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How Montezuma's got through Covid using innovation and teamwork

20 Aug 2020 By Eleanor Whitehouse

The chocolate manufacturer and retailer has emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic thanks to its agility and quick thinking

You could say that weathering a crisis is part of the fabric of boutique chocolate brand Montezuma’s. In 2000, just a week before founders Simon and Helen Pattinson were due to open the first Montezuma’s shop in Brighton, their manufacturer went out of business, forcing them to make their own products with the one small piece of equipment they owned. Fast forward two decades, and the company has a thriving workforce of nearly 200 based at its HQ and factory in Chichester, West Sussex, as well as six shops across the south of England. Although the year in which it celebrates its 20th birthday has been far removed from what it had imagined, a combination of clever planning, innovation and good old-fashioned mucking in has seen it come out the other side of the Covid pandemic – unlike some of its high street peers – relatively unscathed.

Coronavirus struck, explains people and culture director Liza Gamblin, just before Easter – one of the company’s busiest times of year. Although it closed its shops and furloughed around 100 store and factory staff, its trade sales to supermarkets remained unchanged, and its online orders increased a massive 1,000 per cent in the run-up to Easter. “Even without Covid and with a full team, that would have been challenging,” says Gamblin. 

As a manufacturer it remained legal for the company to continue making chocolate during the government’s lockdown period but, as a ‘non-essential’ retailer, Gamblin and her senior colleagues constantly questioned whether they were doing the right thing morally. “As well as needing to keep as many jobs as we could, we agreed that ours might not be an ‘essential’ food item, but we’re providing something that puts a smile on people’s faces,” she says. “All our Easter products had the option of a handwritten message, and helped people stay connected. It was quite emotional reading some of them.”

To deal with the influx of online sales with a reduced workforce, it was “all hands on deck”, explains Gamblin. Montezuma’s new head of retail, who had only started in the role three days before all its stores closed and missed the cut-off date for the furlough scheme, drove a van around its shops collecting stock, while Gamblin and her executive colleagues, including the managing director, finance director and marketing director, assembled and packed the orders. “The team spirit was immense,” she says.

Perhaps one of the reasons the company has fared so well amid coronavirus is the fact that several traits useful in the face of adversity are encapsulated in its values – including using your imagination, taking calculated risks and looking after the business as if it were your own. But the global pandemic hasn’t been the only period of upheaval the company has undergone in recent months. At the start of 2019, its founders sold the majority of their shares in the business to a private equity firm, sparking a significant period of growth and investment, as well as an all-new executive team, on which Gamblin now sits thanks to a promotion. The values, she says, are there to make sure the company stays true to its origins during this process: “Our main focus last year was laying the foundations of the business in its new format. The values came straight from the team, capturing the culture they didn’t want to lose as we grew – they’re there because they mean something; it’s not just a PR exercise.”

One significant aspect of her people and culture remit that Gamblin has ensured fits with the new, expanding business is performance reviews. Formerly something that was “very involved”, the process has evolved since Gamblin joined the company 12 years ago and now takes the form of a much shorter quarterly ‘making a difference’ – or MAD – review, in which staff are asked to state how they’re living Montezuma’s values and meeting their objectives, as well as how happy they are at work. “It’s a bit of a cliché,” Gamblin laughs. “But I really think happy workers are productive workers, and if someone is happy to be there, they’ll embrace everything that comes along.”   

Appraisals is one process Gamblin says she’s developed the confidence to challenge during her time at Montezuma’s. This is, she says, partly down to the founders’ attitudes to challenging existing processes. Coming from an HR background in which things “should be done a certain way”, when she first joined, the Pattinsons would ask her why she was doing certain things, and if she really needed to do them at all. “I have to credit them with encouraging my creativity and challenging the norms in my early days,” she says. “I’m a naturally fun and creative person, and I realised that HR can be fun and creative too, if you want it to be.”

And with only Gamblin and her assistant running the people function for the entire company, and looking after everything from payroll to L&D, challenging unnecessary processes and learning to be agile has had to become standard. It helps, she says, to come from a wider business background rather than a purely HR one. (After completing a business studies degree, Gamblin worked in health, safety and quality in the travel industry before moving into HR.) She is also an advocate of people practitioners having wider business acumen and understanding the roles of other areas. “HR can sometimes be siloed, cracking on with its own agenda without thinking about everyone else,” she says. “But I’m all about the bigger business. Understanding each department helps me plan and deal with difficult situations when they arise.”

Thankfully, it seems Montezuma’s is coming out of 2020’s particularly difficult situation (“the busiest period of my life”, Gamblin says) stronger than before, and with renewed enthusiasm for its continued growth. Although the company took its time reopening shops after lockdown measures were partially lifted to “gauge what was happening on the high street”, all six have now reopened with reduced days and hours – something that’s gone down well with the workforce. “The teams were excited to be back,” says Gamblin. “We’ve not had any issues with people not wanting to return. They were happy to be able to do their bit, and that was really special. It might have been tough, but some great things came out of Covid.”

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