How a Black Hole Became a Halo

By Darwent, Charles | Management Today, March 1994 | Go to article overview

How a Black Hole Became a Halo


Darwent, Charles, Management Today


Sugar-replacement products were big in the late '70s. For the then Holgate, life was sweet. Then came the Cambridge Diet, a low-cal calamity that shed pounds from the company's profits. Humbled, Holgate became Halo, and the fattening up process began afresh.

The blood still drains from Peter Saunders' cheek when he describes the vision that haunted his dreams in the months leading up to the April 1992 takeover of his company, Halo Foods. 'Once I had decided to buy the business, again,' Saunders winces, 'I was suddenly overcome by this terrible image of the company as a large hole in the ground. It was a hole I knew I could only fill by shovelling money into it. I shovelled and shovelled, but the hole didn't seem to get any further. I realised that if money couldn't fill it, I would eventually have to throw in my house as well. And every day, that house seemed to get nearer,' Saunders pushes an evocative ham sandwich across his desk, 'and nearer to the edge of the hole. That was the image I had. I did,' says Saunders, with a wan smile, 'concentrate the mind wonderfully.'

Welcome, gentle reader, to the sweet world of chocolate-bar manufacture. Or, to be absolutely precise, to the not-so-sweet world of chocolate-bar manufacture: for the raison d'etre of Halo Foods -- formerly Holgate Nutritional Foods, but felicitiously re-baptised at the time of Saunders' takeover -- is the production of that most perverse of comestibles, low-calorie chocolate.

Now, there may be those among Management Today's readership who have never heard of low-calorie chocolate. There may even be those of you who find the very idea of such a thing heinous: kin to such abominations against nature as alcohol-free wine and low-tar tobacco. If so, then chances are that you are male and over the age of 25. To women of a lesser vintage -- the market at which Halo Foods' flagship product, the Halo Bar, is targeted through advertising in magazines such as Chat, Looks and Cosmopolitan -- low-calorie chocolate apparently counts as one of the great panaceas of the 20th century, up there with penicillin and the Salk vaccine as a potential alleviator of human suffering.

Should this fact strike you as improbably, then consider the evidence. In year one of its existence, the turnover at Halo Foods' Welsh factory -- picturesquely set at the end of the Tywyn Vlaaey in Gwynedd -- was roughly 2 million [pounds]. Last year -- the Halo Bar's first -- that figure topped 5 million [pounds] and this year Saunders confidently expects it to hit 10 million [pounds]. What component of this sum is accounted for by his firm's eponymous bar, Halo's MD will not confirm but it is presumably of a magnitude adequate to explain why the once-haunted Saunders' now has a cheery mien.

If so, then it is a deservedly happy ending to a not always sufficiently happy commercial story. Back in the '50s, a Cotswold bee-keeper and avant la lettre hippy named James Holgate found the inhabitants of his hives being killed off by new-fangled crop spraying. Understandably huffed, Holgate took himself and his few remaining bees off to Aberaeron in rural West Wales. There, Holgate branched out into honey by-products -- most notably into the ice-cream eaten by Saunders and his wife (then trainee chemical engineers with -- aptly enough -- BP) while on a Welsh holiday in 1975.

Six monthd later, Saunders joined the firm as production manager, and six months after that persuaded Holgate to split the compant with him. 'I'd had a bug to have my own business but I knew I couldn't afford an oil refinery,' reasons Saunders. 'On the other hand, I also knew I liked food. So I said to Peter: "You do the bees" -- he had a very calm temperament, great for bee-keeping but not so good for factories--"and I'll do production." He sold me that side of the business for 10,000 [pounds] and privately lent me 10,000 [pounds] to buy it with.'

It was to number among the gentler of Saunders' forays into the world of confectionery. …

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