A family-owned and operated confectionery company in Ballarat recently named Business of the Year will this week become Australia's largest independently owned producer of snack bars.
Judges described the company as “a fantastic local success story that has demonstrated sound business practices and an innovative and nimble approach to product development to successfully compete against major national and international brands”.
Ferndale CEO Leigh Edward, pictured above, said the nomination and win was a fantastic reward for his team’s effort.
“We are absolutely ecstatic to not only be recognised in the Large Business category but then to win overall Business of the Year,” he said.
But, with Ferndale’s new $21million FoodLine Australia facility starting production this week, there’s no time for the company to rest on its laurels.
The factory — the company’s third — will initially manufacture for others, but Ferndale’s ultimate goal is to launch its own range of ‘better for you’ treats.
“Some of the biggest brands in Australia don't have factories; everything they make is outsourced,” Mr Edward said.
“So, for the first two years, we will likely make products that aren't our brands.
“When we launch our own range, we want to launch ‘better for you’ alternatives of confectionery favourites.
“At the end of the day, confectionery is indulgent. It’s a bit of a treat, so if we can make it a bit more permissible, that's what we will do.”
Ferndale Foods Australia was established in 1995 by Mr Edward’s father, Bruce, who mortgaged the family home and borrowed as much money as the bank would allow to build a small factory in Delacombe, Victoria.
The company is behind enduring brands such as So Soft Marshmallow, Jols Pastilles and Jila Sugar Free Mints.
Ferndale grew quickly, gained supply contracts with all major retailers and by 2004, was exporting to eight international markets.
“Ferndale started when I was 10,” Mr Edward said.
“I spent every day after school and during school holidays at the facility and have been in and around the business ever since.”
His siblings, Jarrod and Tara, have both worked at the family business but neither currently do.
Mr Edward became CEO in 2017 and it was under his leadership that the So Soft Marshmallow and FoodLine brands were established.
“It's been an interesting journey for us,” he said.
“When Ferndale Confectionery was launched with flagship brands that were sugar-free and fat-free and had no artificial colours or flavours, we spent the next 15 years trying to tell people that healthy confectionery was better for you — something they should try and eat.
“But people generally didn't understand it and generally didn't care.
“It wasn’t until the past eight or nine years that Ferndale grew. Last year, it grew at the fastest rate in its 28-year history.
“We did that with the same products, the same messaging and the same ingredients. The only thing that's changed is consumers’ buying habits; they’re now demanding ‘better for you’.
“We were ahead of our time.”
The proliferation of ‘bars’ on supermarket shelves inspired Ferndale’s latest venture.
“As we fast-forward into the new venture and you look around in the supermarket, there's an explosion of bars: there's the sports and nutrition aisle, the health food aisle, the nutritious snacks aisle and the confectionery aisle,” Mr Edward said.
“There are bars everywhere, but there are no new factories to make them.
“There’s been a big undersupply of product in Australia, which is resulting in imports and so a big part of our strategy is to allow retailers and brand owners to source product locally rather than having to go abroad.”
With rivals such as Nestlé, Cadbury and Mars, as well as ever-increasing consumer choice, differentiation and innovation are imperative.
“There's no use us launching ‘me-too’ products because we'll lose,” Mr Edward said.
“The big brands have the scale, investment, marketing prowess and the sales team, so we have to offer a competitive point of difference.
“For us to stay relevant, we have to continue to focus on the things that have built the business over the past 28 years — not only the best quality and value but innovation, flavour, excitement and newness.
“We must develop and launch products that drive category growth and consumer excitement.
“As such, we've invested heavily in technology, factories and infrastructure and carry out incredible research into the category.
“We speak to retailers every day of the week and so for us, the future is bright.”
But Ferndale still has its share of rocky roads.
“There are plenty of challenging days and and we're not insular to any of them — rising sugar prices and freight costs along with staff and labour shortages,” Mr Edward said.
“All of those things are ever-present, but they are for everyone.
“The way you attack them head-on and overcome those adversities is the difference between winning or losing.
“We've pre-invested a lot of time, effort and money into people and systems; the foundations have been built to absolutely go a long way to winning.
“Consumers can be excited to know that healthier bars are on the way.
“They'll still be a treat but healthier than what's on offer now.”
Ferndale currently employs 65 full-time equivalents, a number expected to rise to about 80 by Christmas as production cranks up at the FoodLine facility.
Mr Edward credits Bruce for the company’s longevity.
“I went to the Business School of Bruce,” he laughs.
“Two per cent of what I’ve learnt and know I got from a uni degree and the rest I learnt from either Bruce and/or experience over time.
“He’s a good operator. A lot of people in the industry would know Bruce and you don't get where you are without a founder and leader with as much passion and focus as him.
“Over 28 years, retailers and suppliers working with Ferndale have dealt with either Bruce or me. That’s it.
“He’s retired now, but I still see him every day.”
Happily, Mr Edward’s young children have taken a keen interest in the family business.
“When you’re four and five and your dad owns marshmallow and chocolate factories, it's hard not to,” Mr Edward said.
“They think they've got the coolest dad on the planet, and they will often try to pull sickies to stay home so they can come to work with Dad and play in the chocolate factory.
“We get to make lollies every day, what could be better than that?”
“Ai Group has been instrumental in supporting the growth of Ferndale Foods Australia over the past 28 years. Of particular benefit to me is the Workplace Advice Line, which we access on a weekly basis.” — Leigh Edward, General Manager, Ferndale Foods Australia
Wendy Larter is Ai Group's Communications Manager. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.