The corner office: Shelley Wallace

Owner of Hagensborg Chocolates

Why is she in the news?

Shelley Wallace just wanted to prove to her children she could accomplish something great, so in 2004 she quit her job as a waitress and started to work as a sales rep for Hagensborg Foods Ltd. Three years later, she bought the Burnaby-based company and rebranded it as Hagensborg Chocolates.

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This week, Wallace appeared on Dragons’ Den on CBC hoping for some investment money to shift her entire line of chocolates to fair trade and organic. In the end, Wallace backed out of the deal she made on the show, which would have secured the funds but lost her 50 per cent of her company, she told the NOW she’s proud of what she’s accomplished and excited for the future of her Burnaby business.

Here’s what she had to say about her journey as a businesswoman:

What was it like in the beginning?

It was pretty daunting and pretty hard. For so long I always felt like I had to prove myself, but I didn’t. I just put my foot to the metal and never looked back. When it was a tough day, I would just pick up the phone and make a sales call. That was my primary focus. It’s funny I landed some big accounts on some of the hardest days of my personal life. You just never know what’s on the next phone call.

What were the hours like?

Oh they were crazy, 13- and 14-hour days. It was really hard. I would say now, 10 years later, my kids, which are now teenagers – and plus now I have another one, I have a two-year-old – they appreciate that. So when I felt guilty, all those years of working too hard, it’s now they’ve reaped the benefits, they admire me – it’s awesome.

Why Burnaby?

I never was a Burnaby girl, I grew up in Victoria but Burnaby has everything. It’s huge, and it’s got such diversity.

What kind of challenges do you face?

When my third child was born, my focus was off the business, obviously, and it made me realize I am definitely the driver and pusher of this company. It was discouraging to see it wouldn’t be as good. But, also, as soon as I was back in the saddle it came back, but that was a tough year financially, and I always joke at the kids that we’re going to be living on macaroni and cheese. But we make it through. Other than that we’ve grown steadily every year, and being the 100 per cent shareholder, it’s a little tougher because I have to grow within my own means, so that’s always been a challenge.

What’s so great about owning a chocolate factory?

It’s just fun, it’s not like selling tape or screws. It’s a fun product and it gives a platform to be so creative.

What’s the industry like?

In the industry, you can go to a meeting wearing jeans because you’re in the food industry. It’s just funny that way. It’s kind of got a broad spectrum where you can put on a two-piece suit or a three-piece suit and be really professional or you can go right down to farming level and go to Ecuador and see the plantations. It’s just such an amazing industry.

Have you visited the farms where you buy your beans?

I think next year that’s the goal. I’m going to go see the plantations where I buy these damn beans from.

What bugs you about the industry?

I find it’s gotten a little snotty, and the misconception out there that if it’s not over 70 per cent chocolate, it’s not good enough chocolate. That bugs me. I like milk chocolate; it’s good, and the cocoa beans all come from the same frickin’ place.

So people are more into dark chocolate now?

Foodie people have gotten snotty, that’s all I’ve got to say. A KitKat bar is not bad once in a while.

But you make all kinds of chocolate, right?

Yeah, I’m not top-of-the-line artisanal chocolate, but I’m not conventional. So yeah, I’m in the snotty area, too, but I think it’s just so fun. There’s just so many aspects to chocolate.

If you weren’t the owner of a chocolate factory, what would you be doing?

Maybe real estate? Vancouver is nuts. I should have done that to be honest with you. I’d probably be really rich by now.

When you’re not working, what do you do?

I play with my two-year-old, and I drive my kids to sports. I love being a mom, I devote my weekends to them.

Have you reached success?

I think as an entrepreneur there’s always more (to do), but I think if I was to sit and take stock, I would feel I’ve achieved success by my kids being proud of me. … That was all I did it for, and the fact that my son wants to go to SFU and study business because he’s so inspired by it, and my daughter just is so proud to say her mom owns a chocolate factory, it just makes me feel very proud.

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