Date posted: October 6, 2014

Haigh’s Chocolates, begun by Alister Haigh’s great grandfather Alfred, is synonymous with fine chocolates. Yet it wasn’t until 1950, when Alfred’s grandson John took a trip to Lindt and Sprungli in Switzerland to improve the quality of their chocolate, that Haighs became not only the favourite corner-store supplier, but also the favourite manufacturer.

As Alfred created a legacy and son Claude continued that legacy when his father suddenly died in 1933, John took the group to new heights. The company is now in the hands of John’s sons Alister and Simon. As a young man, Alister took part in the family’s other businesses, working as a jackaroo in Northern Australia and helping to prepare yearlings in New Zealand, but soon found the smell of chocolate too hard to resist.

GEN: What did you learn in the rural sector that you could bring to chocolate manufacture?

AH: I learnt to listen, because when you’re set up to do something for a day, you could get it wrong and there were fairly severe consequences. I also learnt the importance of speaking up.

GEN: Why did you go into that sector?

AH: We’ve had the wool business as long as we’ve been in chocolates. I just wanted to learn that aspect of the business, to evaluate where I saw my future.

GEN: That was obviously in chocolates?

AH: Yes, when you’re involved in the wool industry, it’s not only 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but 52 weeks a year – it’s fairly labour-intensive. Whereas when I came back to the chocolates we were working a four-and-a-half-day week, knocking off at lunch every Friday and having almost a long weekend every week which, for a young, single person, was attractive.

GEN: What happened when you came back to Adelaide?

AH: I got thrown in the deep end and started at the bottom as an apprentice. I started off sweeping floors, cleaning equipment and running around to help make the product. Gradually, I learnt how to do every process in the factory by moving from department to department.

GEN: Was that important to be able to manage the company?

AH: Good question. Not now, because we have a lot of new products in the factory. It’s handy but not critical. The business has changed so much. Back in those days there was a heavy emphasis on our manufacturing capability; now we consider ourselves a retail company.

GEN: What do you put the success of the company in those formative years down to?

AH: It was difficult during the war years, but my great grandfather’s biggest legacy was that he believed in investing in real estate. So that gave us the sound financial footing. We’ve always tried to introduce new products every year to keep our customers interested and coming back.

GEN: How do you go about doing that? Is that difficult?

AH: Well, it is. Because the shops are only of a certain size and you do have to look at the products that are not selling that well. Unfortunately, some people have grown up with a particular product and can’t believe it’s actually gone. Because we have the retail shops we are able to get a lot of feedback from the stores and from our customers about products they’re looking for or suggestions they’re making. We analyse those and talk to our confectionists about coming up with several alternatives and then trial those. Eventually, we’ll release some of those onto the market.

GEN: The succession planning in the past has been fairly easy. Has there ever been a time where you or your father or grandfather haven’t wanted to move into the business, or has it just been a natural progression?

AH: I think up until now it’s been easy to brainwash the next generation. I’m trying to get the kids to actually get some further education and follow the career they want to. If sometime down the track they want to come to the company, well and good, but the company will actually survive without them.

GEN: What have you been able to take from previous generations that you can apply?

AH: The quality in chocolates… our foremost priority is to not compromise that regardless of the cost. We’re now employing 100 people between the two companies, the manufacturing and the retail. The company’s trying to remember everyone’s name and still have the same culture; at the same time we’re trying to professionalise the business because of the demands from authorities to do certain things. Sometimes that creates a little bit of conflict with a family business culture.

GEN: So how do you deal with that?

AH: We tend to implement change slowly and try to get people to adapt to the idea before things happen. We try to make sure they’re on our side rather than pushing things through.

GEN: Do you have a business plan?

AH: Yes.

GEN: Where are you in terms of completing that and moving on to the next phase?

AH: It’s difficult because we can’t plan for any additional retail outlets in the short-term, but what we’ve got planned for our existing stores is going to provide significant growth.

GEN: How much time do you spend in the business?

AH: That depends, I belong to TEC (The Executive Connection). So I’ve learnt you have to differentiate between working on the business and in the business. Most of us spend our time in the business not on the business.

GEN: What are your goals personally and professionally?

AH: To build the business and leave it in a better condition than when I joined it. To ensure it survives the next generation.

GEN: Just to sum everything up, what would you say are your keys to success?

AH: Education, and that’s not necessarily formal education, but ongoing. I belong to TEC as well as FBA, so there’s always something for you to learn, you’ve got to be prepared to learn. You also have to have a good balance in life, to be able to control and cope with stress. You might only work 50 hours a week, but you’re constantly thinking about work and you have to understand and cope with that. A good mentor or a role model is also important.

GEN: Who’s yours?

AH: It’s changed. I guess initially it was my father. Probably now it’s my TEC chair, because we meet on a monthly basis for two hours. And of course, Dad’s retired. It’s changed a bit.

GEN: Can you explain the difference between TEC and FBA and what you get out of them?

AH: FBA’s more a network of like-minded business people, and addressing specific family business issues, like succession. And dealing with shareholders, which would also be relatives rather than non-relatives in a public company. At TEC we meet on a monthly basis, on most of those meetings they have a business speaker come in and talk specifically about a topic that’s relevant to all companies. So, not-for-profit and public companies and everything else get as much out of that as a family business. The gain is not of familybusiness focus, whereas Family Business is probably a lot more specific because it’s specifically family business.

GEN: Why did you join?

AH: In the case of TEC I read about it for quite a few years and had a few friends who were involved in it. They said it was very good. I’ve been in TEC now for ten years. Simon and myself were taking over the business, so it was good to have someone there who could bring in an outside perspective. As far as Family Business goes, initially I joined to seek advice about the fifth generation. Now I know what we should be doing as far as that goes, it’s more about putting something back in the community.

GEN: Your final point?

AH: You have to be honest. If nothing else, I think if you are that, you’ll be successful.