Sweet taste of success
by Paul Gosling
Making a virtue out of a vice sounds like an excellent way of running your own business. And this has been true for Karen Baxter and Michael Murray, the founders, owners and managers of Baxter Murray Creative Chocolate.
Inspiration for the business was simple. “It was a love of chocolate and all things sweet,” says Michael. He and his business partner – who is now Karen Murray and his wife – sold the successful Tiffins cafe in Belfast and wanted to move on to another challenge.
Both spent time working in confectionary stores after the sale “The shops were stocking stuff from Saudi Arabia and all corners of the world,” Murray recalls. “And virtually nothing from Northern Ireland.”
Karen and Michael spent two years researching and producing a business plan. Then, in 1995, they had a phone call from a contact who said that an auction was taking place the next day in Dublin, which included all the equipment needed to set-up a chocolate factory. Did they want him to bid for them? After frantic discussions, they decided yes – the bid went in and they had the equipment.
Quickly, they finalised negotiations on a 2,000 sq ft factory off Belfast’s Holywood Road, moved in and began production. The business has not looked back since, with a growth in turnover every year – including during the recession.
Perhaps surprisingly, Murray found that the skills developed in running a profitable cafe were not the same ones needed for a chocolate factory. “It is a totally different type of business,” he says. “The skills don’t transfer. I didn’t know what cash flow was.” Credit management was an aspect of the business they had to learn quickly.
An essential commercial ingredient was the financial assistance given by LEDU, a predecessor body of Invest NI. It provided an employment grant of £4,000 for each of the five initial staff.
But it was almost very different. When Michael went to his local LEDU office, the adviser told him to go away and come back with a better idea. He and Karen then went to her local LEDU branch – which was enthusiastic and promised support. Equally important was technical support from Loughry College in Armagh, which helped improve the production processes.
Now the business is a real success – especially heading towards Christmas, when the current normal workforce of six increases to nine. About 95% of orders come from businesses looking for customised chocolates. Clients include BT – which orders chocolates in the shape of phones – and shopping centres and car dealerships, buying confectionary for special events.
For a second time, though, the business has been saved from near calamity. At the peak of the property market, Baxter Murray negotiated to move into a larger factory. Delays with planning approval prevented the deal being completed before prices collapsed. “At the time I was raging, but now I am very happy,” says Murray. The property is currently available for half the price the firm almost bought it for.
Baxter Murray is now looking forward with a strong order book. It is also expanding by buying new machinery, taking advantage of the recession to purchase at lower prices.
Michael is clear about why the company is so successful. “We make a very good, quality, product,” he says. “It is Northern Ireland dairy cream, Northern Ireland butter and Belgian chocolate. It is an excellent combination.”
And having won seven Great Taste Awards in three years, the expert tasters share his opinion. For Karen and Michael, a sweet tooth has been far from unhealthy.