WESTBROOK – Andy Charles, the owner and president of Westbrook-based Haven’s Candies, doesn’t shy away from lobbying for small business, whether it’s here in Maine or on the national stage.

Charles, who took ownership of the nearly century-old business in 2001, has regularly attended events in Washington, D.C., hosted by the National Retail Federation, where retail business owners meet members of Congress to discuss policies that affect their businesses.

As a member of the Retail Association of Maine, which has access to these summits, Charles uses the opportunity to hear about news and trends that impact small business, and says “there are always issues worth addressing.” Charles will travel to Washington for the summit on July 29-30.

Haven’s Candies, which opened in Portland in 1915, will celebrate its centennial next year. The company’s headquarters on County Road in Westbrook is known as the factory store, where the business produces all of its confections by hand.

According to Charles, Haven’s sees revenues in excess of $2 million per year and sees more than 60,000 customers annually. Haven’s also has retail stores in Portland and Scarborough.

Charles, a South Portland resident, lives with his wife and four animals. He moved to Maine in 1999. Charles was born in New Mexico, and grew up in Washington, California and Massachusetts. He studied mechanical engineering and served in the Navy Submarine Service before starting a career in manufacturing for a number of companies.

“I always had a dream to be a small business owner, and in 2001 I took the plunge and purchased Haven’s Candies after a year-long search for the right business,” he said.

The American Journal spoke with Charles this week about his upcoming trip to the nation’s capital, changes in the retail industry, and what it’s like to specialize in handmade candy.

Q: Haven’s Candies is a storied business in Maine. When you took ownership, what were your main focuses? How has the company changed since 2001?

A: When I bought the company in 2001, my focus was to continue the tradition of fine confections in Maine, to grow the business steadily, and to explore new store locations. In the ensuing 13 years the company has indeed seen steady growth in sales, a new location in Scarborough, added wholesale customers throughout New England, and expanded sales nationally in our corporate gifts division.

Q: Haven’s has been specializing in producing custom corporate gifts for companies across the country. Is this still a major part of your business? What else is in the works to expand your reach in the region?

A: The corporate gifts division of the business has doubled in size during the past decade, and is one of the fastest growing segments of the company. I see continued growth looking ahead.

Q: The business prides itself on staying true to making confections by hand. What are your most popular products? How has the industry changed over the years?

A: As a seasonal business, our most popular items change with the time of year. At the holidays, for instance, we prepare thousands of boxed assortments of chocolates. We also make over 20,000 candy canes by hand in over a dozen flavors. At Valentine’s Day it’s all about chocolate-dipped strawberries (we go through over a ton of fresh California berries) and heart boxes of chocolates, and Easter is the season of chocolate bunnies (over 25,000 of them). One of my favorite seasonal traditions is our annual Easter contest, where we give away a 3-foot tall chocolate Easter bunny with $1,000 cash inside. Notifying the winner is my favorite phone call of the year.

Q: What will your trip to Washington, D.C., look like? Are there specific topics you’ll be advocating for or hoping to learn more about?

A: The National Retail Federation will provide us with several presentations about current trends and issues affecting the industry, and I always get a lot out of talking with other retailers from around the country and hearing about their business challenges and successes. An entire day will be devoted to meetings with our congressional delegation, and this is the venue for discussing the issues I feel most strongly about. This year I’ll be discussing sales tax fairness, credit card swipe fees, TRIA (Terrorism Risk Insurance Act) reauthorization, data security and labor regulations.

Q: How does your involvement in the Retail Advocates Summit benefit Haven’s?

A: By taking part in the summit I get a chance to advocate on behalf of the company for issues and policies that impact the business. And there definitely is an impact; several years ago I traveled to Washington for a similar NRF event when debit card swipe fees were being hotly debated in Congress. The other side lobbied strong and hard against reform, but I truly believe the input from Main Street businesses like Haven’s had an impact. Congress ultimately enacted debit card swipe fee reform, and costs for businesses and consumers have gone down as a result. We now have our sights set on similar reforms for credit card fees, which will be an even harder battle. But it’s one worth fighting.

Q: As part of the summit, you’re also nominated for a new award called America’s Retail Champion, which recognizes retail industry and small business advocates. Why do you think it’s important to be involved in advocacy programs?

A: We live in a participative democracy, and I believe strongly that each of us has an obligation to get involved on some level. I choose to dedicate time and energy to local and national issues because I hope to stay informed and make an impact on things that affect my business and our society.

Q: What are some of the biggest issues facing small businesses in Maine? How do these challenges affect your goals for the company?

A: Health care costs, electricity/fuel costs, availability of qualified workers, the slow growth of the state’s economy. I’m also carefully watching labor regulation issues like minimum wage and overtime rules.

Q: What’s next for Haven’s Candies? What should customers be on the lookout for?

A: We are very excited about our 100-year celebration in 2015. Stay tuned for some really fun events.

Andy Charles, owner and president of Haven’s Candies, headquartered in Westbrook, shows off some of his hand-made chocolates. Charles will travel to Washington, D.C., later this month to take part in a national summit for retail businesses. 

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