Mars buys UK-based Hotel Chocolat with ‘international possibilities’ on the horizon: ‘Watch this space’

In big news for the confectionery sector, US-headquartered Mars Inc. has announced plans to acquire listed British chocolate retailer Hotel Chocolat for more than half a billion pounds.

The companies have been in talks for a ‘number of months’, revealed Andrew Clarke, global president of Marks Snacking, during a press briefing earlier today. Responding to suggestions Mars was paying a premium price for Hotel Chocolat at £534m (€610m), Clarke said the confectionery major is thinking long-term.

Hotel Chocolat adds new capabilities to Mars’ current portfolio (which boasts household-name brands Twix, Maltesers, and of course, Mars) Clarke told journalists, and the company sees ‘shared areas of possibilities’ in the future.

From Hotel Chocolat’s perspective, co-founder and CEO Angus Thirlwell said Mars will be an ‘excellent steward’ of the brand and is ‘well positioned’ to support Hotel Chocolat in its next phase of growth. That next phase will see Hotel Chocolat double down in the UK market, with Mars’ Clarke suggesting ‘international possibilities’ could come down the line: ‘watch this space’.

‘With Mars, we can scale much more quickly’

Hotel Chocolat is a British chocolate manufacturer and cocoa grower. Beginning as a niche start-up, today the business makes most of its products at its innovation centre in Cambridgeshire and sells through its network of bricks-and-mortar stores, as well as D2C and via resale partners.

Despite expanding its presence to Japan and the US, Hotel Chocolat predominantly operates within the UK market. But the business has the potential for ‘substantial growth’ outside the UK, according to CEO Thirlwell.

“We know our brand resonates with consumers overseas as well, but past operational supply chain challenges have held us back,” ​he told delegates. Specifically, the company found manufacturing and distribution logistics in those regions challenging. More capital and scale would be required to build its presence in those markets.

“As an independent business, we would eventually get there. But this proposition allows us to connect with the Mars platform where there is an unparalleled wealth of knowledge, resources, and skills that is going to accelerate our ability to follow up on that potential.”

From Mars’ perspective, attention is laser-focused on the UK market, at least for the time-being. The confectionery major plans to continue to invest in building out Hotel Chocolat’s UK store footprint and has confirmed manufacturing sites will be retained.

“We’re not in a position to speculate about the future potential [of market expansion],” ​said Mars’ Clarke, “but what I can say is that the number one priority is the UK and making sure the UK is a real success… And of course there are international possibilities in the future.”

Is Hotel Chocolat’s product quality under threat?

Hotel Chocolat is known for its ‘More Cacao Less Sugar’ ethos. Over the years, the company has been aspiring to ‘reinvent’ chocolate, with part of this mission encouraging consumers and brands to pay close attention to ingredients lists.

In the past, Hotel Chocolat has even campaigned​ for tighter regulations into how the term ‘chocolate’ is used: if cocoa is the number of ingredient in a product then it merits the title, but if sugar is the leading ingredient the product would be better labelled ‘confectionery’.

In the UK, the number one product in a Mars bar is sugar, followed by glucose syrup. Cocoa butter and cocoa mass come in at fourth and fifth position respectively. Mars’ takeover of Hotel Chocolat begs the question: will the latter’s premium quality be compromised?

Both parties stressed that under Mars, consumers can expect the same high quality of Hotel Chocolate products. Mars has experience in purchasing entrepreneur-led businesses and maintaining premium positioning, we were told.

“We have a real track record of nurturing, protecting and accelerating brands and keeping that entrepreneurial nature,” ​said Clarke, citing examples Royal Canin pet food and KIND bars. Since purchasing Royal Canin in 2005, the brand has ‘consistently grown’: “Actually if anything, we’ve brought more science and more ‘premiumness’ to the proposition.”

Since onboarding KIND, the brand has expanded into 30 international markets.

“We want to make sure that we respect and continue to build on the foundations of Hotel Chocolat, which is a very authentic, contemporary, premium chocolate proposition.”

The Mars and Hotel Chocolat executives also poured cold water on suggestions Mars would start selling other brands in Hotel Chocolat stores, or that the Hotel Chocolat brand would secure more grocery listings. “None of those things are part of our early strategic discussions,” ​said Thirlwell.

‘Not a hostile takeover’

Mars expects the Hotel Chocolat Group’s management and employees to stay on after the acquisition, with Thirlwell continuing as CEO the business.

The company is retaining all manufacturing and distribution sites and does not envisage making any ‘material’ reduction to overall headcount. Once the acquisition is completed, a ‘limited’ number of back-office and listed company functions may become unnecessary.

On the £534m valuation, the CEO described it as ‘very respectable’, adding that the duo is ‘very pleased with the result’. Hotel Chocolat welcomes the acquisition, with Thirlwell stressing it is ‘not a hostile takeover’.

This is something Hotel Chocolat has wanted as much as Mars, he told journalists. “This is very much a joint plan and we are both very excited about what it is going to bring.”

While Thirlwell is staying on, co-founder Peter Harris is bowing out. Each will have made around £144.7m in the acquisition, and Harris plans to retire. Thirlwell said he will reinvest 80% of his shareholding back into the business. Harris will also reinvest ‘a fair proportion’. “We very much believe in the future,” ​said Thirlwell.

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