Alister Haigh Shares Leadership Lessons with AIB
Alister Haigh is the latest addition to the Australian Institute of Business’s suite of Industry Partners and Guest Lecturers. He’s the Chief Executive of Australia’s oldest chocolate retailer, Haigh’s Chocolates, which is headquartered in Adelaide. Started by his great-grandfather Alfred Haigh in 1915, the company has remained in family hands since its inception. In an era defined by start-ups, we’re thrilled that Alister will be sharing his insights on leadership with our students from the perspective of a company that values longevity.
In 1946, Alister’s father John joined the company with big ambitions to make world-class chocolates. He trained in Switzerland with Lindt and Sprungli before touring the U.S. to look at their retail strategies. When he returned home in the 1950s, John revolutionised Haigh’s chocolate making operations, sourcing high quality cocoa beans and machinery to make premium quality chocolates.
Although Alister and his brother Simon represent the fourth generation of Haigh men to run the company, Alister was still expected to learn his trade from the ground up. He completed a four year traineeship in the Haigh’s factory before becoming Company Secretary, Factory Manager and then General Manager in 1984.
Alister also inherited another interest from his ancestors: horses. His grandfather Claude was (and father is) a horse breeder as well as a confectioner, and as a young man Alister worked on a New Zealand horse stud farm. The job involved reporting to two bosses who were brothers and ran the farm together, an experience Alister later said gave him valuable insight when he and his own brother took over the reins at Haigh’s.
In 1990, Alister and Simon became joint Managing Directors, taking over from their father John. They quickly discovered, though, that sharing the role was not playing to their strengths. “Simon is a natural at facts, systems and details, whereas I happily took over the people and communication part of the business,” explains Alister, who has been CEO since 1995.
The 1990s were a difficult time to be in chocolate. The recession hit household pockets hard and luxury items like chocolate were the first to be cut from tight budgets. Yet Haigh’s rode out the downturn thanks to sound financial management and growth into new markets. It wasn’t the first time the company had faced difficulties selling its chocolate; In World War Two, with rationing at its height and chocolate almost impossible to obtain, the company diversified into boiled sweets and sold them directly to soldiers looking for long-lasting treats.
Being a long-standing family business, Alister says, has been a strength of the company. Team members can relate to the owners, who’ve been working alongside them since their youth. In other businesses, leaders face the challenge of coming in fresh, tasked with changing long-standing procedures without a pre-existing relationship. Not so here, where Alister was known and respected by his employees before ever making a managerial decision.
When changes have to be made, Alister prioritises communication and buy-in from key staff. “If you get your key people involved and having ownership of the projects and direction the company is taking, then it’s very easy for that to filter down,” he says.
Indeed, Alister’s strength as a leader is well-suited to running a company with such a legacy. By his own admission, he’s a conservative decision maker because he wants to make sure everyone is on board and comfortable with possible changes. He prefers to achieve consensus, and if that’s not possible, he will search for a compromise. Not everyone is a fan of that style, but Alister stands behind it. “When people make snap decisions without thinking about the consequences, someone has to put out the fire or pick up the pieces afterwards,” he says.
Whether it’s Alister’s penchant for harmony, or his belief that reward is a more effective leadership tool than punishment, slow and steady definitely wins this race. The company has a low turnover of staff with many long serving employees, some 30 years or more, which gives new staff an opportunity to learn the ropes, and engenders employee loyalty that any company would be proud of.
The company relies on its core fundamentals for its continued success, the most important of which is making premium chocolate from premium cocoa beans that are roasted in-house. There is also a focus on innovation and the delivery of its traditional products at scale rather than compromising traditions for the sake of efficiencies. Where other companies are looking to cut their overheads and speed up their production, this centennial chocolatier still follows many of the same formulas that they always have.
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