Easter has Vadeboncoeur hopping with joy
But Chocolate bunny manufacturer diversifies to ensure year-round production

Louis Vadeboncoeur runs one of Quebec's largest independent confectionery plants so you would think that with Easter coming next week, he would be working 18-hour days to fill last minute orders. But surprisingly, his offices are dead quiet.

"Our business works a year in advance," said Vadeboncoeur, president of Les Chocolats Vadeboncoeur. "The chocolates you see in stores were shipped a long time ago. Right now we are getting ready for the 2004 season."

Though the plant is quiet, with employees overhauling equipment and Vadeboncoeur catching up on paperwork, when Easter production revs up in September, the company's 60 employees will be going full steam.

Huge machines will be cranking out 70 lines ranging from chocolate bunnies, ducks and hens to licensed products based on animated characters such as the stallion from the DreamWorks movie Spirit.

"You have to think long-term in my business," Vadeboncoeur said. "If you don't prepare for the next season when things are quiet, you never catch up."

Though just 43, Vadeboncoeur has been in business more than two decades. He had been a production manager at another manufacturer early in his career, but had always longed to run his own show.

His big break came in the mid-1980s. At the time the provincial government was running a program that gave young entrepreneurs a $50,000 interest free-loan to start a new business, as long as five jobs were created. When Vadeboncoeur and his wife Angèle, heard about the opportunity, they decided to become partners and jumped at it.

The couple started in a small 2,500 square-foot facility on Bélanger Street. Although business was slow at first, Louis Vadeboncoeur's industry contacts soon paid off, and sales began to climb.

The couple are partners in life and business. At work, Louis Vadbouncoeur handles operations, purchases and finances. Angèle takes care of sales and marketing including package and product design.

It's a partnership that has worked well on the home front too. Five months ago the couple had a new baby, nine years after the birth of their first child. But the birth didn't stop Angèle for long, and within two months she was back at work.

"We have a good babysitter," Vadeboncoeur said. "I'd go crazy if I stayed away from the office for too long."

According to one long-time business associate and friend, Louis Vadeboncoeur's success is due to good industry knowledge and the special attention he pays to details.

"He's a good production man, who knows the industry like the back of his hand," said Frank De Iuliis, sales manager at Baie D'Urfe-based Rosmar Litho, which supplies Les Chocolats Vadeboncoeur the printed boxes its products are packaged in. "He knows how to get production out the door and is very cost conscious."

Canada's $32 million Easter confectionery products industry is highly competitive and Vadeboncoeur has to fight for each dollar of its $6 million in annual revenues. In recent years the number of independent retailers the company can sell to has diminished, due to industry consolidations.

As a result, the vast majority of the company's sales are to major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Jean Coutu pharmacies, which expect low prices that they can pass on to consumers, making it hard for producers to get good margins.

One key decision Vadeboncoeur made to stand out from the crowd and to add value to his product, was to institute a peanut-free policy at his company's plant. The huge increase in potentially mortal peanut allergies among children in recent years has left parents and school cafeteria administrators with limited choices in the confectionery products they buy and stock. Yet Vadeboncoeur found that few manufactures were taking advantage of the potential market.

In fact many competitors were going in the opposite direction by putting blanket "May contain traces of peanut warnings," on their products, to limit their potential liability, even though the products themselves had no peanuts.

The decision to go peanut free has met with strong positive responses by grateful parents from across the country said Angèle Vadeboncoeur, pulling out a stacks of thank you letters.

According to De Iuliis, Vadeboncoeur's move two years ago to add Halloween and Christmas products lines was also a prescient strategy.

"The Easter business runs only a few months and then production stops," De Iuliis said. "But by diversifying and adding to his product line he can now run an almost year-round operation."

Vadeboncoeur invested close to $1 million into the new custom-made production equipment, which also enabled the company to produce and launch a new line of caramel-filled chocolates.

"You know that old Cadbury commercial that asks how you get the caramel into the chocolate?" asked Vadeboncoeur with a smile. "We figured it out."

Despite his joking, the investment is already paying dividends, and non-Easter products now account for about a third of the company's annual output. Vadeboncoeur's immediate goals are to build the non Easter portion to at least half of the company's business, possibly by targeting the U.S. market.

"We've been looking down there for a long time," Vadeboncoeur said. "But with our new equipment and product lines, it's time to get started."



Photo caption: Les Chocolats Vadeboncoeur works on a production cycle that is one year in advance. Although Easter is next week, his company is already taking orders from retailers for Easter 2004.

Sidebar: Getting Ahead

o Louis and Angèle Vadeboncoeur got into the chocolate products business 18 years ago with the help of a $50,000 loan from a Quebec government program then in existence, which encouraged young entrepreneurs.
o Initially Les Chocolats Vadeboncoeur generated the bulk of its revenues from Easter products such as chocolate rabbits, treats and so on.
o One key decision the Vadeboncoeurs made was to operate a peanut free factory, which set the company apart from a number of competitors, who put liability limiting peanut warnings on their packaging, rather than making a safer product.
o The company is diversifying its production and trying to ensure year-round production by marketing new Christmas and Halloween lines.



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