketing and operations and financial hats on a dime.
The most important thing is that you have to really enjoy people -- that whole "people person" thing you hear all the time. You have to be able to understand them and to read them and to be empathetic and compassionate. If you see people as in your way during the day, you may not want to be a small business owner.
Freelance writer Michelle Goodman is author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. She lives in Seattle, where she works from a spare bedroom with her dog Buddy at her feet.
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