Gordon Slater, chairman of Slater International, owner of Byron Bay Cookie Company takes Food mag's Q&A and sheds some light on the joys and challenges of running a food brand.
Name: Gordon Slater
Company name: Byron Bay Cookie Company (owned by Slater International)
How did you get first get involved with the brand?
"About 12 years ago I was looking around at different business opportunities and a friend of mine said I had to have a look at this one as there was a possibility of buying into what was originally the Byron Bay Cookie Company. I suppose one of the key deciders was when I took along some of the product to my lawyer with the contract and asked for him to take a look at it, after a while I noticed that he’d eaten a whole container of cookies and was looking for more, so I thought that was a good thing to go off!"
Do you have experience in the food or manufacturing industries?
"No, not really. I'm actually an orthopaedic surgeon, so I guess the main overlaps in those industries would be discipline and organisation of skills, and also minimisation of risk. In surgery that's one of the things that gets taught very well.
"In both industries you have to work well with people. When you're a doctor you're always speaking to people and explaining things and I think that's one of the things that business leaders do – they not only lead but they also teach… Whenever someone has interface with me, my expectation is that I would have taught them something in that interface every single time, so every time they turn around hopefully they've learned something from me."
What tools and/or software are you finding most useful at the moment?
"I'm no computer expert but one of the things that I'm looking at a lot now is social media, especially in terms of brand communication and also in terms of gathering information from our consumers.
"Previously a little business wouldn't have known who was buying its product, but now with social media you can interface with your customer directly and you can find out who they are, what they buy and so forth. In addition to Facebook and Twitter, we’re also active on LinkedIn, YouTube and Pinterest.”
What's a moment that your most proud of in your career at Byron Bay Cookie Company?
"There's been so many. Most recently it would be launching the Anzac biscuit … We have a lot of decadent flavours and flavours that we've developed and put to market over the years, so to come up with a product that's an old family favourite was kind of fun.
"We started baking the Anzac in January and our product was launched on-board Qantas in February. So far the uptake has been amazing. The feedback on the product has just been fabulous.
"When we started selling to big players like Qantas and McDonalds, our organisation moved to the next level in terms of production scalability. When such big corporations come to us it’s always flattering as we obviously know about them and admire their business models, so we think 'This is fantastic' because they now recognise that we've reached a certain level in terms of our quality control and our ability to supply that they're comfortable buying from us. We recently launched six lines of Byron Bay Cookies in Woolworths supermarkets across the country and this another significant step for us in terms of our growth plan."
"Growing our international distribution is also on the cards and we've just gone through all the hoops and hurdles to get into Indonesia. The next step will be to send out our initial test product to them."
What's one of the big challenges facing the industry at the moment?
"There are enormous challenges in business at the moment. With the high Australian dollar, and without very much productivity growth all of a sudden we're not as competitive from an export point of view. As such we’re potentially looking at entering into joint ventures or turning up production if possible.”
"Payroll tax is another challenge – I was over in Europe recently and they laugh at our payroll tax. They say 'We want to employ people, we'll give you a grand if you will employ these people for us!' and we're kind of crazy in Australia – we're creating a situation where it's difficult to employ people. With the mining industry doing so well, it creates a whole lot of imbalances for the rest of manufacturing because the costs of getting somebody in are quite high.
"It's a good thing that people get paid fairly, but from a business point of view we also need to ensure we remain profitable. So for example, when we're thinking about launching into a new offshore environment I would like to use our local facilities to do that, but sometimes we might have to consider an offshore facility in order to get the right price point."
What's your next big goal for the brand?
"We've been named as an iconic Australian brand … and that to me is a sign of success, that we're known really well. So we'd like to take that notoriety and translate that into sales so that we're in every pantry in Australia, like Vegemite. That's a local challenge, but we'd also like that to be the case in Europe and the US so the brand is equally well known here as it is in those markets."
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