I have a feeling most readers of this column aren’t familiar with Poznan, a historical city that boasts connections to the first kings of Poland — the Piast dynasty — as well as being one of the country’s modern-day leading urban centers.
And I’m guessing many of you haven’t heard of the Millano Group, which is the parent company of Baron Chocolatier, its American subsidiary led by Tomasz Kotas. Baron Chocolatier, however, is probably familiar to many buyers and increasingly, becoming more known to consumers, as the company expands its presence in the United States with a line of affordable premium chocolates.
As many of you who are familiar with my editorials and columns know, I’m of Polish descent, having immigrated to the United States from France when I was a 5-year-old. My parents, both of whom are Polish, settled into France after being forcibly removed from their homes in Poland during World War II by the German army and surviving a period of forced labor on farms bordering the French/German border. To paraphrase Pope Francis, “I’m not only a son of immigrants, I’m an immigrant myself.”
But back to being in Poznan, which is where the Millano Group is based. Given my familial and cultural connections, I was thrilled to having been invited by Kotas to see this family-run company’s manufacturing operations in Poland. After all, who doesn’t want to see a world-class operation that’s boasts of three plants and revenues exceeding the $200 million range?
Besides, the last time I was in the “motherland” was eight years ago, when I visited the operations of Mieszko, famed producers of “ptasie mleczko” or dove’s milk confections (Candy Industry Magazine, March 2007 issue). Definitely time for an update.
Back then, the country was continuing its strong growth spurt thanks to Poland joining the European Union three years earlier. While other Central European countries were still struggling with accommodating a free-enterprise economy, Poland’s natural proclivity for all things Western made the transition more natural and navigable.
Fast forward to 2015 and one sees an even more economically integrated and modernized country — a country that survived the 2008 Global Recession with few adverse effects. Moreover, despite ongoing domestic and international challenges — and God knows we have our share in the States — one senses the vibrancy of a new generation of Poles coming into their own.
One of those is Tomasz, the eldest son of Krzysztof Kotas, founder and president of the Millan Group. Reared in the family business, Tomasz has worked in every department at the company, from sanitation to production, from accounting to sales.
Of course, his father Krzysztof wouldn’t have it any other way. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s a philosophy many family-owned confectionery businesses in the United States have also embraced.
What’s distinctive about Tomasz is that he’s the one who volunteered to establish a beachhead for the Millano Group in the United States when he was 25 years old. Anyone who manufactures and sells confections in the United States knows the retail landscape is not only competitive, but complicated as well.
That’s daunting enough. But consider doing so when English is your second language and you’re starting from scratch.
Today, Baron Chocolatier is beginning to make a name for itsself by offering consumers a line of bean-to-bar chocolates that are non-GMO, kosher and all-natural, all at mainstream prices. In five short years, Baron Chocolatier has gone from a zero presence to having its product line carried by 80,000 retail units.
Naturally, Tomasz’ success stems in large part from having the support and confidence of his father. And it was Krzysztof who’s been the driving force behind taking the Millano Group from a small, self-engineered production process housed in the family garage to an international player. The Millano Group has been on a phenomenal growth spurt, one that’s fueled by innovation, the latest technology, dedicated employees and professionals, and a family vision.
So yea, I’m enjoying my visit here to Poznan, a city I hadn’t visited before. It’s always a kick to see my parents’ homeland, especially in the context of family-owned confectionery businesses that are prospering.
So look for the complete story about the Millano Group, Baron Chocolatier and the Kotas family in our November issue. And don’t forget to try their products; I believe they will only whet your appetite to hear the entire story.