Alister Haigh is involved in an industry that’s serious about sweetness.
As the Chief Executive and Joint Managing Director of Haigh’s Chocolates, Alister has a wealth of experience when it comes to creating, promoting and distributing one of the nation’s favourite treats.
The Haigh’s offering is positioned at the upper end of the market, with a sumptuous selection of loose chocolates, blocks and pastilles on offer to eager punters.
Whether it’s the gentle kick of a salted caramel or the subtle creaminess of milk almond vanilla nougat, the choice of flavours is as extensive as Alister’s own knowledge about the industry.
The company has expanded since is started in 1915, with 14 outlets across three capital cities. While the business began its sweet exploits in Adelaide, there are now stores brimming with the tastebud-tickling offerings in Melbourne and Sydney, too.
Breaking the mould of supermarket distribution
As a fourth-generation family-owned chocolate business originating in Adelaide, Haigh’s is no stranger to the ins and outs of chocolate world.
Alister explains that his father, John Haigh, made a conscious decision to steer clear of supermarket-based distribution in the 1960s.
‘[We] sell through our own retail outlets, direct to customers,’ Alister notes.
As with any company, being aware of existing and future challenges is a must. Alister doesn’t need to sugar-coat these realities: There’s always the potential for an overseas chain of chocolate shops choosing to open their doors in Australia, for instance.
However, this Chief Executive and Joint Managing Director has undergone enough business mentoring to keep his finger on the pulse and stay ahead of industry challenges.
He understands the impact an ageing population could have on his workforce, given that it’s a labour-intensive business. When asked about the possibility of overseas expansion, Alister is realistic about the potential for this.
Making their products available for purchase online, within Australia, is the first priority.
‘From that we could possibly look overseas. That would be our preference – to be able to supply direct to customers rather than have to sell to a third party,’ he says.
Selling direct to the public a winning recipe
It was 1965 when Haigh’s expanded from South Australia, opening its Collins Street store in Melbourne. This store still stands today, with Victorians just as eager to gobble up the decadent delights as their South Australian counterparts.
What has been consistent throughout this process of expansion over the decades is the business’ firm belief in controlling the supply to customers in order to ensure the utmost in quality.
Alister agrees that this gives the company more control over how they present their offering, with their dedicated chocolate retail stores enticing a range of customers, young and old alike.
Only time will tell whether or not the company will remain a family business, although Alister is pragmatic about what future years hold.
‘We hope that it will remain a family business,’ he explains.
‘Although, we’ve now gone to a size where we’ve got five non-family members in key positions, and they will effectively steer the path for the company for the next decade or so until the fifth generation is old enough, experienced enough and qualified enough to consider contributing’.
That said, it’s an enviable industry to work in. Though major manufacturers capture a large portion of market share, that doesn’t concern Alister.
These manufacturers might have the economies of scale to push smaller players out of key distribution networks, but Alister knows that this is not what his company is about anyway.
He notes that the small players, like Haigh’s, focus on a more niche market, capturing the hearts of chocolate connoisseurs and sweet-tooth individuals.
‘When dad came into the business there were about 12 direct competitors. Now, we’d barely have two that are just chocolate retailers,’ Alister says.
Constant innovation to match changing tastes
With almost a century of chocolate-making behind them, it’s fair to say that Haigh’s is in a pretty sweet spot. They know their industry and they’re constantly seeking ways to innovate in order to draw customers into their deliciously scented stores.
In fact, Alister admits that the Haigh’s team probably puts a bit much pressure on themselves to keep their selection consistently appealing.
Every seasonal range has different packaging, but the efforts don’t stop there.
‘We bring in six to eight new products a year,’ Alister notes. He is acutely aware that in order to retain the interest of its customers, there’s got to be a reason for them to return to any one of the business’ 14 stores on a regular basis.
There’s even a product of the month, which is sure to entice customers into the store.
The company doesn’t tease its clients solely with pristinely packaged chocolate, either. Regular tastings are held at the store – at least once, if not twice per month.
Working in this kind of industry certainly has its perks, with those in senior management positions still getting to sample the latest flavours as they’re developed.
However, the line has to be drawn somewhere. Alister points out that it’s not until the final production stage that he would sample the latest sweet treats.
‘There are probably hundreds of experiments before that,’ he says with a chuckle.
‘I could spend all my days eating chocolate instead of running the business, which wouldn’t be very productive.’
Instead, Alister’s attention is focussed on the broader management and running of the chocolate-making business.
It isn’t just through product innovation that Haigh’s Chocolates are taking the initiative either. The company is the first in Australia to install a Baxter robot into their chocolate-making process to handle repetitive tasks.
By combining technical processes with business innovation, Haigh’s Chocolates is certainly taking a long-term approach to innovation..
As a TEC member since 1996, Alister has built on his leadership development skills under the guise of numerous Chairs, his current one being Keith Brooks.
‘I think before TEC came along I’d done a five-day management course and that was really about it as far as formal training goes. TEC’s enabled me to brush up my skills on almost a monthly basis,’ Alister eagerly explains.
He’s convinced that it’s aided his personal development ‘without a doubt’.
Furthermore, his lengthy involvement in the business has allowed him to gain truly varied insight.
‘I always find it very fascinating to have a speaker come back a second time to see whether they’ve changed their tune from five to 10 years ago,’ Alister says.
The opportunity to meet a lot of new people is a bonus, too.
Alister has also encouraged other members of the Haigh’s business to benefit from membership, with the company’s Adelaide-based National Retail Manager and the Area Manager for Melbourne both in KEY groups, which Alister felt would be beneficial for their respective personal development and networking opportunities.
Alister is honest about what he wants from TEC.
‘I have high expectations!’ he notes with a laugh.