World's Finest Chocolate Inc. History
Chicago, Illinois 60632-3065
Telephone: (773) 847-4601
Toll Free: 800-932-3863
Fax: (773) 847-4006
Incorporated: 1939 as Cook Chocolate Company
Sales: $170 million (1999 est.)
NAIC: 31132 Chocolate and Confectionery Manufacturing from Cacao Beans; Nonchocolate Confectionery Manufacturing; 42299 Other Miscellaneous Nondurable Goods Wholesalers
Making chocolate is a long and complex process that is both science and art. Just as the tropical cacao tree tolerates only a narrow range of temperature and humidity to develop its fruit, World's Finest Chocolate's standards demand perfect conditions, the most modern machinery, dedicated employees and the finest ingredients. Key Dates:
- Edmond Opler, Sr., begins working in the chocolate industry at the age of 13, making deliveries in New York City by horse-drawn wagon.
- With his brother Arnold, Opler, Sr., founds E & A Opler, a bulk cocoa packing company in Chicago.
- Opler, Sr., founds Cook Chocolate Co., home to the brand of World's Finest Chocolate.
- World's Finest Chocolate becomes its own division of Cook Chocolate Co., devoted exclusively to fundraising.
1950s:World's Finest Chocolate Ltd. begins operation in Campbellford, Ontario, to better serve the Canadian marketplace.
- Cook Chocolate Co. changes its name to World's Finest Chocolate.
1970s:World's Finest Chocolate acquires an experimental cocoa plantation on the island of St. Lucia.
- Edmond Opler, Jr., succeeds his father as the company's top executive.
- Opler, Sr., retires at the age of 91.
- World's Finest Chocolate combines its sales force with QPC, a fundraising subsidiary of Reader's Digest.
World's Finest Chocolate Inc. (WFC) makes candy--including chocolate bars, chocolate candies, and cocoa--that schools, churches, athletes, scout troops, and other fraternal and youth organizations use in their fundraising efforts. Although the majority of WFC's products are sold for fundraising, its products are sold for personal and corporate gift giving. By focusing on fundraising, WFC avoids the need for many traditional and expensive marketing strategies, such as in-store displays and heavy advertising. Instead, the company has concentrated its efforts on developing quality chocolate and turnkey fundraising programs for its customers. Arguably, WFC's most popular fundraising program allows fundraisers to personalize chocolate bar wrappers with information about their organizations and include coupons from local establishments as a sales incentive. The company's products are also sold via a catalog program, which includes food items other than chocolate and a gift-wrapping option. In addition to the plant located at its 11-acre Chicago headquarters, WFC owns a cocoa plant near Toronto, Canada, and another facility in Sydney, Australia. The company also operates Kinney Printing Co. and an experimental cocoa plantation called Union Vale on the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies.
Birth of a Dream
In many ways, the story of WFC is the story of its founder, Edmond Opler, Sr. As Patricia Tatro Opler wrote in her 1993 book Something's Chocolate, 'World's Finest Chocolate is the American Dream: the story of a man's life devoted to hard work and chocolate.'
Edmond Opler, Sr., was born the seventh of eight children--all of whom he outlived&mdashø immigrant parents. Growing up in a New York City tenement, Opler experienced hardships, including the death of his father when Opler was only 12. In 1910 he sought employment to help support the family and was hired by Runkle Brothers Chocolate Company, earning $3 per week delivering cocoa to small stores by horse-drawn wagon. In addition to a stint as an office boy, Opler eventually became a salesman for the company, covering the territory of New England.
Opler enlisted in the Marines Corps and, after World War I, moved to the Chicago area at the age of 26 with his brother Arnold. (A physician had discovered a spot on Opler's lung and had encouraged him to move to an area of the country where the air was cleaner.) In 1922 Opler and his brother founded E & A Opler, a bulk cocoa-packing company that eventually evolved into WFC. He pursued night classes at Northwestern University's School of Commerce and, around this same time, was part owner of Chicago-based chocolate maker Siren Mills, a company that eventually was acquired by Nestle.
The Oplers broke into the business world when the climate was favorable, and they managed to prosper even through the difficult days of the Great Depression. In 1939, after residing in Chicago for 17 years, Edmond Opler, Sr., established the Cook Chocolate Company. Located on Ogden Avenue, the company became home to a new brand called World's Finest Chocolate. A decade later, in 1949, the brand evolved into its own company division, dedicated exclusively to fundraising efforts. As Donna Chavez explained in the Chicago Tribune, 'Like most marriages made in heaven, the happy wedding of for-profit business fueled by not-for-profit sales zeal proved a winner from the very start.'
To better serve the Canadian marketplace, Opler established World's Finest Chocolate Canada Ltd. in the 1950s, basing it in Campbellford, Ontario, a small town between Montreal and Toronto. According to Karl Howse, WFC's general manager and vice-president of Canadian operations, at the time several town members offered to build a plant for Opler if he agreed to locate operations there.
Focusing on Fundraising: The 1970s
The 1970s were significant for Opler. His company's fundraising division had been so successful through the 1960s that in 1972, he changed the company's name from Cook Chocolate to World's Finest Chocolate. During the early 1970s, WFC had annual sales of approximately $20 million and had become a fundraising powerhouse. According to a Chicago Tribune article by Leonard Wiener, in the early 1970s Opler estimated WFC had helped to raise about $180 million since the company's fundraising division was created. At that time, WFC charged $2 per pound for its chocolate, which enabled organizations to make a profit of 75 cents per item. Most of WFC's fundraising campaigns made $1,000 or less, but some made $5,000 or more. One exceptional 4-H fundraising campaign reportedly brought in $150,000.
Concerned about a shortage of cocoa beans during this time, Opler acquired Union Vale, the company's cocoa plantation. Chavez explained the move in the Chicago Tribune: 'Plagued by very primitive conditions exacerbated by unstable governments, the cocoa-producing regions were unable to hold their young people who, Opler said, leave to go to cities where they are untrained for jobs. In a move designed to benefit both his company and the native population, Opler bought a 238-acre failing sugar plantation on the West Indies Island of St. Lucia, south of Martinique.'
Visions, a 1992 Hinsdale Hospital newsletter, described the arrangement Opler established to obtain cocoa from the plantation: 'Opler joined a local co-op called the St. Lucia Agriculturist's Association when he purchased the plantation. World's Finest grows its own cocoa crops, sells them to the co-op, then buys back the cocoa it needs at the current price.' Even though the plantation produced only a very a small percentage of WFC's beans, Opler viewed the operation as a success because it improved living conditions for those who lived on the plantation and served as a model of what could be done in other economically troubled areas of the region.
During the 1970s Opler made it clear that his son, Edmond Opler, Jr., would eventually succeed him as company president. Years later, after nearly 20 years of marriage, Alice Opler described her husband in the Chicago Tribune: 'He is a totally devoted husband, father and grandfather. He's good and he's generous and he's meticulous in every way.' Along with Alice, Opler started the Edmond and Alice Opler foundation and provided assistance to several organizations in Chicago and abroad.
One institution that benefited from Opler's philanthropy was Illinois' Hinsdale Hospital, which in 1992 renamed its cancer center after him. At the time, the hospital issued a press release that asserted: 'Due in part to the Oplers' generosity, the Opler Cancer Center provides sophisticated technology and cancer treatments that are unsurpassed in the Chicago area, including autologous bone marrow transplants, gynecologic oncology clinic, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hyperthermia and brachytherapy, biological response modifier therapy, therapeutic pheresis, and participation in national cancer research, experimental drugs and treatments.'
Finally, in addition to its success in the fundraising arena, WFC sold chocolates to hotels, restaurants, and private clubs during the 1970s; was involved in the personal gift market; and sold cocoa powder to cake mix and pudding manufacturers.
End of an Era: The 1980s
Edmond Opler, Jr., succeeded his father at the helm of WFC eight years before the elder Opler retired in 1988, at the age of 91. Prior to that time, Opler, Jr., had spent more than 35 years working for the company in every area, from the lab to the loading dock.
Like his father, Opler, Jr., had served in the Marine Corps. A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, the younger Opler had a management style that differed from his father's. 'Dad's business training came on the streets of the Lower East Side of New York, where business economics took place from a pushcart,' he said in Chavez's Chicago Tribune article. 'It's a very different experience from college business management training,' he observed.
Edmond Opler Sr. died at Hinsdale Hospital, home to the cancer center that bore his name, on August 19, 1995, at the age of 98. A long-time member of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association--and at one time its chairman--the senior Opler's influence went beyond WFC and touched an entire industry. At the time of his death, Candy Industry`s Susan Tiffany wrote: 'There are few individuals left in American Business who have made the kind of impact Opler did. ... Opler attributed his success to the people in his life. He was quoted as saying on winning Candy Industry`s Kettle Award in 1987: `I surround myself with the best people and hope that I'll be lucky. And, I have been lucky'.'
Sweet Horizons:1990 and Beyond
In the 1990s, WFC remained Chicago's largest chocolate bar manufacturer and the leading national manufacturer of chocolate bars for fundraising. Toward the decade's end, 85 percent of WFC's sales came from fundraising programs. At that time, the company relied on about 200 independent distributors who sold the company's products exclusively in designated territories, handling very small individual orders as well as large standing orders for thousands of cases.
In the late 1990s, WFC produced anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 pounds of chocolate per day at its Chicago plant, where the manufacturing process involved taking cocoa beans, which arrived in 150-pound burlap bags, and turning them into chocolate bars or other candies. The process required to do this was complex and involved operations on several different floors of the plant. It included cleaning the beans, breaking off their shells (which eventually were sold as garden mulch), roasting their kernels (or nibs), and grinding the nibs into what is known as chocolate liquor. This chocolate liquor, which did not contain alcohol, was bitter and rough in texture. Some liquor was used to make more cocoa butter, and some was mixed with cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder, and granulated sugar to form a paste called crumb. This combination of ingredients was then refined and pulverized, creating a fine powder. A process called conching turned the mixture into a liquid, which was then tempered and molded into bars or other candies. After cooling for about 20 minutes, the chocolate was wrapped and packaged accordingly. Demand for WFC's products was cyclical, with manufacturing heaviest during the fall and spring, coinciding with the beginning and end of the school year.
In 2000, WFC combined its sales force with QSP, a subsidiary of Reader's Digest that focused on school and youth fundraising by selling magazine subscriptions. According to The Wall Street Transcript, George S. Scimone, chief financial officer of Reader's Digest Association Inc., regarded the move as an opportunity to increase productivity, emphasize complementary products, and balance the seasonal aspects of each company's business. The combination positioned WFC to be even more successful in the new millennium.
Principal Competitors: Archibald Candy Corporation; Interbake Foods, Inc.; Mars Inc.
- 'CFO of Reader's Digest Association Discusses the Integration of the Sales Force of World's Finest Chocolate,' Wall Street Transcript, November 27, 2000.
- Chavez, Donna, 'World's Finest: A Lifetime Built on Chocolate.' Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1992, p. D1.
- Demetrakakes, Pan, 'Sweet Charity,' Food Processing, May 1997, p. 87.
- 'Edmond Opler, Sr., Candymaker,' Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1995, Sec. 2, p. 9.
- 'Hinsdale Hospital Cancer Center Receives Distinguished Name,' Hinsdale Hospital news release, May 7, 1992.
- 'Making a Difference: Edmond Opler, Sr.,' Visions (Hinsdale Hospital newsletter), 1992, p. 2.
- Opler, Patricia Tatro, Something's Chocolate, Chicago: World's Finest Chocolate, 1993.
- Tennison, Patricia. 'Talk About Fantasy! Tour World's Finest,' Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1987, Sec. 7, p. 1.
- Tiffany, Susan, 'The Passing of an Era,' Candy Industry, September 1995, p. 6.
- Wiener, Leonard, 'Candy Sweetens Charities.' Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1972. Sec. 5, p. 1.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 39. St. James Press, 2001.