For 83 years, Charlesworth Nuts has been solely South Australian-owned and South Australian based - but the next phase of the business will see it expand further afield, ready for the fourth generation to take over.
All in the family
Christmas comes early every year for the crew at Charlesworth Nuts.
On a Friday afternoon in November, when CityMag visits, most of the Marion factory has shut down and started an early weekend, while a dozen or so employees stay back to continue packing and wrapping Christmas gift baskets – with each and every ribbon tied by hand.
“We’ll have 50-something people in that area for the next however-long-it-is until Christmas time, pumping out about 150,000 individual gifts. It’s pretty full on,” says Brett Charlesworth, CEO of Charlesworth Nuts.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we’re labour intensive. What we do is labour intensive. Even the glazing pots, they’re stirred by hand, the product is tipped onto a marble table, broken up by hand – and the reason we do that is that any other way of automating it results in a product that isn’t as good as what we can produce doing it that way.”
Leading into the festive season, Charlesworth Nuts employs around 330 people in the factory and across 10 retail stores, and once things quiet down, that number drops to about 180.
Brett is the third generation Charlesworth to run the business, with his brother Mark as CFO. It was under their stewardship that the business’ gift range came to be such a prominent part of their offering, now making up 45 per cent of annual sales.
But, despite the current-day prominence of Charlesworth Nuts in South Australia, the dynasty almost stopped at the first generation.
Herbert Charlesworth, Brett’s grandfather, started the business in 1934 by purchasing a nut stand in the Central Market.
He already had two stalls in the Market, which he’d operated for 12 years (one selling drinks and the other selling fruit and veg) but, as the family legend goes, “he bought it for his wife, because she needed something extra to do,” Brett says, “as if looking after a young family in the 1930s wasn’t enough”.
“You’ve sort of got to project back about 80 years and think ‘what would he be thinking?’ Well he was just a relatively young man with a young family looking to expand his business interests, happened to purchase an existing nut stall, and the other fruit and veg went by the wayside, the drinks went by the wayside, but the nut stall continued on.”
Herbert continued to build the Charlesworth Nuts brand throughout his life, but Brett’s father, Elliot Charlesworth – affectionately known as Chappy – had no plans to carry it on.
Chappy joined the Navy and, according to Brett, that was supposed to be his life thereafter. However, family duty called him back.
“His father took ill, so Dad came back to help run the family business some time in the mid-40s. So quite reluctantly he came back and got involved,” Brett says.
“He was certainly passionate about the quality and other aspects of the business; but [not] being tied to a shop day in, day out, as opposed to being on the open seas and seeing the world.”
Despite his hesitance, Chappy stayed in the business until the late 1970s, and set several precedents that would go on to define the company even to this day: he purchased the Market stall next to his and created a corner store, garnering extra Market exposure, and Charlesworth Nuts has continued this tradition by purchasing mostly corner stores for the same benefit.
Chappy also started roasting peanuts on-site in a machine he’d had made by a friend who worked at Holden.
“It was made somewhere in a back room down at Holden – I don’t know the full story and the details, it all sounded a little bit dodgy to me – but one of these peanut roasters was made and we started roasting peanuts on-site in the mid-‘50s,” Brett says.
“That smell of the roasting nuts would get out there, and so that was something that became synonymous with the Market… People would always talk about going to the Market in winter and smelling the hot roasting nuts, and at their peak we were selling about a tonne of roasted peanuts on a Friday.”
By the early 1970s, Brett and Mark had made it clear they were interested in taking over the family business, and so Chappy started making moves to expand.
In 1974, 40 years after his father had purchased that fateful nut stall, Chappy opened a second store in the Marion Shopping Centre and, three years later, built a factory on a plot of land in Marion, taking operations out of the family home in Glengowrie.
Unlike their father before them, Brett and Mark embraced the opportunity to run the family business. Straight out of high school, Brett jumped in and started learning from the ground up.
“Exactly why we ended up doing it – maybe we weren’t smart enough to do anything else, I don’t know,” Brett laughs.
“We had a manager in the Central Market store who had already been with us for five or six years… so I learnt the trade under her.
“After about two or three years, I felt that if I’m going to make a stamp on the business, I needed to take charge of that store… learn about managing and people and that sort of thing.
“I took over managing that store at that time. [By] then Dad was not heavily involved – he did a bit of purchasing behind the scenes, and really that was the extent of his involvement. So Mark and I had really felt our own way over the years, learnt a lot from our mistakes, and just continued to try things and build the company.”
Charlesworth Nuts did not, at that time, have the name recognition in South Australia that it does today. They were a purveyor of nuts and not much else – the chocolate coating and glazing was not yet part of their repertoire.
Throughout the 1980s, the brothers made a concerted effort to imprint Charlesworth Nuts onto the South Australian psyche, opened another seven stores, and started to play around with what their products could be.
“We started doing our chocolate coating – we’d never done that previously: we’d cooked our products, but the toffee coating, the chocolate coating, the clusters, all of that, we’d never done before,” Brett says.
“We started introducing a lot of new products, inventing a lot of new mixes, calling them all sorts of things – Millionaire’s Mix, Gone Troppo Mix – sort of trying to have a lot of fun with the product but be quite innovative, [and] the gifts as well, that was a huge thing.”
It was a period of rapid growth – but in the years since, there have been only a few major changes in the business, the most noteworthy being the opening of their 10th store across from Beehive Corner in 2011.
The reason for this, Brett admits, is that the family has spent too much time “working in the company instead of working on it”.
With Mark making arrangements to retire in two years’ time, and the next generation of Charlesworths – Rhys, Liam and Kain – already heavily involved in the company, the next step for Brett is to establish a new phase for the business, much like his father had done for him in purchasing the factory and the Marion Shopping Centre store.
“Over the last 18 months we’ve been going through a really full-on strategic planning exercise, looking ahead to the next five, 10, 20 years, and where we’re going to take the company, and how we’re going to change it and improve it,” Brett says.
“The interstate market is something that we want to seriously look at starting now… It’s a great opportunity, big markets over there obviously, and our model here works really well.
“Exports are a possibility. Whilst we’re dabbling in that a little bit at the moment, experimenting, speaking to a few people, if something came off in that area there, that would be an opportunity for the business to grow quite rapidly in a completely different area.
“I would be very keen and very excited to test a new market, and I may not be there at the end of it all, but it would be great to be there at the beginning to start that off and head it in a new direction.”
As for the fourth generation, like Brett and Mark, there is no resistance to accepting the Charlesworth crown – though it is something of a balancing act.
“No matter how old I am, or no matter how old they are, they’re always your kids and you always try to look after them and steer them in the right direction and help them along the way,” Brett says.
“But by the same token you recognise they’re grown men and they need to find their own way as well. That’s an interesting balance to find; making sure that they have a chance to spread their wings and be influential, and learn by their mistakes, just like Mark and I did.”
Whether Charlesworth Nuts’ next ploy takes them to markets interstate or even overseas, there will always be a South Australian heart at the helm.