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August 27, 2015

Golden opportunity

An old ice cream manufacturer from the state’s North is establishing a new way of doing business from SA with smart thinking and fiercely local operations that supply a global market.

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  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Jessica Clark

Golden North is based hours from anywhere, sells its products in a market dominated by huge multinational companies and runs a manufacturing operation in a state where making things is increasingly less viable.

Yet, the last six years has seen the ice cream company grow its annual turnover from just $9 million to more that $23 million.

The world of ice cream has not revolutionised in that time, and nor has Golden North’s basic business – it still makes tubs of boysenberry, honey and Krazy Kolours ice cream and the iconic Giant Twins.

What has changed is the company’s strategy.

In 2009 Golden North was flailing. Much of its revenue was generated by a contract with a single client and a new group of owners, comprised of five South Australian families, had just taken over the business.

Peter Adamo, who had worked as general manager of Golden North for several years already, was one of the investors who took ownership of the business. He retained his role at the head of the company, and four of the five proprietor families remain actively involved in its day-to-day operations.

“You have to differentiate yourself from the others.” – Peter Adamo


General manager Peter Adamo

“Back then, 70 per cent of our production was just for one customer nationwide and it was all supermarket, so high volume, low margins,” says Peter. “It really had a major impact on the business so we decided to exit that contract and to build the Golden North brand.”

Cutting off the majority of your income stream is a daunting decision to make, but it was this choice that freed Golden North up to take more risks and chase more reward.

In place of this contract, Peter and his team have built Golden North’s identity over the last six years by launching new products, including soft serve that is available in On The Run and Krispy Kreme outlets and items like FruChocs-flavoured icecream that leverage existing brands. They’ve also formed strategic partnerships to create exposure opportunities, with a good example being their work as a sponsor of the Adelaide 36ers basketball team.

This approach has resulted in good growth in South Australian sales, but to continue to shore up the business’ position Golden North must now reach into new frontiers by establishing its position in distribution markets further afield.

The Giant Twin is wrapped and one step closer to being eaten

The Giant Twin is wrapped and one step closer to being eaten

Earlier this year, a foray into China – which is currently the world’s biggest market for ice cream – signalled the company’s bold future intentions. The modest ice cream maker from Laura, South Australia, now stands on the brink of entering a new phase defined by a presence across Asia and more sales along Australia’s eastern seaboard.

“In May, we sent 40 pallets of ice cream to China,” says Peter. “There were some five litre trays – for the scoop market, two litre tubs for the supermarkets, Giant Twin multipacks for the supermarket, some little vanilla cups for schools and cafés and restaurants.

“Our production is very seasonal, so it’s like a bell curve and the peak is summer. That’s why we’re looking at export markets, including China, but we’ve got some interest from South Korea in the soft serve side of the business and also from Singapore for icecream. If that picks up it will help level out the production.”

Golden North already has a strong presence in China selling a line of UHT milks, which can go for as much as $8 AUD/litre. Australia’s reputation as being environmentally clean and pure has fuelled interest in this product, and Peter says the company will capitalise on this with its marketing and packaging as it introduces more items to the market.

“You promote your brand and the environment,” he says. “So for us it’s the clean and green environment of Australia, and the fact that we’re gluten free and palm oil free, and that we use fresh milk and cream.”


An on-site lab tests to ensure the ice cream is safe and consistent

The performance of the first Chinese shipment will determine whether another can be sent this year, but Peter seems hopeful – especially as negotiations in South Korea and Singapore have begun slowly to develop.

But while international consumers will likely respond well to Golden North’s niche “Made in SA” position, their secondary distribution goal – Australia’s eastern states – will need something more specific to get them interested.

“We have brokers now in all states of Australia representing Golden North in food service [for commercial kitchens] markets,” says Peter. “But we’re not in any supermarkets on the eastern seaboard, so we’re looking to get Golden North in supermarket chains as part of our plan.”

In those parts of Australia, most supermarkets stock product from big companies like Peters (owned by the UK’s R&R Ice Cream), Streets (owned by absolutely enormous multinational Unilever) and Bulla (Australian owned) – most of which manufacture nearby.

Golden North – based almost three hours out of Adelaide – will need to overcome the considerable disadvantage of high freight and storage costs to make a successful entrance into Melbourne and Sydney’s shopping trolleys.

To counter this potential stumbling block, they are making their debut in a targeted and deliberate manner.

“You have to differentiate yourself from the others,” says Peter.

“We have a product that we’ll bring out to market in about September. It’s a low GI ice cream for consumers with diabetes, so we’re targeting that market – it has natural colours and flavours and we’ve used stevia [a sugar substitute] in it.”

Clearly, the low GI ice cream is a very specific new product – but its part of a suite of innovations that Golden North has in the works.

If expanding into new markets is the goal, then fresh product lines is the means.

The company is working on a three-tiered approach – it needs to grow local sales in SA while establishing itself interstate and gaining ground overseas. After the initial pushes into unfamiliar territory, all of these strategies will be underpinned by the regular release of new ice creams that will help Golden North to continue to grow and take a higher percentage of the world’s billions and billions of dollars of frozen dairy dessert sales. 

“Ideas can come from employees, from suppliers, from trends around the world.” – Les Beyer

Product development, then, is serious business that sits at the heart of the company’s future. But that doesn’t mean the job of developing those new products can’t be a little magical.

Golden North’s research and development team is made up of just one man, and his job – as we all secretly hoped – is mostly to taste ice cream and come up with delightful new ways of making it delicious.


Les Beyer is in charge of new product research and development

After almost 40 years working for the ice cream brand, Les Beyer has moved through several roles. He started out loading trucks, was recently head of operations and just last year was promoted to work full time in R&D – the first time Golden North had created such a role.

He’s recently overseen the complex process of creating the company’s first ever soft serve (which he says is “much more different than you’d think” to other ice creams) and is currently working on a new product line for a top secret partnership that will be launched next year.

As whimsical as it might be to imagine Les sitting in his office and dreaming up new ice cream ideas out of nowhere, the actual process (like most things in adult life) is far more practical.

“Ideas can come from employees, from suppliers, and trends around the world,” says Les. “We look at what is happening in other areas – what flavours are taking off or what types of products are taking off in confectionary, yoghurt – things like that – and see what might work for us. And also, we try and keep ahead of the market and develop products before it is popular elsewhere.”

Ideas from Les are passed through a series of different reviews before even a trial batch made on Les’ small machine is produced. First it is taken to an R&D roundtable, where its potential markets are identified, then it is looked at by a sales team who forecast how much might sell, while marketing swoop in next to consider the ways the public might be made aware of its existence.

Only after all that does Les begin to actually experiment with making some icecream.

“We look at recipes and getting different ingredients that we would need,” he says.

“Then we do small bench trials where we just make about a litre of ice cream, then once we do taste tests on them and develop one we think we want – we do a bigger trial in the factory to make sure it works through the whole system and maintains what we need.”


Just a few ice creams to help us with story research

The development timeline for a lot of new products is years, not weeks, and once they’re ready for the shelves Les and Peter know that customers won’t just miraculously start buying. While the company does a little bit of traditional advertising, it has increasingly been turning its attention toward social media as an avenue to support its plan for growth.

For a company that has been making ice cream since 1923, Golden North’s social media personality is surprisingly young and sprightly. This is likely because it’s a voice that has been devised and built by Tania Debono – a thirty-something publicist, artist and social media consultant originally from Adelaide, now living in New York.

She was brought on board to tackle Golden North’s social media after approaching the company with ideas of how it could organically fold its heritage nature into an engaging and evolving online voice.

“There are a few different personalities to the brand,” says Tania.

“Instagram definitely speaks to Gen Y – it’s proven through the demographic of the community. The Facebook community is very dedicated and loyal from a more traditional stand-point, some of the followers have been fans of Golden North ice-cream since the early 1940s and we are very careful not to alienate that community. 

“I would never work a Kanye West ice-cream appreciation onto Facebook – it wouldn’t work there, but Instagram would eat that up, it’s just being smart about who you’re talking to.”


Tania Debono manages Golden North’s social media

Tania’s activities are reaching Golden North consumers in a new way, and her success in doing so is bolstered by the company’s willingness to create campaigns that are relevant to the online space.

Recently, Facebook was used to crowd source a panel of taste testers who were ultimately tasked with picking from a range of potential new flavours for the iconic Giant Twin, which currently is only available in honey and vanilla. The winning new flavour will go into production after it is announced at this year’s Royal Adelaide Show.

“Everybody works together to get lean and try to take costs out of the business…” – Peter Adamo

Golden North’s quest to become gluten free and palm oil free, as well as the business’ insistence on using local suppliers to provide fresh milk and cream (while other manufacturers rely on milk powders bought from the cheapest supplier), also appeal to a savvy younger market. The palm oil campaign has particularly struck a chord.

“In 2011 we decided to become a palm oil free company,” says Peter. “It took us 12 months to make the change – we did a lot of testing to make sure you couldn’t taste the difference.” 

This move was highlighted in 2014 when Adelaide Zoo – where Golden North held an exclusive contract – decided to take on Streets as its ice cream supplier instead.

Streets did and continues to use untraceable and unsustainable palm oil in its ice cream and products – a practice that threatens orang-utan habitats and the sustainability of the species. By contrast, Golden North had finalised its palm oil free status and wrapped up a campaign that raised more than $16,000 for the Zoo’s orang-utan conservation program.

“After the Zoo’s decision we had such a massive swell of support,” says Peter.

“Consumers were ringing us up to tell us they support Golden North from all over Australia. We had some media analysis done on it and we reached an audience of about 7.1 million people and our friends on Facebook increased by about 5,000.”

The public’s reaction was so strong that Adelaide Zoo reconsidered its decision. Streets and Golden North now share supply there, with each company providing 50 per cent of the ice creams sold on site.

The growth Golden North is achieving with its multi-layered and smart approach comes with only one downside – it requires an investment in capacity if it is to maintain.

This is not something Peter has shied away from. Already, $4.5 million has been spent in upgrading plant and operations at the Laura site to make the manufacturing process quicker and more efficient.

Golden North is not only investing in its machines, it’s also investing in its employees.

“We’ve got 30 of our employees doing a lean manufacturing course on site,” says Peter.

“They’re looking at the process we go through, seeing where the waste is and trying to eliminate that. So that’s a twelve month program and after that they get a certificate as part of their training.


CityMag was pleased to visit Les’ office (which has an ice cream machine in one corner and a freezer in another), just as he had been conducting bench trials of a new, top secret flavour. Of course we taste tested it. And yes, it was delicious.

“Everybody works together to get lean and try to take costs out of the business because we want to survive.”

Maybe it’s because of this collaborative approach that our visit to the factory in Laura is characterised by employees’ cheerful “hellos” and teasing questions about our attempts to style an ice cream food photo. Or maybe they’re just friendly because they work with ice cream every day.

Either way, happy employees, strong sales figures, good growth trajectories, an emerging presence in international and interstate markets and a small freezer in the R&D office full of exciting new flavours makes it look likely that Golden North will thrive, rather than just survive, in the coming decades.

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