History of Darrell Lea – An Australian Icon
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.
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,
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.
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.