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History of Darrell Lea – An Australian Icon

In 2020, the name, Darrell Lea, is still synonymous with chocolate and confectionery and remains an iconic brand recognised by 82 per cent of Australians nation-wide, despite the demise of their once bespoke shops with those magnificent work of art window displays, staff uniforms featuring oversized bows and take home trademark paper bags.
Although this much loved retail business whose motto from yesteryear was, ‘stack em high, watch’ em fly’, no longer has its shingle adorning our streetscapes and shopping centres, a trip down memory lane will remind us of the Company’s halcyon trading days and in some small way, help to keep the brand alive and ensure our favourite treats that are sold today through licensed independent retailers and supermarkets continue to be well supported for decades to come.
The old adage, ‘from humble beginnings’, sums up the Darrell Lea story ‘to a T’ and if you read on, you’ll see why and be admiring of such entrepreneurial spirit at a time when the business not only survived the Great Depression and World War II, but thrived.
Arriving in Sydney in 1916 with his wife, Esther, daughter and four sons, Harry Levy, an English immigrant, trained confectioner and a dapper, handsome gentleman began his journey on the road to creating, Darrell Lea, a truly family business for generations on, but not without internal conflicts along the way.

In 1917, with the help of Esther, Harry started making and selling homemade sweets at the back of his Manly Corso fruit shop to boost sales during the slower winter months, a sideline move that proved so prosperous they started up their Castlereigh Street milk bar and confectionery store in the City’s Haymarket precinct, circa 1924, as some sources say it was three years later.

Around the beginning of the Depression, Harry, brought to life the Darrell Lea brand naming the business after his youngest son and setting up shop in a defunct shirt store in Pitt Street giving an appreciative customer base a taste of things to come, including his first almond based product, Bulgarian Rock, a hard nougat sweet.

By that time, Harry had changed his surname from Levy to Lea and monumentally chose to sell his products with their hallmark freshness at half price and unlike other businesses, remained profitable. His rationale, that in spite of dire economic times when all else seems hopeless, people will still spend money on indulgences to lift their spirits, a strategy that not only paid dividends at the till, but with enduring customer loyalty too and one we now know as mass marketing.

In 1935, the name, Darrell Lea Confectionery Co. Ltd, was officially registered and as 1936 rolled around, a factory was opened at 1 York Street under the first arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

By the mid 1930s, 12 shops were trading in Sydney and the first in Swanston Street Melbourne having been opened by Harry’s son Montague (Monty) in 1940, the same time a manufacturing base was established in the southern Capital after the conversion of an old shoe factory, although there are those who contend it was a movie theatre.

Harry died in 1957 aged 81, but not before creating, as a result of a recipe gone awry, his signature soft eating liquorice and handing over the Company to sons, Darrell, Monty and Harris.

As the business continued to grow like topsy, a new factory was set-up in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah in 1962 which was tragically destroyed by fire 18 years later causing production to be outsourced to other manufacturers under the supervision of Darrell Lea staff until the rebuild was complete in 1992.

Harry’s eldest son, Maurice, credited with a flair for displaying stock from his days working in the fruit shop, opened five stores in Brisbane in 1966 and continued to ensure fresh product was always at hand until he retired in 1996.

Come 1990, Darrell Lea, could lay claim to being the country’s largest player in the confectionery market which came as no surprise given the regular queues of people at their shop counters to buy from the over 800 product lines with favourites like Rocklea Road,

chocolate of all varieties, coconut ice, marshmallow and of course, their famous liquorice always high on the shopping list.

At the height of the Company’s success, it was claimed there was anywhere between 60 and 80 individual stores, depending on who was asked, along with product representation in some 2,006 other retail locations across the country. 

Among the many moreish treats churned out daily, a selection was earmarked for fundraising opportunities and at seasonal times of the year like Easter and Christmas, 60 additional items were produced to cater for predictable demand, including the perennial nougat Easter egg, complete with fluffy chick, which became a fixture of the range from the 1930s.

Australians weren’t the only people who enjoyed the never-ending delectable goodies rolling off the production line as the Company successfully established export destinations.

Also in 1990, Darrell, sadly  passed away at the age of 62 having held the positions of both Chairman and Managing Director (MD), the latter being a role Harris was appointed to as well, in 1971. 

Monty’s son Jason worked as Chief Executive Officer in 1962 rising to the role of MD between 1983 and 1998. He became estranged from the rest of the family towards the end of his life before dying of leukaemia in 2005.

In 2003 Darrell Lea found itself in the Federal Court fighting a legal battle with Cadbury Schweppes over the use of their colour purple for uniforms and store signage and packaging. The case dragged on for some five years before the judge ruled in favour of the confectionery business.
Perhaps the high point for Darrell Lea came in 2004 when their liquorice was used as a dessert ingredient for one of the many haute cuisine dishes served at the wedding reception after the marriage of Tasmanian born Mary Donaldson to Frederick, Crown Prince of Denmark.  
Notwithstanding such royal imprimatur, the Company was to soon thereafter, descend into freefall on a rocky path to inevitable change.
Jason Lea Jr. was the fourth and last generation of the family members to work in the Company before outside management was brought in to run the business in 2005, however, that arrangement didn’t last, as in July 2012, the operation went into voluntary administration and was eventually bought two months later for a reported $25 million by the Queensland based owners of, V.I.P. Petfoods, the Quinn family.

After a significant restructure of the business and the injection of $30 million, it took only until 2013 to bring the business back to prosperity, but not before the closure of all remaining 32 speciality shops, a reduction in product lines to 100 items and the loss of over 600 staff.

With a change of management also came the relocation of Darrell Lea’s operations in 2014 to a custom-built facility at Ingleburn in Sydney’s south, a location that is now as well the headquarters of the Company.
During 2015 the new owners continued to rebuild the brand and pursue expansion opportunities through the acquisition of RJ’s, an iconic New Zealand (NZ) family run business that dominated the country’s liquorice market. This domestic growth was complemented with an increase in exports to the United Kingdom (UK) and the United  States (US) which further consolidated an already strong presence in these markets.
After six years, Darrell Lea, was sold again, this time for $200 million to, Quadrant Private Equity, one of Australia’s leading private equity firms who today, employs 200 staff to run this growing confectionery business.
Additional expansion plans and acquisitions took on accelerated momentum under the stewardship of Quadrant with the purchase of a range of well known Australian and NZ brands, buying them back from Nestle including, Lifesavers, Fabulicious, Mackintosh’s, Black Knight, Oddfellows and Heards.
This decision returned the manufacturing of Lifesavers to Aussie soil for the first time since the early 2000s. Come March 2019, the ubiquitous  lolly staple was rolling off the Ingleburn production line to cater for the 20 million packets required to meet an insatiable demand.
Not only did Australian consumers benefit from the transaction with Nestle, but so too our Kiwi cousins across the ditch, as some of their iconic brands were put back into the hands of a NZ business.
By late 2018, Quadrant, had laid the ground for Darrell Lea to again become the nation’s largest independently owned and operated confectionery company. This repeat milestone coincided with the start-up of a factory, retail outlet and a
Chocolate ‘Centre of Excellence’ in Rowville Melbourne after the purchase of Heritage Fine Chocolates, a direction which saw the creation of an additional 50 jobs.
To the absolute delight of the consumer, the Darrell Lea brand is once more on an upward trajectory here at home and overseas, witnessed by increased sales across the board, a doubling of the seasonal gifting business, the release of new products such as Real Twists and the use of a Masterbrand stripe packaging design for easy shelf recognition.
Liquorice is now one of the  Company’s fastest growth categories with Darrell Lea and RJ’s’ products identified as leading brands in Canada, the US and UK, a status held for over a decade.
The ever popular Darrell Lea Bullets are reaching megabrand status with no signs of a contraction in sales anytime soon given their appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds.
With the confectionery side of the business humming along nicely, in 2018 Darrell Lea reintroduced its range of luscious ice cream laced with either the timeless Rocklea Road, Licorice or Peanut Brittle, the same flavours, and more, that now feature in their new chocolate blocks launched in May 2019, the first ever in the Company’s 92 year history and one that hopefully sets the trend for bigger and better things to come in the future.
Darrell Lea has also partnered with Muffin Break to create never before scrumptious treats like the Lamington Rough Muffin or one of several liquorice varieties.
This innovative thinking coupled with plans for future expansion leaves little or no doubt that Darrell Lea remains the  most dynamic confectionery company in Australia, which should be a source of pride for us all.
To ensure Darrell Lea maintains this envied position and to cater for evolving consumer tastes, the business in 2020 is now part of The RiteBite Group established by Quadrant in 2019 to offer the public a range of entirely Australian owned brands and products from indulgent confectionery to premium health snacks, all under their collective ‘box of treats’ initiative.
Who knows what exciting opportunities may arise in the years ahead. Perhaps we could even see the return of signature Darrell Lea shops and, or, ice creameries, in the meantime, there are many of us who are just happy that this iconic brand is still going strong and are grateful to a man by the name of Harry Lea who left an inedible mark on the retail sector with his confectionery empire.
Not a bad achievement for a lad of 12 who arrived with his parents in Perth, worked odd jobs in his early years and resided in both South Australia and Victoria before making Sydney his home during uncertain times and all without a university degree in sight.
References-On Request


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