The Lights are Still On: An Unlikely Story of a Slow Company with a Big Heart
When Steve Wallace wandered into Margaret Muza’s studio, it felt like serendipity to all three of us. There’s a brief window every week when Margaret and I wait for a guest to stroll in, and whoever they may be, we ask if they’d be willing to get their portrait taken and share a piece of their unique story with me. After meeting Steve, I can’t believe that such an interesting man, generous of spirit and the founder of such an amazing business, not only lives just down the street but also happened upon us in that very specific place at that particular window in our week.
But Steve believes in things happening as they’re meant to. A trip to Ghana as an exchange student at age 16 altered the course of his life and the lives of innumerable others impacted by his remarkable business. Something that could have become a passing anecdote about a summer abroad instead became his passion. His story is wide; it’s Western Africa and Southeastern Wisconsin, it’s business and family, it’s the conviction that fleeting moments and thoughtful decisions string together to make an exceptional life.
Steve is the founder and president of The Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, the chocolate company that was the first in the world to produce a “single origin chocolate bar”, meaning that the cocoa beans grown in the Ghana sun are not harvested there and then shipped out to somewhere like Switzerland or Belgium to be crafted into gourmet chocolate, but the whole process is completed in Ghana. The resulting chocolate is from Ghana, through and through.
This is part of a philosophy that Steve calls “beyond fair trade”. He doesn’t just pay Ghanaian farmers fair wages, though he does that, but also tries in every possible way to provide a just, equal opportunity business model, not solely at the initial step of the farmers’ wages. Steve believes that like French champagne and Cuban cigars, cocoa beans grown in Ghana should produce Ghanaian chocolate that can then be exported, leaving Ghana with the revenue and jobs that are rightfully theirs.
I ask Steve what he loves about Ghana. He answers fluidly, as someone who has spent years thinking about this and someone who deeply admires a country that while it isn’t his own, he knows well. He says that he loves Ghana’s resourcefulness, its diligence in working to ascend to middle-income status which will change the lives of its people, its warm and affectionate culture, and its commitment to repair things in a world where things are growing evermore disposable. He says Ghanaians are close to the earth, to food, and to the simple things that have become “of outsized importance”, grounding their culture in a way we don’t experience here.
Steve’s father, also a businessman, went to college with the founders of Wisconsin’s most influential family-owned businesses, a group of men that included Steve Marcus, Bud Selig, and Herb Kohl. He attributes their legacy of “closely held business” to what gives Milwaukee character and funds the arts here, and this model helped form Steve into someone who believes in doing things slowly, deliberately, and with integrity. Even as a child, he loved old things, made to last. When other kids wanted the newest flashy thing, Steve longed for a stereopticon, a sort of “magic lantern” from the mid-nineteenth century that fused two pictures together to get a three-dimensional effect. Now as an adult, he loves things with the fingerprints of life on them, things that abide, like the gorgeous, swooping 2’s in an antique family accounting ledger and his grandfather’s fountain pen, which he uses to write all his thank you notes.
He jokes that there are business journals written about “fast companies”, while a magazine with his face on the cover would have to be called Sloooowwww Company. He frankly admits that there’s a little sting to this, but the underlying truth is that he values what is hard-won. In cocoa beans and in business, he’s learned that it’s the slow ripening that brings lasting satisfaction, and a pleasure in taking your time to do something difficult. He is proud that he’s not a businessman who flips things, turning a business every seven years. Adversity from many sides when he began Omanhene has fostered in Steve a humility translates into gratitude. Whenever someone asks him how business is going, he responds with, “Well, the lights are still on.” He doesn’t expect success to be a windfall or a lightning strike. Success to Steve is the lights still on, his marriage and family intact through it all, and the knowledge when he’s alone in the dark that what he does has lasting merit because it’s being done with humanity and care.
At the end of our time that afternoon in Margaret’s studio, Steve mentioned that he just wrote a book that’s about to be published (Obroni and The Chocolate Factory: A Unlikely Story of Globalization and Ghana’s First Gourmet Chocolate Bar). I ordered it immediately and have loved what I’ve read so far. I was excited to read his book because I admire how Steve exudes a compassion that isn’t airy. It isn’t pretentious or patronizing; it isn’t gushy or showy. He has looked out over the world, found opportunity there, and built something piece by piece that’s good, and not only good for him.
Add that to the long list of reasons to eat more chocolate.
***Steven Wallace will be speaking at Boswell Books Tuesday November 21 at 7 pm.***