The day before she leaves for her latest adventure — a heli-skiing trip in Iceland — Karen Flavelle reflects on the path that led her to where she is today, both professionally and personally.
A range of experiences equipped Flavelle to eventually lead Purdys, the largest chocolatier in Canada: earning a B.Com from Queen’s University, plenty of international travel — she lived in Japan and London, training in classic packaged goods marketing at General Mills, and later growing the popular Swiss Chalet restaurant chain for six years as director of marketing to 140 restaurants, all while raising three children with her husband in Toronto.
But despite her successes, Flavelle wanted to come home to Vancouver, and to the family business she had yet to be a part of. Her father Charles Flavelle and a partner bought Purdy’s in 1963, and grew the business from five shops to 28 shops by 1980, but he had discouraged his three children from entering the business.
“His message to us was, ‘I don’t want to place or prioritize you above long-term employees.’ He wanted to protect employees,” Flavelle remembers. “And we took from that, ‘you don’t want us in the business’.
Rather than have his children ride into the company on nepotism, her father “wanted us to find work we loved,” Flavelle says.
So the three Flavelle children went and forged their own paths — Karen’s brother wound up the youngest internationally certified mountain guide in Canada, and worked on acclaimed television show Eco Challenge Survivor, while her sister specialized in community forestry, mapping projects in Indonesia.
“I finally convinced my father, after I realized I really wanted to come and join Purdy’s. I was very interested in retail, and chocolate, of course,” Flavelle laughs.
Flavelle moved back to Vancouver from Toronto with her husband, a bond-banker, and children in 1994 to take on the role of of executive vice president.
Her youngest was six months old, her middle child 20-months old, and the oldest was four.
“That was the brood that I had when I started at Purdys — and I have a wonderful husband, needless to say. He always worked full time as well, but we were a great team,” Flavelle says.
Under Flavelle’s direction, Purdys engaged with cocoa farmers in Africa in 2007, the 100th anniversary of the brand, and now uses only 100% sustainable cocoa, sourced through Callebaut’s Cocoa Horizons program. Purdys participates in farmer education in the Ivory Coast and teaches farmers how to increase their incomes through growing more productive farms with better quality beans.
Flavelle describes in precise detail the process of harvesting cocoa pods, and how to sustainably care for the pods and extract the healthiest beans.
“It’s the attention to detail. You want to help the farmers do well — then they get a better price,” she says. “And we want better cocoa, so we’re happy.”
Purdys’ awards include 50 Best Employers in Canada seven times, Canada’s Best Managed Companies, and Top 10 Most Admired Cultures. Flavelle has been the recipient of the Women’s Executive Network Hall of Fame award, Business In Vancouver’s Women of Influence, EY Entrepreneur of the Year for Family Business, Queen’s University alumni award, and a YWCA Women of Distinction citation.
Flavelle’s philanthropic spirit shines, and she works with a number of Canadian charities, including the Ovarian Cancer Canada. Flavelle’s first brush with ovarian cancer happened when the disease quite suddenly took a colleague and friend.
She is part of the fundraising campaign Love Her, an awareness building event held annually in Vancouver to raise money to research the disease dubbed “the silent killer.”
Not yet ready to retire, and looking forward, Flavelle sees more adventure on the horizon. “I’m not as tied to the business as I once was,” Flavelle says. “Exploring the world is very much a passion, so that will continue for sure.”