25 December 2010

Chocolate Wars - From Cadbury to Kraft: 200 years of sweet success and bitter rivalry

November 29, 2010
Sweet success ... Cadbury.
Sweet success ... Cadbury.
Reader rating:
Rating: 40 out of 5 stars (2 votes)
In the 1840s the Cadbury family was running a shoddy business peddling a poor product nobody wanted. Solid chocolate was yet to be invented; instead, it came as a dried block, flakes of which had to be chipped off in order to make hot cocoa drinks that tasted like potato flour. Most companies added brick dust for colouring.

Cadbury's inventions, such as a chocolate infused with moss, weren't exactly hits, and it didn't help that their travelling salesman was a Scot with an accent nobody could decipher.

Though it's written by a distant relative of the Cadbury clan, this isn't a corporate genealogy in the heroic mode. Chocolate Wars is popular history at its best, the ostensible subject just the stem from which branch digressions into vital topics such as slavery, war, international politics, unionism, the welfare state and the role of Snickers bars in all of this.

A gripping chapter follows the realisation in 1904 that the peace-loving Cadburys had been unwittingly sourcing cocoa beans from the stocks of ruthless slave owners. It's a turning point, when the flow of global capital has become so complex that it becomes impossible to know where one's money is going. It's also a reminder that for all their billion-dollar philanthropy, the empires of your Bill Gates and Warren Buffetts of today are likely built in part on the ill-treatment of invisible workers somewhere on the planet. It's how things work.

If all of this sounds rather dire, it's not. This is a charmingly written and lively book that develops the big picture through the accretion of tiny detail.

What makes the 19th-century chocolate makers of Britain so unusual is that they were all Quakers, a group that shunned the hierarchies and decoration of organised religion in favour of a private relationship with the divine. They were resolute pacifists who rejected all notions of class, believing that all humans are equal and that it is our duty to work for the good of our fellows.

The paradox is that companies that came to rule the confectionary world were founded by people whose faith was in solid opposition to today's business models. The amassing of personal wealth is anti-Quaker, and for much of the company's history the Cadburys, along with fellow chocolatiers from the Rowntree and Fry families, poured most of their profits into establishing charitable trusts and building model communities to break the cycle of poverty.

It may seem quaint to contemplate companies led by old-fashioned religious principles, but Chocolate Wars gently makes apparent that corporatism is a religion too, and one with a much murkier set of morals.

Throughout its history Cadbury had its rivals. The Frys and Rowntrees were oddly co-operative competitors, seeking to outsell each other but also lending a hand when times were tough. Across the Atlantic, wild and reckless Milton Hershey and cunning Forrest Mars both proved more potent threats, while Nestle is always a slightly sinister presence on the continent. When the death blow hits Cadbury, however, it's not from any of these competitors but from multinational hydra Kraft, which comes to represent everything the Cadburys of the 1840s abhorred.

One of the key tenets of the Quakers was to avoid debt, since an inability to honour your commitments could cause terrible misfortune for those you owe. When it bought out Cadbury earlier this year, Kraft had debts amounting to £18 billion ($A29 billion). A week after the hostile takeover, a factory had been closed and 400 workers laid off. To the Cadburys of the 1840s, for whom "wealth creation was for the benefit of the workers, the local community and society at large", the sweets they toiled for have most definitely soured.


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