The Key to Success: Personalization, Innovation and Sustainable Development. How Gudrun takes Belgian chocolates very personally. Interview with Sofie De Lathouwer, CEO Gudrun
In the chocolate industry, innovation is key if you want to stay relevant. Personalization is one of the main drivers. Your own recipe, your own logo, your own packaging… just name it. Nothing seems to be impossible. However, personalization can only work if you have a flexible work force that makes this personalized chocolate dream work. From designers to chefs… everyone has a fair share.
Within Gudrun Group, we follow an internal program that is based on five values. We simply call it “Gudrun’s Recipe for Success”. They all start with the letter ‘S’ and are used daily for talking about our performance and continuous improvement path. The first one is Safety, because we want our employees to feel safe and good. Number 2 is Stability as we all want to feel at home. Thirdly, we have Service, not just because of customer intimacy, but also because we are proud of what we do. Simplicity triggers mutual understanding and, last but definitely not least, Squad is about feeling united. Ultimately, our ability to work as a team is our biggest strength.
What kind of company is Gudrun Group?
Gudrun is mainly known as a premium private label producer of Belgian chocolates and truffles. Since 1942, we are passionate about Belgian chocolates and craftmanship. We create our fillings in small batches in our kitchen to create true moments of indulgence. We offer assortment boxes for many occasions. The Christmas season still represents our biggest business, but other celebration moments are gaining momentum. Our sister company in Poland, acquired in 2017, is even going the extra mile with the high-end Chocolissimo brand: The Taste of Special Moments is at the heart of this business.
Our Group has a strong focus on people: from supplier to consumer. And chocolate is the perfect ingredient. It makes many people smile. On top of that, we take important steps together to deal with today’s societal and environmental challenges. In Belgium, we are part of Beyond Chocolate. This initiative unites several partners in our mission to develop a sustainable Belgian chocolate industry. Child labor, deforestation and a fair income for the cocoa farmers are three important topics to be tackled in the upcoming years.
Do you have a plan to tackle these challenges?
I truly believe it’s important that the CEO leads by example. For this reason, I am part of a sustainability working group that we started some time ago. Together with other colleagues from different departments, we defined a roadmap based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, as guiding principles. Those 17 goals have become a common language worldwide, used by many stakeholders when acting and talking about sustainability.
Initially, we did not know where to start internally. During our workshops, we invited the Flemish entrepreneurial network VOKA, which is a Chamber of Commerce. They’ve helped us in validating our realizations, as well as our future ambitions on sustainability. For next year, we’ve defined 10 actions to be finalized by the end of 2024. The VOKA commission will assess if this progress will be rewarded with the SDG pioneer status. I am really excited to notice that the initiatives we took naturally are seen as important contributors to ‘living the SDGs’ as a company.
Can you give an example of something Gudrun is doing?
In the context of climate action, we have started mapping our CO2 emissions. While Europe’s Green Deal aims for climate neutrality by 2050, some of our customers want to achieve zero emission by 2040. That’s why we first needed to see where we stand today. Together with our partners, we explore how we can contribute, and we also monitor whether our actions actually have an impact.
Last month, for example, we installed 1,650 solar panels, covering the entire surface of the roof at our Belgian headquarters. We were already purchasing 100% renewable energy, but now we can generate 16% of our own energy consumption.
For a company such as Gudrun, responsible consumption and production must also be a focus point. What are the biggest challenges?
First of all, the cocoa business! I’ve already mentioned our Beyond Chocolate membership. Gudrun uses 100% sustainably sourced chocolate for our delicacies. This is just a first step. More steps need to be taken within the industry to support the cocoa farmers.
Secondly, more and more customers are looking for alternative packaging solutions. Think of reducing weight by using less cardboard or reducing the environmental impact by avoiding plastics. At Gudrun Group, we will never claim to be entirely plastic-free. Plastic is difficult to replace, as the material helps to protect the quality of our chocolates. Moreover, our products are mostly used to celebrate special occasions. They are purchased as a gift, so we want to create a unique experience. Reduced packaging is very important, but it must never lead to reduced elegance.
Of course, we do look for solutions that limit the use of plastic and cardboard packaging. The different brands within our group can strengthen each other in this regard. For example, in my opinion, Chocolissimo has the most beautiful plastic-free packaging solutions in the market. But producing the same package in Belgium would be extremely costly. That’s why we send some of our chocolates to Poland to be packaged by Chocolissimo. I admit this doesn’t sound like the most eco-friendly solution, but we always ensure our trucks are fully loaded and it allows us to significantly reduce our plastic consumption. It shows how powerful the combination of our companies can be.
Waste streams are another challenge. In the food industry, we deal with a lot of waste. Therefore, we have started to explore the potential of upcycling and valorizing those waste streams. We look for materials with no value in the food chain that can be upgraded and become ingredients in our chocolates.
The fourth challenge is how to deal with the food trends. Which ones are likely to stay? We see that for the gifting business, people still choose indulgence with a hint of planet friendliness. For individual consumption, we have many answers (from plant based to high cacao solutions) though fat and sugar will remain important ingredients to make this comfort food so tasty.
You mentioned the importance of people. How does Gudrun Group include its people in this story?
Our motto is ‘Chocolates, we take it personally’. This refers to the products we personalize for our customers, but also to our employees who have a strong heartbeat for the company and its success. We put a lot of effort into communication. We organize info sessions, publish newsletters, share social media posts, and so on. From next year, we will have monthly ‘coffee/teatime’ moments with me and one of my management members. Everyone is free to join. We noticed that for some people, the threshold to ask questions was still too high. So, this initiative will help us to create more openness and increase our employee engagement. Especially if you want to innovate, you have to get everyone on board. You need an innovative culture where people feel encouraged to share ideas.
How important are diversity and inclusion for Gudrun Group?
We have a wide diversity of nationalities and cultures in our Squad. Encouraging fair opportunities for anyone is very important at Gudrun. I am very proud to see the “united colors” of Gudrun.
We currently employ 55% women and 45% men in Belgium, so we can definitely say there is a good balance, also in our management team. Of course, having a female CEO helps. But ultimately, I believe that a woman should never be appointed simply because you need a female director in your board. You should appoint her because you feel she is the right person for the job.
Fortunately, we are blessed with a good mix of talented people. They will be important assets in our quest for a chocolate experience that is sustainable, and of course delicious.
SOFIE DE LATHOUWER – CEO Gudrun Group
An alumnus of KU Leuven, whose entire career revolves around chocolate. Sofie gained valuable experience at Barry Callebaut, the worldwide leader in chocolate manufacturing. From sales to marketing, she has enjoyed her last role as general manager in one of the most premium divisions of the BC group. In 2021, she decided to lead Gudrun Group towards a new success story. Apart from chocolate, she has a genuine passion for people, bringing them to the next level and inspiring her team members to work towards a common goal, in which creativity and sustainability play an important role.
Last Updated on November 30, 2023 by Anastazja Lach