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Published 02 October 2013 00:01, Updated 02 October 2013 10:29
Dan Presser underlines the importance of selling the story of how Rosella, a once-great Australian company, lost its way. Photo: Luis Ascui
Since Sabrands, the company behind Sunraysia fruit juice, took over the 118-year-old Rosella food brand in April, its South Melbourne-based office has been inundated with phones calls from Australians.
They want to know when Rosella – still recognised for its colourful native bird symbol on its once-leading tomato sauce product – will have its own Facebook page so they can “like” it.
The head of the Sabrands family firm, Dan Presser, snapped up the business for an undisclosed sum after Rosella’s former owner, Gourmet Food Holdings, went into receivership late last year. The demise of its previous owner meant the Sydney factory in Seven Hills closed last year with the loss of 120 jobs.
Rosella began in 1895 when founders, HR McCracken and TJ Press, began making jams and preserving fruits in a Carlton backyard.
It has changed hands six times in the past 10 years.
Presser knows that part of the strategy for making Rosella great again is about selling the story of how a legendary Australian company lost its way. Rosella sauces, soups, chutneys and relishes are returning to supermarkets across Australia.
Rosella’s old headquarters in Seven Hills closed in 2012.Photo: Rob Homer
Presser wants to build Rosella into a $30-million company in the next three years, and take back the mantle of owning Australia’s top-selling tomato sauce. In the long term he hopes to export Rosella to countries where it once had a strong presence, including the US and UK.
Despite its troubles, ordinary Australians are still nostalgic about Rosella and are excited about it staying local. “Australia’s Page” on Facebook has stated, “Rosella tomato sauce is making a comeback”.
“It is again being made here in Australia [Victoria] providing more jobs for us all, let’s get behind them,” says the post, which has already attracted almost 900 “likes”.
“The more companies that know we are taking a strong stance, the more jobs that will stay in our country.”
Presser’s strategy is to take Rosella back to its origins by using local ingredients and local factory workers, to get Aussies interested in buying Rosella-branded products again. He says he already has a new motto (although it’s yet to get board approval): “As Australian as Rosella”.
“How can we make Rosella great again in the face of Heinz, owned by Warren Buffett, and Masterfoods, owned by Mars?” he asks. “That’s our focus. We want to take on the world’s giant food companies and have a vision and a view about how we can get there.”
Restoring the fortunes of Rosella’s once popular tomato sauce is a priority for the brand’s new owners.
Rosella’s demise is a result of years of neglect. The company, which in its early days delivered supplies to Australian and US troops in World War II, was taken over by Unilever in 1963. It returned to Australian ownership under Stuart Alexander & Co in 2002, but with the caveat that Unilever would retain ownership of the Rosella factory for five years.
Stuart Alexander was the owner until 2006, when the Rosella brand was sold once more. In December 2012, the former owner of Rosella, Gourmet Food Holdings, went into receivership.
Presser, who had been following Rosella since Unilever sold it, says he missed a chance to buy it then.
But once it went into receivership late last year, the buying price dropped and he knew he had a shot.
“There were 100 expressions of interest,” he says.
“It got down to two buyers – us, and an overseas food company looking to expand into Australia. We overbid them in the Dutch auction and we were fortunate enough to attain the brand. Rosella, which began as a family business in 1895, and is now back in the hands of a family business.”
The brand has gradually seen its product range and market share diminish. In 1994, 4.8 million litres of Rosella tomato sauce was sold. By 2012, that had dropped to 2.6 million litres.
“The company has been declining in its market share,” Presser says.
“As a romantic who grew up with Rosella – I grew up with it, my mother grew up with it, my grandmother grew up with it – I was saying, ‘where is the love for the brand?’
“In the past 20 years it has not had any,” he says.
The vision is to “put Rosella back where it was before the love was lost”.
“In some categories, for example relishes and chutneys, we’re still number one. But sauce declined, and soup declined dramatically.”
Presser says until 1997, Rosella had 25 per cent of the tomato sauce business. “It went down from 25 per cent to low single digit, about 2 per cent now,” he says. “The reason: there was a loss of focus and change of positioning. If you start replacing ingredients and change tastes that people are used to, people switch.”
Rosella’s label change was a “revolution instead of an evolution”.
“When we were negotiating with the receivers [Ferrier Hodgson] to buy it, we found out that people used to come to supermarkets and say, ‘Where’s Rosella?’,” Presser says.
“Dramatic changes to labelling caused consumers to become confused. They couldn’t find their favourite brand on the supermarket shelf.”
Presser says because Rosella is already a known name, they have a strong foundation to work from. “Rosella is part of Australia’s historic fabric,” he says. “It was once a great food company that was trusted by Australians and known for its quality and taste. That’s why we are going back to the original formulas and original packaging.”
People aged over 35 have a stronger affinity with the brand than those who are under 35. However, Presser says, “Rosella needs to re-engage with over-35 consumers and encourage them to be loyal.
“The ones under 35 are the lost generation,” he says. “We have to give them the love to sell the brand.”
Presser has already started making changes to make Rosella true-blue again, including using local farmers.
“As soon as we could, we switched to Australian ingredients,” he says. “As we speak, the tomato sauces in the glass bottle and squeezy bottle are all-Australian. It comes from Goulburn Valley, so it helps the tomato growers there. The tomato chutney and the corn relish are all-Australian now. And all our labelling is slowly being changed to reflect this.”
Presser says Sabrands also uses local contract packers. This has added 50 full-time jobs to a sauce, relish and chutney production line at Aussie Growers Fruit in Silvan. Sabrands will soon employ up to 10 more.
Tapping into Rosella’s long brand heritage is a key part of the Presser’s revival strategy.
The re-launched Blue Banner pickled onion brand, first made in Tasmania in the 1940s, will provide 26 jobs in Ulverstone, Tasmania, and onions will be sourced from 10 Tasmanian growers.
Presser says apart from appealing to consumers in search of Australian-made products, they are also working hard to get the major supermarket retailers on board.
Rosella products are stocked in Woolworths, Coles and IGA supermarkets.
“We need the same shelf prominence in supermarkets that is given to foreign-owned brands,” Presser says. “I have started talking to the supermarkets about that already, and am happy to say that Coles, Woolworths and IGA are totally supportive of what we’re trying to do.”
He says the supermarkets have also been helpful in providing data about Rosella product sales, although he won’t disclose this information to BRW.
“When we took over, a lot of information wasn’t available, even regarding the quantity of products being sold,” he says. “It was best estimates . . . which has caused some interruptions in production.
“If you think you’re selling x number of tomato sauce but you’re actually selling y number, it is a problem.”
Building the business will be largely dependent on Sabrands’ success in marketing Rosella to consumers.
Presser’s company is no stranger to taking on big-brand names and marketing them in Australia and around the world. Founded in 1977, its products include the Sunraysia and Devondale juice brands, and O-Cedar cleaning products.
“We are planning this year to give Rosella the same TV support that we give our other brands,” he says. “We will spend in excess of seven figures on marketing . . . In the short term our goal is to get the current products that we have back on the shelf and support them to grow. In the long term, we see Rosella as being relevant to overseas consumers, as some of the foreign brands coming here are to Australia.”
He says in the 1940s and 1950s Rosella was available in China, India, UK and South Africa. “Rosella made a lot of the foods for the US soldiers during the war,” he says.
“What countries we end up taking it to hasn’t yet been decided, but we do operate with the Sunraysia brand in several countries already.”
His focus for now is getting the local following up and hitting the $30 million revenue target.
“It’s going to take time,” he says. “It took 20 years to kill it.”