Tony’s Chocolonely CEO on values-based leadership

In a world where chief executives talk the language of purpose, Henk Jan Beltman of Dutch chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely shows how to run a successful business based on high principles
Henk Jan Beltman, Chief Executive, Tony’s Chocolonely

Henk Jan Beltman is not your average CEO. In fact, the very term unsettles him. The head of the fastest-growing chocolate brand in the UK, America and Germany prefers to go by the title of chief chocolate officer.

It is just one of the 47-year-old Dutchman’s many apparent eccentricities. He doesn’t have his own desk, for example, let alone his own corner office. His take-home pay is a mere six times that of an entry-level graduate. And he happily admits he is “not the best manager”.

Strangest of all, perhaps, Beltman spends much of his time thinking about life after Tony’s Chocolonely, an upstart Dutch chocolate manufacturer set up in 2005 with the stated goal of eradicating slavery from cocoa farms.

“I don’t want to walk away with an awful lot of money. I want to walk away with the feeling that I can have a smile in my rocking chair when I’m sitting in the elderly people’s home,” he says.

So, what does put a smile on his face? It’s a good question for any CEO to ask themselves. If not a big house and fat pension, then what? Is it beating off the competition? Growing the business? Winning public recognition?

For Beltman, who took the helm at Tony’s Chocolonely in 2010, it’s all the above and more. Despite his company’s ethical mission, he insists he is “not running an NGO”. When it comes to building market share and boosting revenues – up 27 per cent last year to €88.4 million – he’s as laser focused as the next CEO. 

What gets him really smiling, however, is the sense of making the world a “little bit nicer”. For “nice” read less poverty, fewer emissions but, above all, slave free.

It’s an uphill task. A 2018 report suggests as many as 30,000 people could be experiencing forced labour in the cocoa farms of Ivory Coast and Ghana, the world’s main cocoa-producing countries.

Widen the lens to child labour and the figure jumps to a staggering 1.56 million, according to a recent landmark study commissioned by the US government.

I don’t want to walk away with an awful lot of money. I want to walk away with the feeling that I can have a smile in my rocking chair when I’m sitting in the elderly people’s home

The size of the task doesn’t seem to faze Beltman. People don’t choose to run a mission-minded business because it’s easy, he argues. In truth, trying to solve a knotty social or environment problem and make money presents a CEO with twice the usual challenges.

He says: “You have to really dig deep into your heart and ask yourself, ‘am I doing the work that makes me proud?’.”

That question is easier for him to ask than other CEOs, Beltman concedes. His mandate, after all, is to use profit as the means to an end, namely social impact, rather than an end in itself.

For a mega-corporation, the equation is typically reversed; profit is the end itself, while making a positive difference is, at best, a nice to have.

Not that juggling profit and purpose is easy even for an explicitly impact-oriented company. Beltman has been asked several times over the years to tone down his brand’s slave-free marketing, for instance. He has always refused, losing potentially lucrative contracts in the process.

“It hurts me if the customer says ‘no’. But then the principle of keeping the phrase [marketing] wins over my commercial heart, which says we have to get the customer in,” he reflects.

If Beltman has one word for CEOs looking to grow a values-based business, it’s “belief”. Belief in the cause they expound, most obviously. Passion can’t be faked. It’s what drives Beltman to work crazy hours, to accept a comparatively low wage and to “live out of a rucksack” (he visits Africa at least half a dozen times a year).

As importantly, however, is that it is belief in business as a legitimate vehicle for change. This takes some faith, he accepts. With inequality on the rise and the environment in freefall, the world is not in good shape, a reality for which profit-hungry corporations are not without blame.

Yet, Beltman is a born-again believer that the opposite can be true. In terms of resources, innovation and knowhow, businesses are uniquely placed to make a difference, he maintains.

Plus, they have an incentive to do so. Smart people want to work for impactful companies, he argues, and customers want to buy from them. Six year olds get that, he says; it’s the over-sixties who seem to struggle.

His wish for tomorrow’s cohort of CEOs: “To have the feeling that the company is an enabler of the world we would like to see.”

Tony’s Chocolonely’s steady growth under Beltman’s leadership has taught him two other profound lessons about leadership.

The first is a willingness to go against the flow. Take the boldness of the brand’s communications. Like many challenger firms, this ethical Dutch chocolate brand wears its values on its sleeve, from calling out racism to denouncing deforestation.

But it’s about injustices in its own industry where it shouts the loudest. Ghana and the Ivory Coast recently introduced a mandatory living income, for instance, set at $2.10 and $2.20 per kilo. The response of Tony’s Chocolonely? Great, but let’s not get “too patty on the backy”: farmers still can’t live on it.

Laying down the gauntlet or raising the bar is another tactic. Beltman is currently spearheading a petition calling for “Big Choco” to be held legally accountable for human rights abuses in their supply chains. The online petition has more than 62,000 signatories and climbing.

Provocative as ever, Beltman expresses an intense dislike for the in-vogue descriptor “social enterprise”. As he reasons: “We’re an enterprise. And all other companies are anti-social enterprises. So, don’t put us in a niche. We are normal. They are wrong.”

Unlike many ethical brands, however, Beltman isn’t above mixing with the big boys when he must. At the firm’s outset back in 2005, for instance, Tony’s Chocolonely opted to partner with the giant Swiss cocoa processor Barry Callebaut. The rationale was to show that its own strict sourcing principles, including long-term contracts and fair prices, could apply just as easily to a huge multinational.

The relationship hasn’t been without its challenges. Allegations of abuses in Barry Callebaut’s supply chain recently saw Tony’s Chocolonely removed from a widely referenced list of ethical chocolate factories.

The experience bears out Beltman’s second lesson in leadership: openness and honesty. The whys and wherefores of the firm’s tie-in with Barry Callebaut have never been hidden; they’re on the brand’s website for all to see. So too are conditions in the seven West African co-operatives from which Tony’s Chocolonely sources its cocoa beans.

For example, want to know how many children have been found working illegally in its supply chain? Just go to its annual audited report and you can find out; the answer, incidentally, is 387 of which 221 have been “remediated”.

Transparency is easy when you have a good story to tell. The tough part is admitting your mistakes, Beltman concedes. But no one is perfect. If a CEO makes bad decisions, but with the right intentions, then people “get that”, he says. “That is what normal people do at home, it’s what they do in the pub, but no one does it at work.”

The idea that a CEO needs to leave their private values at the office door is anathema to Beltman. His merging of the personal and the professional, the ethical and the economic, is proof that a more authentic, more humane and altogether more delectable model of leadership is possible.