Sweet Success: Godiva CFO on Achieving Substantial Annual Growth

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Premium chocolates are a niche business but Godiva’s owners want substantial
annual growth — a delectable challenge for its CFO

By Julie Barker

Sensual, indulgent, premium, surpassingly satisfying: Godiva’s various chocolate confections have all the attributes of luxury products, including a European pedigree dating back to the company’s founding in 1926. The safe way to preserve that image would have been to stay small. But that tactic ended in 1967, when the company’s Belgian founders, the Draps family, sold Godiva to Pepperidge Farm, a unit of the Campbell Soup Company. Campbell held onto Godiva for 40 years but eventually decided premium chocolates did not fit with its new emphasis on healthier eating. And so, in 2008, Campbell sold Godiva to Yildiz Holding, a Turkish company whose primary interests are food-related (biscuits, chocolate, dairy products, liquid oils) and with ambitions to grow in global markets.

For a premium brand, product quality is sacrosanct. Competitors like Scharffen Berger (based in Berkeley, CA) make only small batches; France’s Valrhona labels its chocolates like fine wines as grand cru. To deliver strong shareholder returns in a global marketplace Godiva would have to make some trade-offs. For David Marberger, CFO, senior vice president and head of strategy for Godiva Chocolatier, the keys to balancing the unassailable quality with the growth mandate lie in two habits: the first is scrutinizing key performance metrics and the second is passion — a passion to use his expertise on the leadership team; a passion to make sure key issues are being addressed; a passion to attract great people and build an organization that keeps them motivated; a passion to create a winning environment; and, finally, a passion to share his zeal “for the great Godiva brand.”

Careful Steps to Growth

Six years ago when Yildiz Holding paid $850 million for the company, Godiva’s annual sales were $500 million. It fell to the leadership team headed by Jim Goldman, CEO, to fulfill Yildiz’s goal to make Godiva truly a global brand.

Four days after the acquisition was complete, Goldman, continuing as CEO, recruited Marberger. The two had more in common than their years working at Campbell. They shared a similar vision. Together with other members of the Godiva Executive Leadership Team and 4,000 employees worldwide, they have grown the company’s revenues 10 percent per year to $765 million at the end of 2013, according to Confectionery News. (Godiva, a private company, is headquartered in New York City, with international headquarters in London, and manufacturing in Reading, PA, and Brussels, Belgium. After 10 years at the helm, Goldman decided to leave the company, and Mohamed Elsarky, was named Godiva CEO in June 2014.)

Every day, Marberger watches the growth rates in every market where Godiva exists. He keeps an eye on old and new points of distribution in each market. Godiva’s retail stores (more than 600 around the world) are its primary outlets, but in North America, Europe, and Asia, select department stores — Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Harrods, Galeries Lafayette, Takshimaya — also sell the premium Godiva product. The company is diligent not to over-distribute its chocolates, but “you don’t want to be so exclusive that people don’t know where you are,” says Marberger. That said, mass distribution channels — including Internet sales — have beckoned Godiva in.

Prior to 2009, Godiva sold no bags of wrapped chocolates. But the concept got considerable discussion at leadership meetings. The new platform, Godiva Individually Wrapped Chocolates (IWC), would not offer breadth of choice for real chocolate aficionados. Nor would IWC have that gorgeous package — gold ballotin, the box tied up with a silky ribbon — that suggests the worthiness of the recipient of a formal Godiva gift. But IWC would open new doors and provide the same Godiva quality for casual gifting occasions.

Marberger says the decision had the potential to impact shareholder returns either positively or negatively. IWC allowed Godiva to sell through such mass merchandisers as Target, Kohl’s, and drugstores. “The challenge of that is that if you look at the different channels … everyone has a different brand and promotional arrangement, so there was a lot of conversation about the best Godiva expansion strategy.”

The company tweaked its positioning from a historical focus on chocolate gifting to offering customers the “best of everything chocolate,” with more usage occasions. Godiva would henceforth be aspirational, accessible, and relevant.

A Passion for Brands

Marberger, who grew up in Norristown, PA, spent a decade at Campbell Soup, being trained — as large, successful food companies do — in thinking through the organization’s larger objectives and goals. That background, following a six-and-a-half-year stint in public accounting at Price Waterhouse (where, incidentally, he met his wife, Doreen), serves him well in prioritizing the key issues in making what can be tough calls and in staying on top of the highly competitive chocolate confections business.

His career trajectory was not an accident. He had strong career aspirations and his bosses knew that. Marberger, 49, says the path to Godiva began when Price Waterhouse gave him exposure to manufacturing and consumer goods. “I got put on the Campbell’s account and realized I loved working for a consumer packaged goods brand. I loved going into a store and seeing the Campbell’s Soup products on shelves and talking to people about whether they liked the product, and why they liked it,” he says.

At Campbell, Marberger, who has an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, worked for a time in the corporate development and strategy department,giving his resume greater breadth than traditional CFOs’. At Godiva, he says, his role as head of strategy is not so much seeking out opportunities for expansion. His job is to understand what Yildiz Holding expects from Godiva, in terms of growth, profit, and cash flow. Godiva business leaders “have tremendous experience in the food and retail industry,” he says. They don’t need him to tell them about the competitive situation. As head of strategy he plays a critical role in understanding “what our parent company is looking for, and then figuring out what our strategic priorities are and where we should allocate capital in order to increase shareholder value.”

For instance, expansion into China, which began in 2009 with the opening of a Godiva retail store in Shanghai, “is going to cost money. We can’t expand into China and then set overly aggressive bottom-line targets,” says Marberger. “That wouldn’t work.” The strategy there is to proceed step-by-step with premium retail positioning.

Japan is an important, profitable market for Godiva. So Marberger has to ask, “For every incremental investment dollar, are we better off investing in new stores in Japan or in new stores in China, or … [for] our manufacturing facility to give us a new capability?” He adds, “Those decisions are not always easy to make. But, we’re making them based on a combination of good intelligence and experience from the leadership team.”

His CFO role and his strategic role are very intertwined, but his financial orientation is, it could be said, his dominant ingredient. “In the end, it’s how we allocate capital across Godiva’s great portfolio to maximize long-term returns for our owner. That’s what it really comes down to, in addition to giving consumers the best chocolate in the world.”

Working His Way Out of His Job

In 2003, Marberger left Campbell Soup Company, where he was vice president of finance for the Food and Beverage division, to become CFO of Tasty Baking Company, a publicly traded company with revenues of $250 million, and purveyor of the iconic Philadelphia cupcake and snacks brand, Tastykake. For the first time he was responsible for investor relations, quarterly conference calls, and completing SEC filings.

Still, despite the differences between multibillion-dollar Campbell and the $250-million Tasty Baking Company, Marberger drew on his experience when making the transition to his new position. At Campbell, he had held many different jobs, with the financial planning and analysis functions all having sizable teams. “In some ways, it’s more difficult to be the CFO of a middle-market company than a large company because you don’t have as many resources available to you.” He adds: “Once you get CFO experience like that, I think that translates to any size company and makes you a more diverse and complete business leader.”

Clearly, Marberger relishes such challenges. In fact, his personal philosophies include “Work your way out of your job,” which he describes as doing such a great job that you achieve leverage to move up to the next one. He says he still practices this philosophy and he gives that advice to financial leaders at Godiva. He believes in taking on new challenges and striving for excellence. Not long ago, Marberger heard a quote from the late Maya Angelou that has inspired him even more: “Dare to become something that you never thought you could be”.

Marberger came to Godiva in April 2008. The company had just been sold, and within a few months, the United States was in a major recession. National economies in other parts of the world were doing even worse. “That was a lot of adversity,” he says. “A lot of the trends in the business were really negative. It was hard to determine if they were negative because of the recession or because of the wrong focus on business priorities. I was brand-new at Godiva and focused my energies on figuring it all out.”

What did he do? “You have to break it down, one thing at a time. You want to know how the company got to where it is, but then you have to focus on overcoming its challenges and going forward.” Marberger continues: “When there are problems in business, I want to focus on the solution, and not on finger-pointing. It’s easy for someone to point out what is not working; it takes a real leader to mobilize people to fix it.”

Marberger’s passion for creating a winning environment wouldn’t let him do otherwise.

 

Copyright 2017