Whittaker's: Brand of brothers

by Ruth Laugesen / 11 July, 2014
Andrew and Brian Whittaker are on track to overtake Cadbury as the country’s biggest chocolate sellers. Ruth Laugesen looks at how they’ve done it.
Whittaker's Chocolates & Confectionery Company's Fargo Truck 1936. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library.


This article was originally published in the Listener on April 18, 2013.


Cadbury’s giddy purple-themed advertising campaign promises a riotous trip to Joyville. But for some, sampling Cadbury appears to have been a journey straight to SadCity.

“Have you ever experienced heartbreak as great as biting into a piece of Caramello only to find it completely devoid of caramel?” writes Abi Borrows on the company’s Facebook page. Another dejected fan claims he has had a bad experience with a Moro bar: “You can’t play with my heartstrings like this. I thought we had something special. I am so done.” Of the first 50 Facebook entries on the day the Listener checked, 32 were complaints.

The melancholia seeping from Cadbury’s Facebook page – genuine or otherwise – might be one clue to why a little company from Porirua is on track to becoming the biggest chocolate-maker in the country. According to a chart on the wall of the Whittaker’s boardroom, on current trends this family-owned company will overtake Cadbury in the sale of big-block chocolates in New Zealand in about a year’s time. The trend lines show growing sales of Whittaker’s mirrored by Cadbury’s shrinking market share. With 38% of chocolate tablet sales, Whittaker’s is gaining steadily on the global goliath, which has the bulk of the rest of the market.

Under the leadership of two obsessively private, quality-focused brothers, the 117-year-old firm has grown to become one of the bigger local food companies still in New Zealand hands. Its exports to Australia and Asia are also growing – the firm’s Almond Gold slab is the single biggest-selling chocolate item in Singapore. Along the way, it is proving that local manufacturing is an advantage for companies serious about product innovation and quality control. The brothers closely supervise the bean-to-bar manufacture that starts with roasting and winnowing cocoa beans from Ghana and Madagascar and ends with neatly wrapped bars that emerge from the factory at a rate of 14.7 million big blocks a year.

NOT FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION

Andrew and Brian Whittaker may not command a workforce of Oompa-Loompas, but like Willy Wonka they have an unusual relationship with the outside world, strenuously guarding their privacy. Although many business owners trumpet their achievements in public and rub shoulders with other chief executives, the Whittakers have refused to be interviewed or photographed for decades, and don’t appear to mix with other business leaders. The only official pictures of the pair are on the company website – of Brian, the elder, as a little boy and Andrew as a toddler.

Brian and Andrew as pictured on the Whittaker’s website.


When Prime Minister John Key toured the factory recently, the brothers avoided being photographed by the PM’s staff for the usual publicity photos that go on Key’s Facebook page. Instead it was Andrew Whittaker’s son, export manager Matt Whittaker, who was pictured showing Key the firm’s latest investment, a $10 million Swiss machine that processes milk chocolate to an even finer consistency.

Whittaker’s marketing head Philip Poole, an urbane Englishman, won’t even say how old the brothers are. “They’re middle-aged.” Fifties, sixties? “Middle-aged,” says Poole politely but firmly.

He is prepared to reveal that they arrive at work between 6.30am and 6.45am each day, don blue overalls with the embroidered name tags “Andrew” and “Brian”, and head for the factory floor to supervise the complex array of machinery. “If you ever meet them, they will have their blue overalls on and be covered in chocolate.” While other executives have airy first-floor offices at the front of the Whittaker’s complex, the brothers’ offices are in a corner next to the factory floor where the nutty, chocolatey smell of freshly roasted cocoa beans wafts through the air. The aroma changes depending on whether it’s a peppermint chocolate day, an almond day or ghana dark one. In the company car park, the brothers’ matching silver Porsches are next to each other.

Andrew and Brian Whittaker aren’t twins, but around the company they are referred to in one breath, as if they were one person. The last time the pair voluntarily had their picture taken for public consumption was in 1991, when they posed in front of Andrew Whittaker’s TVR Tuscan racing car for an Evening Post storyon their love of fast cars. From behind dark glasses and impressive facial hair, the pair wear enigmatic Mona Lisa smiles. They look conspiratorial. Elbows touching, they wear matching outfits of jeans and denim shirts. The article says they were rich as teens, flush enough to each buy a Holden Monaro to burn up the roads.

Andrew (left) and Brian Whittaker in 1991


The elusive Whittaker brothers are vital characters in the company story, which revolves around the mystique of a third-generation family firm. The company’s television advertisements often mention “Andrew and Brian”, as if we somehow know them. But the pair never show their faces. Nigella Lawson, who fronts ads for the new range of Whittaker’s milk chocolate, refers to them, purring, “Hello chocolate-lovers, got something rather special here that Andrew and Brian have sent me.”

The family’s fourth generation are much more relaxed about fronting for the firm in public. Along with Andrew’s son Matt, 31, daughter Holly, 29, works at the Whittaker’s headquarters as marketing manager. Holly, who as a teenager wanted to be an artist, ended up in advertising. She spent five years in Melbourne and London working at top ad agencies on global brands before taking up a position at Whittaker’s a year ago. Matt Whittaker has been involved in procurement for the company for the past three years.

Fourth-generation chocolate-makers Holly and Matt Whittaker.


Are the chocolate brothers perhaps shy? No, says Poole. “They’re very private people. They will say that they’re chocolate-makers, that’s what they do, that’s what they enjoy and that’s what they’ve been doing for the past 35 years.” Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett, under close questioning, will only reveal they are “nice blokey guys”, and is apprehensive about annoying them by going public with this insight. Local National list MP Hekia Parata calls them “true connoisseurs,” who are “very quiet, very private”.

FACEBOOK FACE-OFF

If Cadbury’s Facebook page can suffer from bouts of angst, the one for Whittaker’s is more like, well, Joyville. Fans are cultishly enthusiastic, pledging fealty, dreaming up new flavours, begging for Easter products and trading baking recipes that use Whittaker’s chocolate. One barometer of the size of a company’s fan base, and the company’s social marketing nous, is the number of “likes” on the corporate Facebook page: Whittaker’s has 191,000 and Cadbury’s 166,000. “This has made my life complete,” gushes a fan of the new peppermint santé bar. “The best god dam [sic] chocolate in the world,” writes another, of the new peanut butter chocolate flavour. “I’m in love with your chocolate and I don’t buy any other brand but yours now,” says another. We looked at Whittaker’s’ postings the same morning we read Cadbury’s. Of the first 50, only one was a grizzle, versus more than 30 gripes aimed at Cadbury. A pack of 12 dark peppermint mini slabs contained an extra piece. “As much as I loved the chocolate I could not consume the 13th slab because my stomach was at full capacity.”

Holly Whittaker


What has Cadbury to say about the whingeing on its Facebook page?

“If any of our products do not meet our customers’ expectations we encourage them to get in touch so we can put it right. We have responded to the above customer feedback on our Facebook page to resolve their individual concerns,” says spokeswoman Adelle Foster.

“We did experience an unusually high volume of complaints following the Easter period, which is a very busy period for us and high volumes of chocolate products are sold during this time. The lack of Caramello in Dairy Milk Caramello was a manufacturing glitch which has been addressed. It’s important to note that the way the product is handled and stored post-purchase can affect the quality of the product and this is out of our control.

“Cadbury has been in New Zealand since 1884 and we are incredibly committed to our customers and the local market. We employ more than 550 people locally – and up to 700 at seasonal peaks – and produce iconic New Zealand confectionary products including Buzz Bars, Chocolate Fish, Pinky bars, Jaffas and Pebbles.”

What does the company make of the Whittaker’s graph that predicts Cadbury’s demise as the top chocolate brand? Cadbury won’t respond directly to the prediction, except to say the firm is the country’s No 1 chocolate. “So families are voting for the Cadbury brand every time they go into a supermarket,” says Foster.

GREAT LEAP FORWARD

As has been retold many times, Whittaker’s leapt from doughty peanut slab makers to sophisticated mass-market manufacturers on the back of Cadbury’s palm oil disaster of 2009. Cadbury moved to save costs by swapping cocoa butter for cheaper palm oil in its dairy milk chocolate and downsized its bars from 250g to 200g, without downsizing the price. The ensuing hullaballoo about palm oil and its role in the clearance of the habitat of endangered orangutans saw the Whittaker’s market share leap from 22% of the big block market to 32% within the space of a year, and its retail sales in supermarkets and petrol stations shot up more than 60%, from $17 million to $27.6 million between 2009 and 2010. The figures exclude exports. The fuss created the conditions for a mass sampling of Whittaker’s products – free of palm oil – as annoyed chocolate lovers stampeded.

However, that simple narrative obscures the fact that the company was poised for change anyway. The brothers had patiently transformed the company with years of investment in equipment, careful attention to quality of ingredients, new product development and expert marketing. When the palm oil crisis hit, Whittaker’s was ready. It had a skilled advertising team and a product that could withstand all the attention it was suddenly getting.

“Obviously we are biased and think our chocolate is very good quality, but if it hadn’t been, sales would have gone back down again,” says Poole. “Chocolate is a small indulgence. People have an expectation and they don’t want to be disappointed.” After the 2009 spike in interest, sales remained high and have continued to grow at about 10% a year, he says.

Until then the company had struggled to get much space on supermarket shelves, says University of Auckland marketing lecturer Tom Agee. But the sales shift led supermarkets to dedicate more space to Whittaker’s, which in turn helped sales. The company also stepped up the development of new flavours, to a total of 24, including white raspberry, peanut butter, hokey pokey, berry and biscuit, white macadamia, dark caramel, dark Ghana and kiwifruit. Says Agee: “Of course, Cadbury couldn’t keep up with that.” Other offerings have also sprung up, from slabs such as almond and cranberry to new flavours of santé bar and packets of small chocolate squares.

Holly and Andrew Whittaker.


Last year, Whittaker’s won the coveted title of New Zealand’s most trusted brand, as measured by an annual Reader’s Digest survey. Cadbury had held the spot for six years. It has been a spectacular conquest of New Zealanders’ affections, says Agee. “They’re innovative, they’re Kiwis, they’re hitting the big guy and people are supporting them, not just because of that, but also because the products are bloody good.”

Cadbury, bought by Kraft, now known as Mondelez, makes chocolate for the New Zealand market in Dunedin, Australia and even further afield, but Whittaker’s is made in one place. Workmen are currently crawling over the factory site, extending the office block. Over 80 staff now work at the site. The brothers, who took over the company from their father, Maurice Whittaker, in the late 1970s, have long-range plans for more capacity.

MORE TO COME

The shape of the pair’s ambitions can be glimpsed in the wide expanse of floor space between the new five-roller machine that refines the milk chocolate and the massive conching machine that uses giant blades to mix the chocolate. The empty floor space, explains an engineer, is set aside for two further conching machines – one of which has been ordered from Europe – which will triple milk chocolate production capacity. Whittaker’s has also bought an adjoining Hannahs warehouse for storing ingredients.

Further back on the production line, a stack of cardboard boxes contain one of the talismans of the company’s success. The boxes hold cocoa butter, ivory in colour and similar in appearance to white milk chocolate. The cocoa beans used to make chocolate already contain cocoa butter, but this is extra butter to improve the texture. So where’s the Whittaker’s palm oil? Tim, the engineer playing guide, grins and mimes a vigorous kick. “We haven’t got any. We’d kick it out the door.”

Brand advocate Nigella Lawson. Photo/Getty Images


The Nigella Lawson ads are part of the Whittaker’s ambition to become a world-class brand. She is being paid mega-bucks, but she agreed to endorse the milk chocolate only after tasting to ensure it met her standards.

Agee isn’t sure the Whittaker’s story – so powerful in New Zealand – will necessarily translate into export success. He points out it is difficult to get a foot in the door of foreign markets for fast-moving consumer products. “You’ve got the competition of major brands such as Nestlé and Cadbury, that are so well known, and a few others.”

But Tim Morris, director of research consultancy Coriolis and a food industry specialist, says Whittaker’s has the potential to eventually grow to become a $1 billion company. According to a Coriolis report commissioned by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment on the processed food sector, total turnover of Whittaker’s was an estimated $80-100 million in 2012. Whittaker’s says the figures are not correct, although it doesn’t provide any of its own.

Morris says there is a myth in New Zealand that only global multinationals can achieve big success in the food market.

“Where do big companies come from? From small companies that do something well and keep growing. Around the world there are many successful family-owned, firms that focus on product. Multinationals focus on 100 different things and end up losing focus on quality and they certainly lose the ability to innovate. With Coca-Cola, you could write a book on its failure to innovate.”

He says Whittaker’s is probably already of similar scale to some companies that are among the top 100 world confectionary makers. “There is a handful of New Zealand companies that are doing really interesting things and Whittaker’s is one of them.”

The company is not lacking confidence. Poole says a strong domestic base will allow it to steadily expand its exports. “The ambition of the company is to make world-class chocolate in Porirua. For me, it’s about a New Zealand company taking on those multinationals and being successful. A lot of manufacturing companies say you have to go offshore to be successful and New Zealand’s too small, but I think that’s not necessarily true. If a company is ambitious enough and has the talent within the company, it can do it.”

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