Life is sweet for two ex-Lawrence Graham lawyers
Chocolate is a form of escapism for many people. But Simon Pattinson and his wife Helen took that to an extreme when they left their legal careers at City firm Lawrence Graham, went to South America for a year and came back to set up Montezuma’s, a chocolate manufacturing and retailing business. Their chocolate has been hugely successful and they now have four outlets, with two more opening before Christmas. We speak to Simon to find out how he got here…
mtl: Hi, start at the beginning.
Simon: I studied Psychology at Durham, went to the College of Law at Store Street, London, and then joined Lawrence Graham. It was there that I met Helen. She was a year or so ahead of me and was appointed to be my official ‘mentor’, with the aim that she would guide a fresh-faced trainee like me through my first few months at the firm. The mentoring role went a bit far when within six months of me joining we were married (there was no shotgun element to this – it was free will!).
So there we were. Young, married professionals. Helen qualified into the Employment department and I qualified into Shipping. We were making good money and we had bought a house in Putney. We were all set. But something wasn’t quite right.
Helen in particular was becoming disillusioned by the lifestyle and culture. Neither of us was that excited by the law itself and to us it seemed to be a life revolving around nothing other than money, and that really bothered us.
I also spoke to a lot of people about my future career and the message seemed to be: ‘if you don’t like law, get out now, before it’s too late’. I knew it would be much harder to break away in the future if we decided to start a family and had got used to the increasing salaries.
We were convinced that we could run our own business and still have fun doing it, and that we could have more control over our lives than we did as City solicitors. The question was, what sort of business? We had no real ideas and no time to explore them. We felt that if we had some time to travel abroad and seek inspiration, the right idea would come to us. It wouldn’t be enough just to go away for a few months; we would have to make a clean break from our London lives.
Graduated from Durham in Psychology
College of Law, Store Street (CPE) and City University (LPC)
Joined Lawrence Graham
Spent a year in South America
Opened first Montezuma’s outlet
So we decided to take the plunge. We handed in our notices. We sold our house in Putney. We put all of our possessions into storage. And then we headed off to South America for a year, with nothing but the rucksacks on our backs (though fortunately we had quite a bit of money in the bank from the sale of our house – we had bought and sold at a good time).
The trip to South America was incredible. We took a notebook and whenever we had an idea for a business, we wrote it down. We didn’t spend all of our time thinking about new businesses and seeking out ideas – we were just travelling like any other tourists - but if inspiration came to us, we would make a note of it. While we were in Argentina we discovered interesting little chocolate shops everywhere. That got us thinking. Then we ended up (by chance) staying on a cocoa farm in Venezuela and learned about the manufacture of chocolate. We made a note about it in the back of the diary and moved on. It was just one of a number of ideas, and by the end of our trip we had a list of around 50 or 60 ideas.
Of course, some of those ideas were pie-in-the-sky. When we got back to England we narrowed the list down and finally settled on a business selling beautifully presented, ethical and organic quality chocolate. The chocolate idea seemed like a good one – it was something we cared about and we believed there was gap in the market that our product could fill. But we knew it would require considerable planning. We spent six months researching our idea, getting to know the chocolate industry as best we could, and formulating a detailed business plan. We had no house so we lived between our two sets of parents during that time – until we knew where our first shop was going to be!
We put all the money we had left from the sale of our house into the business and also presented our plan to some friends, and friends of friends, who invested some money. We researched where would be the best place to open our shop and went for Brighton, which has a good record for accepting new retailing ideas.
We were almost ready to go when disaster struck. Just six weeks before we were due to open, the company that had agreed to manufacture chocolate for us went bust. This was a huge spanner in the works, but we had come so far and we couldn’t give up. We had no other option but to start making the chocolate ourselves! We took over the manufacturer’s converted pig barn with its rudimentary chocolate making equipment and got to work. Now, the fact that we manufacture our own chocolate has become the cornerstone of our business. Not many other retailers do it, and it means we can keep the quality high, respond to demand, know everything you can possibly know about chocolate and make higher margins on what we sell.
On our first day we took around £800 and I thought, ‘we’re on to something, here’. Our aim was to break even in our first year – we actually managed to make a small profit. And here we are, five years later, fully-fledged chocolate retailers and manufacturers!
mtl: Very impressive indeed. You’ve made it all sound very easy. But there must have been times when you barely had enough money to survive, when you were totally stressed out about whether it would work or not?
Simon: I certainly wouldn’t describe it as easy, but we were always very positive about what we were doing. I don’t think you can succeed in starting up a new business unless you yourself are convinced that it could be incredibly successful.
The most stressful time was when we opened the second shop in Chichester. Chichester is a very different market from Brighton and we were concerned about whether the shop would work there or not. It was very nerve-racking initially but very rewarding when it worked out well.
mtl: How does the lifestyle compare to being in the City?
Simon: Well, in the beginning we worked harder than we ever did as lawyers. We worked all hours – down in the pig barn making chocolate in the middle of the night! There’s a lot to do – marketing, managing staff, researching new ideas, consolidating established ones. It never stops. On the other hand, we are in control. We live on the South Coast near Chichester, looking out to sea, and get plenty of time for windsurfing, cycling and other things that we like doing. We’ve had a daughter and there’s another one on the way. This is a great area for kids - our daughter’s school is just down the road, as is our now much bigger chocolate factory – and we can be as flexible as we like to make sure we get lots of family time.
mtl: Great. Any advice to lawyers inspired by your story?
Simon: If you do have an idea, make sure you spend enough time researching it. Try to take an impartial view. Discuss it with people. If they respond well to the idea then give it a go. It’s only money! I know that sounds flippant but I do think people have an unhealthy obsession with money. If you are the sort of person who needs to be earning a salary as high as or higher than your peers, then stay being a lawyer. Otherwise take a chance. Even if you fail you will have learned a lot.
I think it is a shame that ‘failure’ of a business carries with it such a stigma in this country. It is different in the US where there is a real culture of entrepreneurialism and the failure of a business is not seen as a big issue, you just move on to the next thing. Here people are very nervous about it.
mtl: So what does the future hold for Montezuma’s?
Simon: Continued growth whilst maintaining quality. We’ll have six shops by Christmas. We still make all our own chocolate and we supply into other retail outlets. We have also just franchised the business out for the first time – this will certainly be something we will be exploring as a means of expansion.
mtl: Do you ever get sick of chocolate?
Simon: No, definitely not! We still love the aroma as we go into the workshop – it makes it all worthwhile. We feel that our chocolate is a little bit special and we love sharing it with other people – but we try not to eat it with every meal!
mtl: Indeed. Simon Pattinson, thank you very much for speaking to us and good luck at Montezuma’s.
You can find out more about Montezuma’s and order their delicious chocolate on-line at www.montezumas.co.uk
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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