Cara Liebrock, the Canadian running the New Zealand division of global confectionery company Mondelez International, says the manufacturer of Cadbury and Oreos, among other snacks, is focused on expanding its biscuit and lolly business.
Liebrock, who was appointed managing director of Mondelez New Zealand about 14 months ago, has been working for the American-headquartered confectionery giant for 20 years. She was previously customer vice-president based in Toronto before making the moving to Aotearoa.
Mondelez, formerly known as Kraft Foods before it went through a restructure in 2012, has its eye on a number of popular biscuit and lolly brands popular in Canada, and other international markets, that it plans to debut in New Zealand in coming years as it moves to expand sales outside of its core chocolate category. The company is tight-lipped on what brands will make a debut, and when. READ MORE:
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In the coming year, Liebrock says the company wants to continue to create local chocolate block mash-ups and "Kiwi-centric" flavours that tug on New Zealand nostalgia, similarly to what it has done with the resurrection of 1990s classic Caramilk, which has since been brought back permanently, and its Pineapple Lumps chocolate block invention.
Forty two-year-old Liebrock started out with what was then Kraft Foods shortly after completing her business degree and had aspirations for a career in marketing.
Liebrock says she has always been "drawn to brands". And brands she has.
Brands galore in fact.
Globally, Mondelez makes thousands of products across a range of 55 brands.
The company manufactures more than 500 products under 14 brands and ranges just for the New Zealand market, and in Canada and the US - its largest market second to Europe - it is almost double that.
Nasdaq-listed Mondelez has a market capitalisation of around US$79 billion ($119b). The company posted an annual net revenue of US$25.9b in the 2018 financial year compared to US$25.8b a year earlier.
For years the company has remained quiet as it has dominated the sweet and snack foods aisles in this country - that was until it announced in 2017 that it would close Cadbury World in Dunedin, where it previously manufactured local favourites Jaffas and Pineapple Lumps, among other brands, and move production to Australia, causing public uproar.
The factory and tourist attraction, visited by 120,000 people annually, shut its doors for good at the end of last year after a more than 100-year run.
Its withdrawal from Dunedin hit its bottom line - its local revenue slumped by more than $80 million, and its profit before tax more than halved to $31.1m in the last financial year.
Liebrock, who has been living in New Zealand since October last year and is responsible for the business and its performance in the region, says local revenue had since bounced back, driven by sales of Caramilk and hype surrounding its chocolate block inventions.
While the company no longer manufactures its products in New Zealand, Liebrock says Mondelez is still committed to the market.
"New Zealand is a really important market for us. We've been in this country for over 100 years," Liebrock tells the Weekend Herald.
Mondelez recently shifted its call centre for the Australasian region to Auckland, from just outside of Melbourne, where a team of 12 staff field queries from stockists and consumers. The centre was previously located in Ballarat and employed nine staff.
Liebrock has six direct reports and leads a team of about 200 people, including the merchandising team, about just under a quarter of whom were hired this year. She says the company had "accelerated its investment" in New Zealand this year, though she was unable to share figures.
Liebrock says Mondelez is in an "exciting chapter of growth" as the company moves to expand its share in the local biscuit and lolly categories.
"I'm quite inspired at the moment by where we are going as a global business and what that means for New Zealand," says Liebrock. "The journey we're on right now is to make sure that we're winning within the local market - local first, and not local-only - trying to get that balance right, and to make sure we're bringing in global brands that have the right tone and personality for the market.
"At the same time looking at what Kiwis want, and making sure that we are innovating and bringing to the table things that are going to be exciting."
She says Mondelez is currently "doing a lot of listening" to what the consumer is looking for in the a market across all of its brands.
As well as Cadbury and Oreo, Mondelez manufactures Sour Patch, Natural Confectionery Co, Pascall, Ritz and Belvita products. The company is currently conducting market research on the Pascall brand to find out how it is perceived by market.
Mondelez' dominance in New Zealand is predominately in chocolate. Its business is currently about a 75:25 per cent split between chocolate and biscuits in this market, but Liebrock says the company wants the size and shape of its portfolio to change. "Chocolate today for sure is the heartland, and Cadbury is the heartland, but we've got a lot more focus on other parts of our portfolio, but also other parts within snacking.
"We've got this small and really growing business in biscuits," she says, adding that this was also the same with its gummy lolly category.
"The categories we're in today may not be the categories we're in tomorrow, and to me that's an exciting part of where we are going."
Liebrock says she finds it "inspiring" to walk down the grocery aisle as she finds there is "no shortage of innovative products" and "opportunities to grow in this market".
She says the company will next year take parts of its brands "into different eating occasions".
"We're also wide open to taking a look at other opportunities to maybe do business with other companies as a way of leveraging each other's assets," she says.
Liebrock was tapped on the shoulder to head the New Zealand market. She says the timing was right for an international tenure as her husband, who she also met at Kraft Foods, were both willing to take a bit of a risk and take on more responsibility.
"I'd been 20 years with the business and it was time for me to both deliver on a personal aspiration but also a professional goal."
Liebrock grew up in Sudbury, a small town about four hours north of Toronto, home to about 160,000 people. She remembers a childhood of exploring, fishing, hunting, hiking and biking, much like what she finds herself doing in her free time today.
She completed an undergraduate degree in business from Wilford Laurier University, located just outside Toronto. During university, Liebrock worked for fast-moving consumer goods companies helping with marketing activations - it was during that time that she developed an affinity for brands.
"At first I saw myself moving into the field of marketing, but I really just had this strong connection to brands and the roles they play in consumers' lives," she reflects.
"When I was looking for work upon my last year of completion, most of the businesses I was looking at were packaged goods. There was definitely a draw very earlier on."
In her last role, Liebrock was responsible for part of the sales group in Canada, though she started out in field sales before moving to lead the team. Over the years she has worked in various roles, including in trade, strategy and category planning divisions.
"The business has gone through so many integrations and divestitures that if you would have asked me when I started did I plan to be with the same organisation for 20 years, I would have said no," says Liebrock. "Because I've had the opportunity to do so many different roles, it really has felt like a different company."
The last year, she says, has been the hardest, but also the most rewarding, of her career.
Based in Auckland, Liebrock spends most of her time in the company's Avondale office, but she has also spent a fair bit of time in Melbourne where the company's head office for the region is located. Her work has also taken her to Vienna for the company's global conference and Indonesia this year.
"We've spent a lot of time this year making sure that we've got the right talent in the business ... we've put the resources back in and brought back local marketing - deliberate shifts to make sure that we can actually deliver on being the best snacking company in New Zealand, we're really optimistic about the future here," she says.
The resurrection of Caramilk, and the Pineapple Lumps chocolate blocks and other innovations, had done "great things" for the chocolate category and lifting sales, says Liebrock, but the company had also spent a considerable amount of time this year on its sponsorship partnerships.
Mondelez this year entered into new partnerships with the Olympics, Netball, KidsCan and Conservation New Zealand.
"It is about being a good corporate citizen," says Liebrock.
"We want to make sure our brands are pleasing consumers, but what also pleases them is making sure our brands stand for something outside of a great taste."
Next year, Mondelez will trial paper packaging on its Energy chocolate brand, with the intention to roll this out to all of its brands and markets if all goes well.
Liebrock says New Zealand was often used as a testing ground to trial and incubate new innovations in the snacking space before taking them to other parts of the world. "Root to market is really easy, it is a very consolidated market... we're able to test in a small batch and get the learnings back quite quickly."
Mondelez has been blown away by the response to Caramilk. A fan of the hybrid caramelised white chocolate herself, Liebrock says she would love to see it on shelves in Canada and other markets.
She says she took the chocolate to a board of directors meeting, though a decision to launch it in other markets outside of New Zealand and Australia is still pending.
"The recipe to make Caramilk is actually quite complicated so we'd have to be challenging other markets to see if they could pull it off."
This time of the year is "massive" for Mondelez, which over Christmas, along with Easter, debuts a number of limited edition seasonal ranges. The company starts working on its Christmas ranges and planning for the silly season in December, a year in advance.
Mondelez is moving to snatch a greater share of alternative snack markets as consumers become more health conscious. Biscuits and crackers also present greater growth opportunities.
Liebrock says the company is optimistic about what it can do within the local biscuit market. "Today, we have effectively a 5 per cent share in the category and relative to other markets we are a more significant player."
She says there is no shortage of other biscuit brands it can introduce here.
"Canada I would say, and even within crackers, there's a lot of really great brands that I think Kiwis would love, that really skew to a lot of the trends that I think are in consumers' mind - health and wellness, clean ingredient lines."
Liebrock says keeping up with the pace of change is the biggest challenge facing her sector - but she sees it as opportunity. "[Consumption] is changing dramatically, everyday, and across the globe, in addition to New Zealand, so it is dramatic, and I think that's exciting."
Asked if a permanent Caramilk cafe following a successful pop-up in Christchurch or a new Cadbury attraction to fill the shoes of Cadbury World was in the plans for the year ahead, Liebrock says no.
But she stands by her stance that Mondelez and Cadbury remains committed to New Zealand despite no physical footprint. It would continue to increase its "local" positioning and investment in the market, she says. "I don't think we ever lost our local roots.
"We lost manufacturing in Cadbury World, but we're still here. We've always been here and we've continued the investment. While we are not from here, we are very much for here.
"We're definitely dialling up more of a local focus."
• Age: 42
• Job title: Managing director of Mondelez New Zealand
• Education: Bachelor of Arts from Wilfrid Laurier University
• Family: Married to Shaun, has son and daughter, aged 8 and 5
• Last book read: Mindset by Carol Dweck
• Last TV show you watched: Billions on Netflix
• Last overseas holiday: Canada