From small dairyman to soft drink tycoon

Ken Clark began dairy farming back in 1980 in the Dordrecht district with five hand-milked cows. Using valuable savings, he increased the size of his herd.
Issue date 18 May 2007

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Ken Clark began dairy farming back in 1980 in the Dordrecht district with five hand-milked cows. Using valuable savings, he increased the size of his herd. By 1983, he was supplying to DairyBelle. “I knew I needed to add value to my milk because my farm was only 800ha,” he says. In 1984, he started his first small retail milk shop on an 80m2 property in Indwe, supplied by 2 000 litres of milk from his own herd a day. Three years later, business justified the acquisition of a 300m2 property and his first pasteuriser. As a result, he was able to start producing his first yoghurt. After yet another five years, he more than doubled his premises with an 800m2 building in Indwe. He became a serious manufacturer of significant volumes of value-added dairy products. This major upgrade came at an unstable political time in the Eastern Cape, when many businesses had put expansion on the back burner to see what the political climate would bring.

Despite these events, Ken’s instinct fuelled expansion. “There are two ways to look at it”, he says. “If everybody says not to invest, it’s probably the right time to invest, as you will have fewer competitors in the same market. Never do what the sheep are doing.’’ The dark clouds of the early 1990s were pushed aside by the 1994 elections and his business grew. “It was by no means easy going,” he says. “We had to work our way to the top, looking for good, second-hand equipment and ­maintaining it. Growth was slow but consistent,” Ken says. By 1997, he was again ready for expansion. “A business should never stand still,” he explains. An opportunity arose in Queenstown after a distribution business, previously associated with Bonnita, was ready to sell up. Ken and a partner bought the business, but his new acquisition quickly led to a logistical nightmare. “We were producing products in Indwe and transporting them 120km to Queenstown, where they were reloaded and distributed. That was not very clever,” he admits. Furthermore, Ken was also ­sourcing milk from Queenstown and Cradock, ­making a relocation to Queenstown all the more sensible. The Indwe property had become limiting and research had shown that Crickley Dairy could access 14 000m2 in Queenstown. Eventually, in 1999, he decided to make the arduous move from Indwe to Queenstown. Although ­disruptive, it proved to be the correct decision.

Consolidation in Queenstown

Since the move, Crickley Dairy has become a significant role player in the dairy industry in the Eastern Cape. They handle some 750 000 litres to
1 000 000 litres of milk a month. Crickley Dairy products are mainly distributed along the coastal belt, from Kokstad down to Port Elizabeth, and inland as far as Queenstown. Products range from full cream fresh milk, 2% low fat milk, amasi, fresh cream, smooth and fruit yoghurts, dairy juice blends and fruit juice nectars.

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Getting competitive

Competing against large, established dairy companies is tough for any smaller dairy, but Ken has always been convinced that the only way to successfully compete with these companies is to match or even better their quality and service, and offer competitive prices. “You have to compete with the bigger guys at their level. That’s the bottom line. There is no such thing as producing an el cheapo and trying to fob it off. Customers quickly pick that up.” Ken says a number of factors are of critical importance if any smaller dairy can hope to compete. The introduction of modern technology is crucial to ensure the consistent production of quality products at competitive prices, provided that volumes can be maintained. “You achieve a number of things by installing new technology. Most importantly, you become efficient in terms of cost and pricing.”
Lately, for example, Crickley Dairy sourced a Hassia form-fill-seal yoghurt machine from Switzerland, that forms its own polystyrene cups and sheeting, and packs yoghurts into six-packs. It manages 3 250 six-packs an hour, which makes volume production a reality.

Finding skilled labour

With cutting-edge technology comes the challenge of finding highly skilled labour. “It is vital to source suitable skills to ensure the effective operation of these machines. We have trained ourselves and luckily most of our top management are very technically-minded,” Ken says. However, technical expertise is not all that is needed. Ken explains that a need for holistic expertise is critical to ensure that all the business components operate in a similar way than those of a multinational company.
Ken stresses that at the end of the day, your expertise will determine how products perform in the marketplace as no market is untapped and unsupplied. “There is no free ride out there. If you are entering a competitive business like dairy, be ready to fight for your market share,” Ken says. Innovative marketing is part of this fight and therefore Crickley Dairy has recently revamped the look of their entire yoghurt range. “We want the customer to see the effort we put into our packaging. If it looks good on the outside, just imagine what’s on the inside.”
Over the years, Crickley Dairy took its share of the Eastern Cape market and by 2003 Ken was again ready for a new challenge. “Being situated in Queenstown and supplying to the Border, we competed very well and had fewer logistical challenges.”
In fact, he had no intention of expanding with dairy beyond the Eastern Cape, but began to investigate a new ­challenge that had technical similarities to the dairy industry. The carbonated soft drink industry came to mind. Ken assures that as long as the sums work out, and you do the research, ­expansion is not difficult.

Branching out

Twizza, Ken’s soft drink brand, has shown dramatic growth since 2003 as a result of what he believes to be a combination of the quality of his product and a very competitive price. His range includes the popular cola (including a lite version), granadilla, orange, pineapple and lemonade. “It’s all about quality combined with price, price alone won’t cut it. That’s why it sells,” says Ken. He explains that unlike Twizza, a number of carbonated soft drink brands never made an impact in the Eastern Cape in the past. In his opinion, they focused on retaining low prices, not quality. “We don’t make a substandard product at a cheap price. We make a top-quality product at an affordable price.”

This was proven in early 2003, when he probed the carbonated soft drink market with a Twizza range in the Eastern Cape. The first range did not do well, because it could not compete in terms of quality, despite its cheaper price. He then began looking for ways to improve the quality. A couple of years later, Ken’s Twizza range was being trucked into Johannesburg to supply clients who had first supplied him at the beginning of 2003. “When we bought our current equipment, we went overseas and studied the entire ­process at great depth. We found somebody who had worked for Coke and was selling ­equipment. He told us about the pitfalls of the industry and preferred machinery. We knew we were buying the right equipment for the right job. It’s expensive but necessary,” he says.

According to Ken, Twizza now produces a cola that competes with any other brand, while other Twizza flavours are better than those any other company currently offers. Consistent distribution to large parts of the Eastern Cape, Kimberley, Bloem­fontein and Johannesburg also play a role. As in the dairy market, Ken says gaining market share is challenging, but clearly possible with Twizza and should be approached consistently. And Ken has his sights set on bigger things. “We’re definitely looking at spreading our wings in a northerly direction,” he says

Contact Ken Clark on 082 558 9939. |fw