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British chocolate maker offers sweet deal

Stephen Beard Jan 30, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: Well as the debt crisis has lingered in Europe, businesses there have been unable to get loans from banks, which are worried about losses.

And now, a small British manufacturing company has found a novel solution to that credit crunch, as Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: No liquidity problems for this factory. Molten chocolate fairly pours down the production line, partly thanks to a new line of credit: the chocolate bond.

Angus Thirlwell: Our customers advance us the money, and while we’re using the money they’ve loaned us, we repay the interest to them in chocolate.

Angus Thirlwell of Hotel Chocolat offers his 100,000 mail order customers a mouth-watering investment opportunity: Lend us $3,000 and we’ll send you six large boxes of high-quality chocolate a year.

Thirlwell: It deepens the relationship with our customers. And if I have a choice of who I’m going to pay interest to — a big bank or my lovely customers — it’s an easy choice.

So far, his company has raised more than $7 million in this way to buy new machinery and expand its cocoa estate on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Anne Avis in London is one enthusiastic investor.

Anne Avis: I’m a customer, and I’m buying the chocolate anyway. And then to get paid almost a 7 percent return in chocolate — when you stick the money in the bank you barely get 3 percent — just seemed like a great idea.

And it’s an even sweeter deal for Hotel Chocolat. The bond may yield almost 7 percent for the investor, but it obviously costs the company much less. And, says Angus Thirlwell, it does combat the credit crunch.

Thirlwell: We’re not subject to the vagaries of whether banks feel positive or negative about the overall economic outlook. We’re more secure, more ring-fenced in a nice relationship with our own customers.

No worries about investors losing their appetite for this debt, he says. The interest on this loan will always be pretty tempting. Debt that doesn’t leave a bitter taste — although it might add a few pounds to the customer’s bottom line.

In Huntingdon, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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