By Mary Shustack
Photographs by Bob Rozycki and courtesy Godiva Chocolatier Inc.
There’s a sweet sense of fate in Jeri Finard becoming president of Godiva North America.
The Larchmont woman smiles as she shares a bit of personal history on a recent afternoon in her Manhattan office.
And it’s a history that underscores the charming element of kismet underlying years of hard work that brought her, this past August, to a top executive post in the premium chocolate company known around the world.
“Honestly, I feel like it was destiny for me,” she says. “Growing up, my father actually worked for a chocolate factory.”
Finard, born on the South Side of Chicago and raised in Philadelphia, says she even had her first job at the now-defunct Pennsylvania chocolate company.
“When I say I was practically weaned on chocolate, I was weaned on chocolate,” she says.
It makes the post with Godiva Chocolatier Inc. especially rewarding for Finard, who candidly shares “I never go a day without chocolate.”
And despite her slender figure, you tend to believe her as she adds that when good friends heard about the new job, “They said, ‘I hope they’re locking up their inventory.’”
Getting down to business
Joking aside, Finard is well aware that her “pretty cool job” is far from frivolous.
“It is an immensely complex business,” she says. “The great thing is we have an amazing, iconic brand.”
And that was what drew Finard to Godiva, founded in Belgium in 1926.
Finard is no stranger to top management roles at major corporations. Following graduation from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, she went on to earn an MBA.
“I came to New York to go to Columbia Business School,” she says.
With her first job at General Foods, she moved to Westchester and over the next 20 years worked in offices including White Plains, Rye Brook and Tarrytown during a time when the merger with Kraft Foods came about. When commuting to Chicago from Westchester for her last position – as chief marketing officer – became too much, she moved on to Avon Products Inc. Again based in New York, she served for more than three years as senior vice president and global brand president.
The Godiva job, she says, incorporates varied elements from her career.
“When they called me about Godiva, I said this is too perfect, because it was food and it was fashion,” she says.
And it’s also, she acknowledges, kind of impressive. She says whenever someone hears about it, they say “I’d like to get to know you better.”
And that makes her laugh: “Let’s just say I didn’t get the same reaction when I’d say Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.”
A premium product
As Finard walks through the open office, one can’t help but notice only an occasional chocolate box or stuffed Godiva plush toy.
“As you see, we don’t have that much chocolate around,” she says.
But she’s still determined to know her brand inside and out.
“I’m still trying to eat my way through,” she says, but notes quality chocolate offers a far different experience from grabbing a candy bar at the deli.
“It’s something you savor and experience with all five of your senses.”
Finard is in charge of some 230 retail boutiques, along with her company’s presence in fine department stores, such as Bloomingdale’s in White Plains. It was there that she made a recent visit in her new role, touring the store and meeting with management.
“I told my husband, ‘This is the first time I’m going to Bloomingdale’s to sell, not to buy.’”
Finard is determined to get out to the company’s top stores and forge a bond with the staffers.
“It’s really important for them to know who I am and know that I’m approachable,” she says.
Those visits have already included the Godiva boutique in The Westchester in White Plains, where Finard learned how to make the company’s famed chocolate-dipped strawberries.
“I’m not sure mine were the prettiest, but I did my best.”
Choices, of course, go far beyond the iconic fruits dipped in milk, dark or white chocolate. The company is famed for its truffles, shell-molded chocolate pieces, European-style biscuits, gourmet coffees and hot chocolates.
The Godiva boutiques also feature chocolate cases from which customers can select a single truffle or create their own gift box.
The new heart-shaped gift boxes in red satin with fabric rosettes are joined by more whimsical choices, such as those boxes and chocolates designed by Spanish artist Jaime Hayon.
It’s all part of the innovations that have Godiva expanding beyond such classics as the open oyster chocolates with hazelnut praline to bolder choices like limited-edition Hayon heart pieces filled with strawberry lychee, passion fruit almond and honey apricot praline.
“We kind of introduced premium chocolate to America, but now there are a lot of competitors,” Finard says, though Godiva does have an edge. “It is recognized everywhere. It is really globally iconic. Everybody responds to it.”
In fact, Godiva is sold in some 80 countries, with Finard talking about the two-story flagship boutique in Turkey, selling in Japan and China and the new British destination.
“In London we have a café in Harrods where we serve chocolate pastries and chocolate drinks.”
And the business itself has many challenges, especially as it’s dealing with a perishable good. Finard is in charge of “the mechanics of how we run,” with duties ranging from monitoring the supply chain to overseeing inventory management. Finard says she is still settling into her new position, tapping into the “Godiva culture” that reflects loyalty, innovation and team effort.
“I just have been so impressed,” she says of her new colleagues’ attitude. “It’s passionate. Everyone wants to be successful.”
And that includes a commitment to corporate philanthropy, as well, exemplified by its Lady Godiva Program that celebrates inspirational women around the world who, the program description notes, “embody the attributes of Lady Godiva through selflessness, generosity, leadership and the spirit of giving back to the community.”
“It’s business, but it’s business that does good,” Finard says.
The busiest day of the year
Godiva chocolates are, of course, sold year-round. They make for memorable birthday gifts and thoughtful hostess gifts for Thanksgiving and holiday gifts throughout December. The new products for Easter are already in production.
“Our consumer is really a foodie,” Finard says. “She really likes to explore and experiment.”
On Valentine’s Day – the company’s “single biggest day,” Finard confirms – the customer is more often male.
“You cannot beat Godiva. We’re the ones most associated with love.”
But, she adds, that Valentine’s Day offers the opportunity for all kinds of giving.
“A lot of gifting at Valentine’s Day is not romantic, it’s platonic,” she says. The company will again be running its Share the Love Sweepstakes that will include a photo booth made out of chocolate in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, yet another sweet promotion.
And what is Finard expecting this Valentine’s Day from her own husband, who works in the financial industry?
She has a ready answer, holding up one of Godiva’s red-satin boxes as she says, “He needs to buy me the biggest one of these – and not use the employee discount.”