Wayne Thompson

Wayne Thompson is a NZ Herald reporter.

Sweet smell of success for 50 years

Good staff and investment in machinery key to Nestle factory's longevity, says boss.

After the factory opened in 1962 daily tasting sessions were held with each new batch of coffee roasted. Photo / Supplied
After the factory opened in 1962 daily tasting sessions were held with each new batch of coffee roasted. Photo / Supplied

A whiff of lollies in the breeze - with a trace of gravy - is the sweet smell of success for a South Auckland factory providing steady jobs and export earnings.

The Nestle Cambria Park factory in Wiri is celebrating 50 years of operations.

A quarter of its output of confectionary and culinary products goes to local shops and the rest earns more than $60 million a year from Australia, Japan and South Pacific islands.

Factory manager Mike Kane said the plant's secret of survival when other companies were moving production overseas was its 320 staff and annual investment in machinery.

Mr Kane said Cambria Park was special for its staff-led improvement projects aimed at keeping the plant competitive in quality, efficiency and cost compared with Nestle operations in other countries.

Visiting executives from the Nestle headquarters in Switzerland were impressed at workers' will to adapt at a plant considered in the business as "complex" because of its diverse output - 360 different products, each with 30 different ingredients.

Nestle New Zealand corporate services manager Maurice Gunnell said the Cambria Park factory was established in 1962 with 50 staff to produce Nescafe instant coffee for a nation of tea drinkers.

Production of that - and Milo - was later moved to Australia, but the Cambria Park site had grown because of "swings and roundabouts" in the need for plants to have economies of scale. It had specialised in culinary and confectionary products since the early 1990s.

"New Zealand is the furthermost country away from head office but we try to present our own Kiwi way of doing things," he said.

"We are a successful business, but the market is as competitive as ever and we are seeking to improve."

Machine operator Heather Smith said that in a supermarket, she cannot help casting a critical eye over the shelves of soup and gravy packets.

"I'm looking to see whether the lips of the foil are properly folded. on the packets. My husband says 'stop it, leave it' but I can't help it."

She has worked at the factory for 34 years, in two stints - starting as a 20-year-old and returning to work on the twilight shift when her daughter started school.

Her line of three operators has two lanes and packages 160 sachets of Maggi culinary products a minute, which is double what it was.

"It's all done by the machine, which is lovely," said Mrs Smith, who nevertheless has to check the machine's work, information on the packet and take samples for the test kitchen.

Salome Moala'eua is a machine operator in the confectionery section, packing scorched almonds, mints, toffees and lollipops.

In her 26 years at the plant, she has raised four children and coped with changes in the plant's production. She was on Milo production when it was switched to Australia in the 1990s and changed from the Maggi line in 2003 when the Heard's Waiuku factory closed and its production was absorbed at Wiri.

"It's been great change and I've enjoyed working here. It's more multicultural and we respect each other's culture and work like a team."

Change from manually operated machinery to high-tech automation is as dramatic as what has happened with the job market in South Auckland since Ernie Rowe started his warehouse job 42 years ago.

A highlight was the company taking 100 members of its "Quarter Century Club" to dinner every year.

A half century of food

1962 starts making Nescafe and later Milo, Highlander condensed milk, reduced cream.
1990s focus on confectionery and Maggi cooking products.
2012 makes 3.85 million sachets onion soup a year.
$60m to $70m a year export earnings.
320 employees.

- NZ Herald

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