x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Sweet taste of sparkling success

If it had one, Chocolates with Sparkle could be the motto of Patchi, the premier chocolatier in the Middle East.

Patchi Founder and Chairman Nizar Choucair enjoying one of his chocolates, made the same way it was when he was a 12 year old boy.
Patchi Founder and Chairman Nizar Choucair enjoying one of his chocolates, made the same way it was when he was a 12 year old boy.

If it had one, Chocolates with Sparkle could be the motto of Patchi, the premier chocolatier in the Middle East. Others might say Chocolates with Bling.

Not only is the confectionery itself wrapped in shiny paper, it often comes in elaborate silver or cut glass bowls, dazzlingly beribboned and topped with Swarovski crystals. Indeed, the chocolatier has for sale a £10,000 (Dh60,725) box at Harrods in London this year swaddled in a deer skin cover and silk roses. To call Patchi's products "luxury items" might be doing them an injustice. Extravagant, or even decadent, might be closer to the truth. Still, despite such evidence to the contrary, Patchi's 68-year-old founder and chairman, Nizar Choucair, says "our chocolates are not expensive at all".

"We sell to people who want more expensive, elaborate, boxes but we also sell to the chauffeur who comes to pick it up." He recalls one Patchi advertising campaign in the 1990s, when the family returned to Beirut after the civil war. Stung by criticism that his chocolates were out of reach for many people, Mr Choucair compared them to the price of a bunch of flowers, which, incidentally, are not cheap in Lebanon. "I heard from many flower shops that year that they did less business," he says, with a satisfied air.

Chocolate is in his blood, he says proudly. Growing up in Beirut in the 1950s, his uncles on his mother's side were "the chocolate kings of their day", and when he was 11 he pestered his father to be allowed to work weekends and holidays in their shops. He was initially paid in chocolates. Even at that early age, his uncles recognised a budding business acumen and Mr Choucair was sometimes left in charge of the shop and given the keys to open and close it. He also opened and ran his own shop within the extended family's residence, selling chocolate to relatives.

By 14, he convinced his uncles to pay him a decent salary, and he quit school to work full time in chocolate, managing both factories and shops for his uncles. While he says he has no regrets over dropping out, Mr Choucair said two years later he did a two-year diploma course in accounting, thinking he needed more intellectual tools to ply his sweet trade. Mr Choucair built Patchi from two Beirut shops in 1974 into a global company with 150 branches worldwide, most of which are either owned or partly owned by the company. He has five factories around the Middle East, including in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, and sales last year reached US$165 million (Dh606m). The company is considering listings on the London and Dubai stock exchanges, but those plans have been put on hold due to the weak economic environment.

Yet, at one point, it almost looked as if he was going to leave chocolate behind him. When he was 18, he was so worn out by the constant struggles with his uncles - they competed with each other for his services and went to his parents to ask them to intercede - that he decided to follow a cousin to Kuwait where he worked for several years in the much more mundane world of refrigeration. "I was still obsessed with chocolate," he says. "I saw it everywhere, in a glass of water, everywhere."

But even this interlude worked out well for him because it was in Kuwait that he met his wife, Sihan. At the time, he recalls, there was not much to do for a single male foreigner in Kuwait. So, he struck up a friendship with the driver of a Lebanese family who did odd jobs for him, too. "I would send him to get meat for kaftah and we would eat it together in the kitchen," Mr Choucair says. "He told me that I should get married and that the family that he worked for had a wonderful daughter." The courtship proceeded swiftly and the couple was married when he was 20; they had their first child in Kuwait soon after.The lure of Lebanon and the chocolate trade, however, remained too strong. Since neither he nor his wife saw a future for themselves in Kuwait, they returned to Beirut the next year. But his plan to resume his chocolate career had to be put on hold when his father asked him to take over his food products business because he had become too frail to continue. Reluctantly, Mr Choucair says he did what he saw as his filial duty for five years until after his father passed away. Then, he saw an opportunity, again with one of his uncles.

What followed were five years of great success, when he rebranded one of his uncle's shops under the name of Le Bonbonnière, right next to the municipality in downtown Beirut. That remained part of his business philosophy: always locate near a landmark, so it is easy to find. The shop found a niche in supplying wedding gifts and guest favours in the Middle East. When he left to open the first Patchi in 1974 - one in the then upmarket Hamra area of Beirut and another on the other side of the municipality entrance - he says he took with him all of his old clients. The name Patchi was born during his travels before he branched out on his own. He was looking for something "short and snappy" when he came across the word for kisses in Italian: baci.

Even as the business flourished, he quickly opened a store in Amman "because I saw what was happening in Lebanon - things were not going well here at all". What followed could be the typical tale of relocation that many Lebanese families describe during the years the civil war flared, between 1975 and 1990. Mr Choucair first moved his family to Amman, came back to Beirut for a short while, moved to Cyprus, and then to Paris, all the while opening shops and factories in other parts of the world. He opened a factory in Jeddah "because exporting from Lebanon became a problem sometimes during the war".

He tried to attend the opening of every Patchi shop, wherever it took place. "I spent 55 per cent of my time on planes," he recalls. Luckily, he says, he enjoys travelling. And nothing seems to please him more than to list the countries, on all the continents except Antarctica, where Patchi has branches, and to rattle off the new countries where branches will open soon, including Armenia, the Philippines and Libya.

Today, Patchi has 5,000 employees, 150 branches in 39 countries and four factories. Apart from chocolate, the company also produces its packaging, silverware and other luxury items. "Sixty-five per cent of what we sell, we make ourselves," Mr Choucair says. Wolff Olins, an international brand consultancy, has tapped Patchi as one of a few emerging market companies that could become an important global brand.

His five children have all obtained at least graduate degrees. Three of them work with him now in the company and the next generation is coming aboard, too. One 25-year-old granddaughter who studied business administration has just started at Patchi. Despite its growth, Patchi remains a family business, Mr Choucair says. He retains all the shares and speaks of the clan-like responsibility he feels towards the almost 5,000 people employed by Patchi and its franchise operations.

Still, he does intend to follow through with plans to turn it into a partly publicly owned company through the postponed stock issues in London and Dubai. "It is very important for me, for the long term continuity of Patchi," he says. "I want to be sure that it continues for all the employees." The family will retain 51 per cent of the shares, but "after I'm gone, they can do with it whatever they want", he says.