Established: November 2005
Speciality: Premium chocolates

The main concerns for most 15-year-old boys tends to be how their favourite football team is getting on or what video game to buy next, but Louis Barnett has more serious things on his mind, such as profit and loss accounts, ingredients sourcing and NPD.

That he set up confectionery company Chokolit in 2005 at the tender age of 13 is impressive enough. To have done so two years after dropping out of school because of dyslexia is nothing less than remarkable.

Alongside his home tutoring and with the help of parents Mary and Philip, who now work full-time alongside their son, he began experimenting with chocolate and was soon developing his own unique products.

Chokolit is so-called because of Barnett's phonetic spelling of the word chocolate. One of its biggest USPs is the fact that its handmade Belgian chocolates are packaged in a box made entirely of chocolate.

Products include an 80g chocolate box containing chocolate-covered mints and the company is currently finalising a larger box that will hold nine different chocolates.

The company says this point of difference is the reason for its success in getting that all-important listing. Barnett sent a sample to buyers at Waitrose in February 2006 and they were so impressed that two days later they requested a meeting.

On the back of the meeting the family secured a £5,000 grant from regional development agency Advantage West Midlands and dad Philip quit his job to focus on the business and ensure it could meet its production requirements.

In February this year Chokolit mades its first delivery of the 80g chocolate box to Waitrose. It now has listings in six stores and expects to have hit 180 in time for Christmas.

The company will also have secured listings in 300 Sainsbury's stores by the end of the year and is developing five or six products exclusively for the retailer, including creations for Valentine's Day, Easter and Mothers' Day.

“We'd never imagined we'd get Chokolit into supermarkets in our first year,” says Barnett. “We thought we could sustain ourselves with the independents, which is fine if you're just making some jam to sell on the side, but a lot of these businesses only buy local produce. The nature of chocolate is that it can be mass-produced to good quality, so it makes sense to also supply to supermarkets.”

The company is in the middle of its first major expansion. It has shipped in chocolate-making machinery from Belgium and production has moved to a site in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Demand is such that the family expects to have outgrown even this facility by 2008.

In fact, keeping Chokolit's growth in check is one of the hardest tasks facing the company. Importers from New York, Tokyo and Europe have expressed interest but Barnett has so far eschewed the limelight in an effort to avoid overexposure - or disappoint potential customers.

“A PR company in New York wanted to write a story on us, but we had to refuse,” says Barnett. “We're not ready to cope with the possible demand and we don't want to turn clients down. Most companies have problems finding customers but we're fighting to keep them away. It's frustrating, but we don't have the infrastructure.”

Nonetheless, he is keen to turn Chokolit's expanding production capacity towards foreign markets in the future. “By next year I hope to be distributing at least to Europe, and we're developing a line tailored for the Japanese market.”

To handle Chokolit's rapid growth, the company employs a full-time secretary and a projects manager, but remains a family business. Louis develops the recipes, while Mary brings her skills as a muralist to the design and Philip, a former occupational hygienist, helps to ensure hygiene and production standards are met.

Barnett is reluctant to imply any seniority but it is clear that he's the driving force. When buyers met the family in the past they assumed his parents couldn't find a babysitter, but when he started talking they soon realised that it was he who was the brains behind the business.

Rather than being a hindrance, Barnett believes his age has been advantageous. “I'm anxious to achieve as much with the business as I can right now, because I'll turn 16 soon, and the story won't be quite so interesting.”

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