Soft centres at Darrell Lea

In an age of retail and manufacturing disruption Darrell Lea failed to keep up. But many of the ingredients for its recovery are part of the solution for other enterprises, and for Australia.

Productivity Spectator

What happened to Darrell Lea could happen to Australia. It made the same mistakes Australia is in danger of making. Darrell Lea could never adapt to the fact that the good times had gone and that the old boom-time strategies had to be changed.

Former BHP Billiton chief Don Argus, writing in The Australian today, warns than Australia will face the same problem if China slows. Like Darrell Lea, Australia is basing its finances on a continuation of boom times.

Accordingly, Darrell Lea represents a warning to governments and companies that booms do not last forever and if you enshrine boom-time strategies then come the tough times you suffer badly.

More directly, the collapse of Darrell Lea is a further alert to all retailers and manufacturers: Re-engineer your business to cater for modern trends and improve productivity or you will die. The lesson applies to owners, managers and workers.

In the retail sector, Darrell Lea is no isolated example. We have seen a string of retailers get into trouble including big brands like Myer and David Jones, plus Billabong. Appliance retailers have been particularly hard hit.

Manufacturers and service industries have the same story.

Darrell Lea stores still look almost exactly as I knew them as a child. Yet they don’t have the same magic, even to my grandchildren. Darrell Lea confectionery is not as cheap as supermarket confectionary and many of us now buy former Darrell Lea type purchases via the upmarket brands.

Darrell Lea is in high rent areas and the confectionary margins don’t allow it. A reader says he knew they were in strife when they changed the layers of licorice in the licorice allsorts. I suspect that the company did not invest in the latest manufacturing equipment at a time when more and more confectionary is being made overseas. In other words, productivity did not keep up. Of course it would have been very expensive to substantially curtail local manufacturing because of retrenchment benefits but it would have lowered Darrell Lea retail prices closer to those of competitors.

And if you have an extensive franchise chain, you need to advertise. Darrell Lea did not have the money.

I don’t know how to solve the Darrell Lea problem but I know some of the ingredients in the solution will be more online retailing; lower production costs via importing; a different product range; lower rents and much smarter marketing.

And if you think about it, many of those ingredients are also part of the solution for other enterprises and they are part of the Australian solution. Here at Business Spectator we have been alerting Australia that the lower productivity we are experiencing is not just about unions, IR laws and infrastructure – it's also about bad management. Treasury has woken up to this.

The Telstra Productivity Survey shows that less than one in three enterprises and even fewer government bodies can be bothered measuring productivity (Waking up to productivity, March 28). I hope that someone can find a formula to restore Darrell Lea. Eighty-five year old businesses are something special but no matter how old the business, unless its re-engineered to the modern environment, it is vulnerable.