Exclusive feature: Behind the scenes with Prestat’s new CEO Micaela Illy
Becoming CEO of Prestat while still in her 20s may have been a daunting prospect for Micaela Illy, but as Neill Barston discovers, she appears to be taking it very much in her stride
Being full of ambition, determination and a willingness to engage with challenges is serving Micaela Illy well, having just being named CEO of British-based Prestat chocolates. The 28 year-old businesswoman appears brimming with ideas for steering the classic confectionery firm forward in the crowded premium chocolate market.
But as she acknowledges, having a heritage of more than a 100 years of production and close associations with author Roald Dahl, who is said to have been inspired to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by his love of the company, has leant Prestat a unique business heritage. See our exclusive video with Micaela here.
That’s even before you consider the fact it is one of only a handful of companies to possess a Royal Warrant, enabling it to produce confectionery for the Queen. That presents a whole other level of pressure, as it sets about creating a special line of treats to celebrate Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee year.
Clearly, major tests still lie ahead, with the epic rollercoaster journey of the coronavirus pandemic keeping Micaela extremely busy. “It’s been challenging, but incredibly exciting. I’ve had executive experience through having a start-up business in Italy, which was the first time I’d made executive decision making, so that really helped when joining Prestat.
“What I hadn’t experience of was in managing 100 people working in a factory environment,” reflects the freshly appointed CEO of the task before her, which she is relishing. To her credit, she admits there’s been a notably steep early learning curve, after last year serving as its chief operating officer, yet it seems it is all swiftly clicking into place.
As she notes, there’s some level of pressure to live up to the family’s expectations – including maintaining the standards set by her father, Riccardo Illy, president of the global Illy coffee dynasty that took on ownership of Prestat three years ago. From Confectionery Production’s previous editorial focus on the business under its latest ownership, it appears there’s a strong appreciation for the historic brand first founded in London by French-born chocolatier Antoine Dufour in 1902, who saw it swiftly become a truly international operation. Today, its exclusive range of high grade truffles and chocolate are enjoyed around the world, and remain a favourite within the UK’s Royal Household, as well as a wealth of discerning chocolate fans throughout Europe and far further afield. “What I found when joining the business that with all of its personalities, there was a core group of people who wanted change, to improve the company through reviving it back to its glory days. That gave me the strength to think that there’s no problem that can’t be solved,” she says of the considerable initial hurdles to address.
To her credit, she remains refreshingly open about the large scale of the tasks required to deliver improvements against a backdrop of considerably disrupted business conditions relating to the pandemic. She explains that it’s the ‘short term challenges that are often the hardest to deal with,” such as a shortage of delivery drivers, a lack of agency workers due to Brexit impacting on the levels of available labour, as well as coping with Covid workplace absences. Having an experienced and dedicated team at the heart of its operations is clearly a positive for the West London-based business, which is continuing to thrive in spite of the tests before it. “
As well as these short term issues, my role is in managing the long-term sustainability of the business, so trying to compromise between these two aspects is the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” notes Micaela, who says there’s still some way to go, though she believes the business is in a comparatively healthy position. Perhaps one of the strongest elements in helping deliver its ongoing success is the sourcing partnership that the company now benefits from with Italian-based premium chocolate business, Domori, which places an especially high value on delivering ethically traded cocoa of the highest standard for Prestat’s ranges.
While the company’s previous sourcing had been focused on delivering fine quality chocolate, the decision to switch to the
Torino-based business for its supplies, is in its view, a game changing move.
As the CEO enthuses, there are so many positives to her role, and she views it as something of a privilege to be taking on
such a prime post at a relatively young age.
“I absolutely love being in London and I’m finding Prestat such an interesting project, as on the one hand, you have this fully
grown, 120 year-old heritage brand, yet the challenges and opportunities of a start-up business. There’s so much innovation in
the products and processes, so it feels like a perfect alignment of the stars that I’m here to be part of it,” notes the young executive.
The Roald Dahl link
As she enthuses, the company’s fine history and literary links remains a huge unique selling point for its operations with the likes of Roald Dahl, who even used the brand as the basis for an adult novel, My Uncle Oswald. The effortlessly stylish chocs have had many other famous fans down the generations, with many in the acting world Stephen Fry, and late Sir John Gielgud, admirers of the brand, as were princess Diana and The Queen Mother – who also afforded a Royal Warrant upon the manufacturer, which remains a major privilege.
“From every single person who works here, there’s a sense of honour and pride at being recognised by the Royal family, which is incredible. The best thing about its history is that is has always kept a very flamboyant, positive and joyous vibe. “You can see that in the packaging, recipes that are very creative, and I hope you can see that in the factory. We want to make chocolate that makes people happy – and to do that, our own team has to be happy,” says Micaela. As she notes, its ambitious goals may well have been impacted by ongoing challenges and uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, yet there’s been a commendable sense of determination from its teams.
According to the CEO, the recent Christmas season offered another highlight for the business, with the company bringing a strong range of new products to market. While she says that in the initial trial phase, some of its series may not quite make it to full commercial production, there’s a strong vein of ideas and concepts that continues to help make the company stand out. This includes a particularly successful collaboration with the John Lewis group for special festive bars that were reportedly well received.
But its attention will now be fully trained on marking the Queen’s jubilee, marking 70 years since her accession to the throne. This remarkable achievement is set to gain global coverage, and Prestat is sure to be playing its part in the commemorations. “We’ve partnered up to be part of the parade for the jubilee, and have a chocolate line with a lot of British flavours for it, so I can’t wait for that. Another aspect linked to that will be for Easter, where we do a special humongous egg for the Royal Household with hundreds of truffles, which is always a moment that brings the whole team together,” adds Micaela of their highly coveted regal connection.
As she stresses, it’s not simply the most illustrious customers that are important to the company, and its team notably delights in crafting confectionery series that are as memorable as they are enjoyable, aiming to live up to the heritage of the brand. Clearly, there’s plenty of momentum for the company is it continues to navigate ongoing sector challenges, yet under its youthful management, prospects for the business appear decidedly bright.