Behind the scenes: Ritter Sport aims high for a sustainable confectionery future
Delivering chocolate confectionery with a core focus on sustainable production is paying dividends for Ritter Sport, as Neill Barston discovers speaking to Benedict Daniels, managing director of its UK division
Being part of a vibrant family-owned confectionery brand with over a century’s history and global recognition is something Ben Daniels appears notably passionate about. (see our exclusive video interview with him here).
As the UK division director for Ritter Sport explains, recent events have been far from normal amid the pandemic, yet he feels there are high hopes ahead as the business continues to expand.
The German-founded business, which has more than a century of history, now has a global turnover of around £500 million, has seen its international presence increase amid its core focus on delivering premium chocolate ranges with a strong emphasis on sustainable values.
Its careful approach to targeting market growth has seen its presence grow in export markets including the UK, where the business has gained a number of enhanced listings that have further seen its stock continue to rise amid a competitive confectionery landscape.
With additional strategies including a direct-to-consumer website launch bolstering its potential, the company appears well placed to start the New Year in a positive position.
Clearly, there has been plenty of hard work to maintain its position, which has required a consistent stream of innovation and product development continuing amid the pandemic – which continues to pose the entire sector trading challenges. “I think we’ve done well. In March 2020 we made the decision to work from home, I remember asking people to get their laptop and assume that they might be away for a few weeks, and we ended up doing that for 18 months. So, to adapt to that huge change wasn’t without its challenges, but I have to pay credit to the team for doing a fantastic job,” notes Ben regarding the major business disruption.
He notes with some sympathy that its own internal tests in terms of maintaining a sense of coherent operating focus have been eclipsed by those of their retail partners, who have kept store shelves supplied consistently during pandemic conditions.
As for his own experiences, having joined the company eight years ago, he is based with his family in Denby Dale, West Yorkshire, a short distance from the company’s UK division headquarters in Leeds. From this northern stronghold, its teams have helped unveil a wide range of releases for the market, including a new vegan chocolate series that hit shelves amid Veganuary.
On a personal level, Ben says it’s certainly been an eventful trajectory as it has sought to establish its foothold through making some shrewd business decisions. “When we inherited it as an affiliate business in 2014, there were a handful of customers, but now we have around 115 accounts, distribution across every channel in the UK.
“We have also increased our relevance in terms of tailoring formats for our market and how it consumes chocolate. It segments into five broad groups and we have a strong presence in all of those, so I think we punch above our weight,” he enthuses of its operations, with the team anticipating a positive start to the year.
As for its heritage, reflecting on its history, Ben notes that it’s been particularly beneficial to have a strong brand story, with the original Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt business being delivered by Alfred and Clara Ritter in 1912 in Germany. Significantly, perhaps its greatest breakthrough came two decades later in 1932 when Clara suggested a highly distinctive new square shape design, after noting traditional shaped chocolate didn’t fit into sports jackets. Nearly a century later, the format is still popular.
While there have been some steady evolutions in its history, there have equally been some stand-out bold moves too – as witnessed last summer with the company becoming a carbon neutral business.
According to Ben, this has resulted from decades of dedication to sustainability within its operations, which began with a pledge around 20 years ago to reduce greenhouse emissions at its German production sites that has led to its present policy.
This strong level of environmental focus and awareness of climate change impacts has continued, even as the business expanded its overall operations to include a further production plant acquired from Mars in Austria to meet global demand for its ranges.
There has also been notable progress in terms of its sourcing policies. “One of the keys to our success has been with our value chain, and our sustainability credentials. We own and operate our own cacao plantation in Nicaragua, called El Cacao, which is about 2,500 hectares in total, half the area is permanently protected, and the wildlife and biodiversity is incredible.
“The other half is cultivated – the business acquired the land in 2012. They have grown two million cacao plants from seed and are now being harvested within an agroforestry methodology in looking to create diversity of plant life to ensure the most sustainable farm possible,” he enthuses of its Central American facility. He adds he’s been greatly encouraged by the reaction to its story from its customers when discussing its cacao farming. The site recently made headlines for delivering a new dark milk bar range featuring 100% certified sustainable cocoa.
“Having facilities like that is one of the reasons I love working at Ritter, and one of the key differentiators we have as a brand. Every member of the team buys into that,” adds Ben, who says a recent highlight came with virtual exchange between his team in Leeds and their farm-based contacts and colleagues in Nicaragua. In terms of events within the UK, he concedes that while there’s a huge level of industry competition, he feels there remain key reasons to be optimistic.
As the MD notes, the “future of the business is looking bright,” and has clearly benefited from having a well-defined approach to sustainable production values, which are reflected in an ongoing growth in demand for its ranges across its global territories