The taste of success

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Allison Waggoner thought she’d done it all at Harry London Candies, the North Canton chocolate manufacturer that bears her grandfather’s name.

As a kid, she worked wherever her mother and father needed her, from the factory production line to the retail stores. During her tenure as director of marketing and new product development, she’d even recorded radio commercials.

But she was stunned when brother-in-law Peter Young, then Harry London’s president and CEO, walked into her office in early 2000 and asked her to serve as the company’s television pitchwoman on the Home Shopping Network.

The company had just inked a deal to develop and produce a few products to be included in the endless line-up of diverse items the Tampa, Fla.-based television network presents 24 hours a day, seven days a week. HSN executives wanted someone to go on the air and extol the virtues of Harry London confections, just as soap diva Susan Lucci peddles her collection of shoes and handbags and actress Suzanne Somers pushes her line of costume jewelry.

“Peter came into my office and asked, ‘Do you have a videotape of yourself?'” Waggoner, now 35, remembers. The fact that she had no on-camera experience hardly mattered — Young had already chosen Waggoner for the job because of her title and, she suspects, a lack of interest from brother Joe, the company’s vice president of technology and product development.

On March 1, 2000, she flew to Tampa to make her HSN debut with a 5-pound box of assorted chocolates, “nervous as all get-go.”

“I found out when I got down there that I was supposed to be there for a training day, but Peter had never given me the paperwork,” she says.

She also found out during a 5 p.m. production meeting that her 8 p.m. spot would be live, not taped as she had expected.

“It was horrible,” she admits. “I thought, ‘I won’t make it. I’ll get on the air and pass out.'”

Much to her surprise, Waggoner’s eight-minute appearance went off without a hitch. Now she regards her television stints as a matter of professional course. She estimates she’ll make 16 trips to Tampa between October 2001 and April 2002.

The chocolates are selling so briskly on HSN that they now warrant hour-long shows of their own. When the product Waggoner is touting is a “Today’s Special” (HSN’s featured offering of the day), she makes multiple appearances throughout the day, into the wee hours of the morning.

Waggoner says the company may sell 80,000 to 100,000 units during these 24-hour periods.

In fiscal year 2001, Harry London Candies’ gross sales totaled between $20 million and $30 million, she says. Ten to 15 percent of sales are from HSN orders.

“We went on the air thinking that we would have one or two items that we might feature seasonally through the year,” Waggoner says. “We’re now going into our second anniversary and selling huge volumes of multitudes of different packaging. Our customer base has almost quadrupled in the last two years.”

According to Waggoner, HSN contacted Harry London Candies about 3 1/2 years ago.

“Someone had recommended our chocolates,” she says. “They tried them and fell in love with them.”

She says that, unlike many companies that have brought their chocolates to a mass market, Harry London chocolates are still made by hand using her grandfather’s recipes, fresh cream and butter from local dairies, and the top 4 percent of cocoa beans.

“It’s very hard to find good chocolate anymore,” she says. “A lot of companies have done a lot of things to cheapen chocolate with ingredients or processes. You can add fillers. You can take out the cocoa butters, which are extremely pricey in today’s market, and put other fat solids in.”

After a year-and-a-half of negotiations, Waggoner made her debut on HSN with that 5-pound boxed assortment. Today, the company offers about 25 items on the air.

“We’ve sold over 50,000 of those this year alone on HSN,” Waggoner says.

Price is undoubtedly one reason; the box, which sells for more than $50 in retail stores, is sold for $24 on HSN. Waggoner admits profit margins are slim, from 10 to 20 percent. But she points out the company is able to move a large volume of product quickly, greatly reducing overhead.

“HSN has something like 4 million viewers,” she says. “It’s almost like an advertising tool for us, to get our chocolate into every home that we can possibly get it into and get that kind of exposure.”

Rex Mason, president and CEO of Harry London Candies, says the company’s HSN-generated sales over the last year were triple what they were the previous year.

“It’s a business that’s growing very rapidly, a very important part of our business, and one that we want to continue to develop,” he says. “Through the relationship with HSN, it helps us build awareness of the Harry London brand, so it’s a part of our broader marketing strategy.”

Mason says the company has not had to add to its approximately 250 employees to fill thousands of HSN orders within the stipulated 72 hours. Harry London manufactures a finite number of items for any given sale date. At the end of the 24-hour cycle, the network sends an electronic data file to Harry London, which it downloads and prints.

Each order, Mason says, is accompanied by a bar code. The order is packed, and the corresponding bar code is scanned to produce a UPS mailing label bearing the HSN customer’s name and address.

“We (send) a lot of things UPS anyway,” Mason says. “But as we get bigger and do bigger quantities, we’ve got to apply more and more technology to remain efficient.”

Waggoner scoffs at the notion that she is, as she jokingly puts it, “a national television personality.” But some people do recognize her, even without the on-air hairstyle and makeup.

“It’s not embarrassing, but it’s a little awkward because I’m kind of a private person,” she says of the attention.

Her television appearances aren’t the only new thing she’s seen at the company; she’s also seen changes at the home office. Many of those changes were instigated by Mason, a one-time general manager at Matrix Essentials, a Solon-based manufacturer of hair-care products owned by Bristol-Myers Squibb during his tenure.

It was the 50-year-old Mason who replaced Young a little more than a year ago when Young returned to Washington, D.C., with Waggoner’s sister, Mercedes, to pursue a career in international law.

“When we as a family asked Peter (Young) to come and join us … he said that he would stay for a maximum of two years,” Waggoner says. “He ended up staying for seven.”

Mason says he’s spent his first year at Harry London implementing systems and processes appropriate to the company’s size and mentions financial management systems as an example.

“If you’re going to grow and double your sales in a couple of years, you’ve got to have sound control systems in place,” he says.

He’s also spent considerable time and effort on improving operational performance and customer service.

“When I arrived, customers told me, ‘You have the best products in the world, but we can never count on getting them on time,” he says.

According to his figures, productivity is up about 20 percent from a year ago, and workers have done “a substantially better job” of meeting delivery dates.

“Most corporate people come in and say, ‘How do we do it faster? How do we do it cheaper? How do we make more money?'” Waggoner says. “Rex has instead said, ‘How do we do this better without compromising the quality?’ He’s brought a lot of new ideas to the table.”

One challenge Mason faces is expanding the Harry London brand name “in a way that is consistent with the quality for which the company stands.” Another is to continue increasing sales, something he says his predecessor accomplished.

“We had a fair amount of private-label business that we did,” he says. “We are doing less of that and emphasizing brand development much more. We have to continue to make that shift.” How to reach: Harry London Candies, (330) 966-5531