Sweet Success

Categories: Politics business and economics.

A Levin licorice maker is paying for his staff to take holidays overseas. It’s part of his success story.

Employees who’ve worked for Roger Halliwell’s company RJ’s Licorice for ten years are shouted an all expenses- paid week overseas.

And RJ’s now employs 60-70 staff so it’s not an insignificant cost to look forward to.

It all began in 1982, when Roger Halliwell sold The Paint Pot, the family paint and wallpaper business which he’d worked in since 1960 and owned since 1972.

Then Granny’s Licorice, a local business, ran out of money, and the receivers asked him to manage it. A few months later he bought it, but five years later sold it to Arnotts who then sold it to Nestlé who then moved operations to Auckland. The staff at Granny’s shrank from around 70 to just 17.

“In 1994 I bought the land and buildings back and started another licorice business with my wife Dixie and son Regan James; hence the business name of RJ’s Licorice.”

Lots has happened since then. Halliwell says RJ’s now make 17 of the top 25 licorice products sold in New Zealand.

It’s a story of quiet achievement, very welcome in a town like Levin which has seen plenty of company failures and job losses over the years.

Quietly over the past 20 years RJ’s has made itself the market leader in licorice in New Zealand, and now exports over half its production, earning the company a business success award in 2012.

Those growing up in the 1950s and 1960s will remember the licorice pipes and serrated black strips sold under the Black Knight label. Liquorice Allsorts were a staple of family television viewing in the 1960s, (along with Minties, blackballs and frozen buzz bars).

“Licorice is something that you either like or you don’t,” says Roger Halliwell, the owner and manager of RJ’s, “and people are clear about whether they prefer black or red. Red has less licorice and more glucose than black.”

Licorice is a plant, a perennial herb of the pea family. The word comes from the Greek meaning ‘sweet root’.

The Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Assyrians, Babylonians and Chinese all used liquorice as a flavouring and as a medicine.

Liquorice is recorded in England as early as 1200 in the monasteries of Benedictine and Dominican monks, and in 1700s licorice was produced in the northern towns of Pontefract and Worksop, mainly for medicinal purposes.

In 1720, a seven-year-old boy called George Dunhill is reputed to have added sugar to the medicinal recipe to make the first liquorice sweets, which became known as Pontefract cakes.

Halliwell points out that although RJ’s licorice sticks are being found everywhere – in dairies, supermarkets and movie houses – it’s licorice, but not as it used to be.

Today the raspberry-filled milk chocolate logs, the mango and white chocolate logs, or chocolate covered liquorice bullets are being chewed, munched and savoured by the 20- and 30- somethings whom RJ’s Licorice wants to make the new generation of licorice eaters.

“Soft eating black licorice is the biggest seller, but logs filled with chocolate or other sweet filling are right up behind.”

Roger regards being in Levin as positive for the business. “It’s handy for transport – both rail and road, and the workforce is reliable and stable. If we were in Auckland the cost of transport would be greater.”

At the factory, Karen, one of the office staff, takes me through the four-page health and safety document.

Roger is sitting at his desk just behind us opening the mail. I surrender my watch, pen, and cell phone and am given a magnetic clip board with a magnetised pen. Inside the factory, Roger and I wear long white bibs from head to knees, and a white hair cover. He has his own pair of gumboots. I put white canvas covers over my shoes.

Health and safety is taken seriously. So is product quality. A food technologist is checking product off the line every thirty minutes.

To make the brew take a tonne of black licorice paste, add molasses and other ingredients like aniseed, mix in a big tank, and then cook.

Twenty red streams of chocolate-filled logs are emerging slowly from a machine and making their way down the conveyor belt where another machine chops them into the required 17 cm length.

They are mechanically wrapped, packed and electronically tagged with the date of manufacture, use-by date and batch number.

The factory operates two shifts, from 5.30 in the morning till 10pm five days a week.

“We have the machinery to do twice our present sales volume. We could meet the demand in New Zealand operating about two days a week. We have to export to make the plant economic.

“There’s $20 million of equipment in the factory – all financed from cash flow over the years. If we were to get to supply one of the big overseas supermarket chains then we would be producing at the peak of the plant’s capacity.

A local boy Roger gives back to the community. He’s served on the local council, as a leader in Rotary, and he funded the Halliwell Hockey pitch.

“I played a lot of sport when I was younger, and I benefitted. Levin benefits from having a hockey pitch which is to a national standard and a number of major hockey events now take place in Levin.”

Like many manufacturers Roger would like a more stable exchange rate.

“Variability is the problem, because we can’t change our selling prices and the cost of the commodities can shift markedly with changes in the exchange rate.

“Labour supply is not an issue. If we have a job vacancy we advertise and we’ll get 100 replies.

“Our biggest problem is that people compare prices on an unreasonable basis. Licorice costs more than boiled sweets, but really you can’t compare the two on quality grounds.”

Back to the all-expenses-paid week-long overseas holiday. “Typically it’s Australia or a Pacific Island’: he says.

On a machine sealing bags of chewy licorice bullets with a supermarket label, I met Eileen who has been in the factory from the day it started 18 years ago. She took her trip to Fiji and is very much looking forward to the next one.

“We going to be paying out a bit over the next couple of years as a number of staff reach that milestone,” says Roger.

And he’s very happy about it.