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Surfing story has sweet ending

AS far as Martin Black is concerned, owning his own chocolate company took a lot more work than was the case for the fictional young chap called Charlie who inherited Willy Wonka’s chocolate empire in the famous children’s story.

Mr Black’s Margaret River Chocolate Company was a researched gamble that is expected to turn over $3 million this financial year. The company enjoyed early success but a big burst of early interest was almost enough to send the company bust due to supply problems.

The purchase of the Margaret River site in 1996 came about after Mr Black and his surfing buddies looked into the property market to find a permanent shack for their surfing expeditions to the South West.

“We were regular visitors to Margaret River and we thought it was taking off; we decided to purchase a few acres of land in the wine region as opposed to a house in Dunsborough. It was cheaper. We then built a house on it,” Mr Black said.

“We hung out there for a couple of weekends and began thinking of ideas for the land. We were told the ground would never be good for grapevines but we thought about planting olive trees or building eco chalets or an art gallery.

“We were thinking of things that would add value to the region.

“In Easter of 1998 we came up with the idea of a chocolate factory. It made sense because it appealed to all age groups.”

While two of the four friends weren’t interested in the business venture, self-confessed chocoholic Mr Black and friend (now business partner) Patrick Howard were keen to make chocolate. It only took them a year from the concept stage to grand launch, with the Margaret River Chocolate Company opening its doors in 1999.

So successful were the company’s first few months that Mr Black and his ‘oompa loompas’ almost ran out of chocolate.

“It took off bigger than we thought it would. It took us by surprise,” Mr Black said.

“We managed to get on top of it and produce the volumes we needed to produce.

“It was a hard learning curve. We knew very little about retailing, tourism and manufacturing and we were not prepared for the success.”

They were able to do this by outsourcing chocolate supplies, something Mr Black is not keen on.

“We had to get a company from the Eastern States to make it for us. We want-

ed to be able to control it, though,” he said.

The Margaret River Chocolate Company’s immediate success also left Mr Black and the team pondering new wine regions to conquer, as it seemed chocolate tastings were popular with wine enthusiasts.

“We opened Margaret River in May 1999 and bought land in the Swan Valley in December 1999. It was a quick decision and we didn’t come from wealthy backgrounds,” he said.

“We hocked everything we owned to start the first one and then hocked things we didn’t own to do the second one.”

Mr Black spent the first part of his career as a journalist before entering public relations and opening his company, Corporate Communications, which he still operates today.

As for the chocolate company, it just seems to be getting bigger and bigger. Mr Black is already studying other parts of Australia to launch the business’s first interstate store.

“Six months ago we were still too busy … now it’s something we are seriously thinking about,” he said.

“I just got back from the Yarra Valley. It’s a great destination and we could do so very well there.”

And it seems the old idea of olives wasn’t such a bad one.

“We’ve put eight acres of olives in but that is a separate entity to the chocolate company,” Mr Black said.

Mr Black is keen to point out that there is more to life than just business, however, and between his commitments at his PR company and operating the chocolate factory, he manages to find time to help new parents.

And it’s more than placating them with sweets. Mr Black sits on the board of Ngala, a family resource centre.

“The organisation has been around for over 100 years and is very well know with new parents; it has been really rewarding for me,” he said.

Mr Black has been nominated for the 2003 WA Business News 40under40 Awards. To nominate your-self or someone you think is worthy of a 40under40 Award visit www.40under40.com. Nominees need to submit an entry form no later than December 20 2002.

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