Dunedin company enjoys taste of longevity

Marcus (left) and Alf Loretan outside Wests which has traded from the same site for 100 years. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Marcus (left) and Alf Loretan outside Wests which has traded from the same site for 100 years. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.

Whether its a pear and pineapple soft drink or a protein cream milkshake, generations of Dunedin residents - and those from further afield - have been quenching their thirst thanks to Wests. Business reporter Sally Rae paid the St Kilda business a visit and learned the secret to its longevity.

Being at the helm of a business that has been operating in Dunedin for 138 years is a responsibility that Alf Loretan takes seriously.

''You wouldn't want to see it going bust on your watch,'' Wests New Zealand Ltd director acknowledged sagely.

This year marks 100 years since Wests shifted from Maclaggan St to its current site on the corner of Bay View Rd and Moreau St in St Kilda.

The modest factory still churned out cordials, which were what the business was originally established on back in 1876, but soft drinks, milkshake syrups, soda and slushy syrups, post-mix syrups and energy drinks have been added to the range.

Wests, which still bears the name of its founder Tom West, is the oldest cordial and soft drink manufacturer in New Zealand and possibly the southern hemisphere, Mr Loretan said.

One of the major factors in the firm's longevity and success was the loyalty of its clientele.

It had a lean structure - ''we haven't got a huge head office with lots of departments'' - and, as a small company, decisions could be made very quickly.

Inquiries could also be responded to quickly, there was a stable, loyal workforce of eight, and investment in machinery had made manufacturing more efficient.

Eighteen months ago, a firm that Wests sourced its plastic bottles from announced it intended to close its Christchurch factory.

While bottles could have been sourced from Auckland, that was not going to be financially viable, so Mr Loretan and his wife Kaye invested in a machine from China that made the bottles on-site.

The blow-mould machine, while a substantial investment, had proven to be a ''godsend''.

The only machine of its type in Otago-Southland, it had already produced about 450,000 bottles.

There were also some ''unique flavours'' that customers seemed to enjoy, including cola and raspberry, pineapple and pear, which he described as a ''Dunedin icon'', and a chocolate-flavoured soft drink called Chocolade.

Coca-Cola once tried to emulate the cola and raspberry - Wests' most popular flavour - but did not get the recipe right, Mr Loretan said.

Wests, which also had a retail shop attached to the factory, sold to businesses throughout New Zealand, along with delivering to residential customers.

It had the largest range of sugar-free soft drinks in New Zealand, beginning manufacturing before sugar-free drinks became widely popular.

Mr Loretan also believed the firm was the only one in the country making a sugar-free milkshake syrup.

A container-load of drinks was once sent from Wests to North Africa and export was an area the company was interested in.

There was a potential customer in the Middle East and, if that order eventuated, it would be ''a fantastic thing for us'', he said.

They were also keen to get the Chocolade drink to the United States.

Mr Loretan believed Americans would love it, especially if it was a sugar-free version.

Prior to buying Wests, Swiss-born Mr Loretan had been factory manager at Cerebos Greggs in Dunedin for nine years.

He was looking for a new challenge seven years ago, despite having never run a business before, although his background was the factory environment.

Shortly after buying it, the global financial crisis ''set in'' and, while it had been hard work, they had been able to progress the business which was ''quite satisfying'' during a difficult trading environment.

It was a true family business, with Mrs Loretan working at the business when she was not at her other job as a part-time primary school teacher.

Son Marcus, who graduated from the University of Otago at the end of last year after studying finance and international business, is spending a few months at Wests, working in marketing and sales.

''One of advantages of having a family business is you can involve your immediate family if it is a good fit,'' Mr Loretan said.

Marcus Loretan acknowledged it was ''pretty special'' to be working alongside his father. And when it came to his own favourite tipple, he tended to like those that were a little different - like the pineapple and pear.

That flavour was a hit with people from around New Zealand, particularly in summer when holidaymakers brought jerry-cans to fill before they headed off camping.

''They can't get enough of it,'' he said.

His father recalled a visit from a couple, in their 90s, who had been away from the city for years.

They tried it and declared that it still tasted the same.

 

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