The sweetest thing

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You might not believe this but arguably one of Australia’s greatest purveyors of fine chocolate is a reformed investment banker. And his pathway out of high finance, to something that some say is on par with sex, came from Shane Hills’ willingness to give free business advice.

Hills was a regular at a Melbourne-based candy store called Suga, which was famous for making confectionary on show for potential customers. Not one to be afraid of offering business ideas, he had a chat to the then business owner and not long after he and his wife-to-be Mirka opened Suga’s new Chadstone store. And in typical investment banker style, along with his father-in-law, they staged a buyout.

“I was enthusiastically looking for an opportunity to get started in business,” Hills said, thinking back on the time. “Our customers now can visit any of our five stores and experience rock candy being made.”

After getting a taste for the fun and the money that can be made out of sugar, the next business hit was to be Koko Black.

The website Melbourne Coffee Review got a little distracted about the chocolate experience at the Lygon Street Koko Black in Carlton, forgetting it was supposed to be talking about coffee beans rather than cocoa beans.

“If you love chocolate, and I do mean LOVE chocolate, and all things chocolate, then this is truly the place for you!” the site’s writer proclaimed. “For me, this is a chocoholic’s heaven, beyond compare!”

Hills said the movie Chocolat was a business inspiration and it comes with a very different feel and customer base.

“Chocolate is a food of romance and mystery and for female customers,” he suggested. “A bit naughty and with a ‘I really shouldn’t but I can’t resist’ flavour.”

And while Koko Black has the beyond business aura, especially after absorbing Hills’ passion for his creation, there has been a cold and calculating business approach, typical of a competitive investment banker. There has even been a role for an enlightened government.

“We started with the assistance of a grant from the City of Melbourne for our first salon,” he explained. “It took 18 months from idea to launch.”

The research was both arduous and a labour of love including Hills attending famous chocolate schools such as Germany’s ZDS Chocolate School and recruiting a world renown chocolate master from the home of chocolate — Bruges in Belgium.

The first store opened in 2003 in Melbourne’s Royal Arcade and there are now a total of six Koko Blacks in Melbourne, one in Perth and one in Canberra.

And while the investment banker inside of him says grow, his chocolatier side tempers it all.

“It’s natural that we want to grow but not at the expense of quality,” he insisted. “Overall, I believe our authenticity and congruency sets Koko Black apart from other chocolate stores.”

It might be something that developed after his time in banking, and as a consequence of engaging with the highly emotional product called chocolate, but Hills stands out as unique from ordinary folk when he explains what motivates him, though he shares something special with a minority.

“The desire to create something special,” he admitted motivates him. “The bouts of pure happiness among all emotions that go with something you love. The feeling of adventure. The responsibility of it all – to my family and to everyone in the business. The dream that I can devote and sustain my life to it and sometimes, the reaction to inner doubt.”

In case you missed it, what you have just read is a priceless insight into the core of a business builder. It could have been said by Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Anita Roddick of the Body Shop – it’s like water for chocolate for anyone wanting what Hills is making.

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