Interview with Gary Guittard, CEO, Guittard Chocolate Company, United States of America
Northern California is home to many families whose ancestors came to San Francisco in the mid 19th century to pursue their luck in the gold rush. But one young adventurer’s journey took quite a different turn.
When Etienne Guittard left Tournus, France to join the California Gold Rush, he brought chocolate from his uncle’s factory as a means to barter for mining supplies. What he discovered was the miners and locals alike were willing to pay a premium for the delicious treat. He immediately saw the opportunity that was richer than panning for gold.
He returned in 1868 and opened Guittard Chocolate on Sansome Street. Now 149 years later, the same enterprise still stands as a thriving family owned business.
Guittard Chocolate Company has always been able to walk the fine line between progressive management and selfless ownership. As the fifth generation Guittard family members take an active role in the company, the company continues to find ways to support, explore and grow with its extended family of customers, co-workers, farmers and suppliers.
Tharawat Magazine spoke with 4th-generation CEO Gary Guittard to discuss the balance between innovation and tradition and what it means to bring happiness to your customers.
Your family business has such a fascinating origins story. When did the company go from selling products to miners to focusing more on chocolate and coffee?
I think pretty much after the earthquake and fire in 1906. That’s when they began to focus a little bit more. There were a number of different family companies back then and we are pretty much the last one standing. There was Hills Brothers coffee, MJB coffee, Folgers coffee. These were all family companies, now they’re owned by General Foods, and Procter & Gamble, and Nestle. And Ghirardelli chocolate, which was down around the water-front more towards the Golden Gate Bridge, are owned by Lindt now.
Guittard has remained in family hands all this time. What made your family business different from the others?
I think one of the key issues is narrowing down the ownership. Family members who haven’t been interested in the business have either received real estate or equivalent value as compensation. That resulted in a dedicated and passionate core ownership that’s remained strong. This has allowed the family members to grow the business, and reinvest in the business rather than paying out profits to other family members.
Did you always know you would work in the family business?
I can remember going down to the factory close to the Embarcadero in the early 50’s, which was an older, brick building that was probably even then a hundred years old. And the smells! I can remember in the sample closet, where we would get these little samples of chocolate, and playing with the adding machine, or looking at the machines, and things like that. I grew up in the business. When I completed school, I decided that I wanted to be in the film industry. I figured the best way to do that would be to join an advertising company.
The company I worked for was a boutique, San Francisco agency called Cooper & Harrington, and they had clients like Levi’s, which was a good old San Francisco family company. In time, I was laid off when the company was acquired by a larger firm and was looking for work. We had a rule in Guittard that you had to do something else for a few years to be allowed to work in the business. So, I worked for a food broker. I then came back into the company about three years later and started working in the retail side.
How was your experience working for and with your family?
It was great working alongside my Dad and my brother who joined seven or eight years before I did. The three of us worked in one office together, so we all knew what was going on. But my Dad contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS and he passed away in December 1988. And then tragedy struck again when my brother died about six months later. I found myself all alone in this big office, having lost my Dad and my brother. It was a tough transition. But I had a great team of people around me and we all kind of came together and forged ahead. And I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, of what we’ve done with the company.
Your family business produces chocolate which to many of your clients symbolises a direct source of happiness in their lives. What does happiness mean to you? And how has that definition changed over the years?
When you talk about happiness, you have to talk about unhappiness. I think they go hand in hand. Eastern spiritual philosophy was my minor in school, so I’ve always had a kind of a philosophical interest in personal development. You know, how to connect your brain and your heart. But, to get there, you have to strive to achieve personal growth. You can’t be happy because you’re running from unhappiness. I think it requires acceptance and understanding of yourself and listening to others. Listening, and accepting your own shortcomings leads to knowing yourself. When you know yourself, you’ll know how to make yourself a better person. You’ll be more acceptant and more flexible, and less biased. It allows you to have a wider perspective in the way you deal with people, and ideas. It leads to a more creative approach to life. It leads to happiness.