Darrell Lea

Sweeter times for Darrell Lea.

Maybe the high point came in 2004 when Darrell Lea licorice was a dessert ingredient at Mary Donaldson's wedding to Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark. Despite such royal imprimatur the company has come to a halt on a rocky road of its own making.

An Australian confectionery staple for 85 years, the family-owned Darrell Lea was placed into voluntary administration this week after the third-generation representative of the Lea family, Michael Lea, and his directors raised concerns about the company's ability to meet its financial obligations.

Sales had fallen 20 per cent since 2007. Last year, the once all-powerful sweets manufacturer lost $3.3 million.

Harry Lea, Willy Wonka of the Darrell Lea family.

Harry Lea, founder and Willy Wonka of the Darrell Lea family.

Darrell Lea became a victim of its own expansion - at one stage there were nearly 2000 small independent outlets scattered around Australia as well as 70 stores the company owned.

Efforts to save the company by export action were undermined by the strong Australian dollar.

Family run companies tend to have inferior management performance but the faithless desertion of Australian sweet tooths was perhaps the bitterest truth to digest.

They went for more up-market chocolates such as Haigh's, Guylian, Lindt and Max Brenner.

Darrell Lea had made millions of dollars sitting comfortably among the ''mid-market'' brands appropriate to a past Australia that did not like to draw attention to itself by being showy. Now, however, confectionery is not so much about taste as being seen with the right brand, and the company's branding and marketing strategies were overwhelmed by newcomers. Anyway, the supermarket chains muscled in on the ''mid-market'' business with their own cheaper brands.

Still, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, spoke for many when she learnt Darrell Lea was going broke. ''Everybody has probably eaten a lot of their Rocklea Road over the course of their lives,'' she said.

''I know I have.''

In fact, Rocklea Road, created in 1953 by founder Harry Lea, was to join the Hills Hoist, Vegemite, the Sarich orbital engine, the Victa lawnmower and a few other 20th-century gadgets as somehow symbolic of the best Australia.

The administrator, Mark Robinson, of PPB Advisory, is working on a major review of Darrell Lea's accounts to help understand the extent of its problems. Publicity Australia's biggest privately owned chocolate maker sparked reports that, horror of horrors, it could even become unAustralian-owned. ''This is an iconic brand which means a lot to Australians and I'm sure it will live on in some form into the future,'' Robinson said.

Just what it all means for Darrell Lea's 700 employees remains unclear. Theirs is indeed a true Rocklea Road.

Life and times

  • 1917 Englishman Harry Lea starts making confectionery at the back of his fruit shop in The Corso, Manly.
  • 1927 Lea opens a milk bar-confectionery shop in Haymarket and names the company after his newborn youngest child, Darrell Bernard Lea.
  • 1935 Establishes factory in York Street under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Lea perfects his first almond nougat sweet, Bulgarian Rock.
  • 1940 Starts manufacturing in Melbourne and opens a shop in the CBD. The sweet colonisation continues and Darrell Lea eventually has more than 70 stores across Australia.
  • 1953 Releases its best loved product, Rocklea Road, a chocolate-covered marshmallow bar.
  • 1957 Harry Lea dies.
  • 1968 The company lists on the stock exchange.
  • 1982 It is privatised again.
  • 2008 The company wins a six-year legal battle brought by rival Cadbury over Darrell Lea's use of the colour purple (which Cadbury uses for its Dairy Milk range packaging).
  • 2012 Darrell Lea placed in voluntary administration.