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Cold war: Weis family slams Unilever’s ‘broken promise’

THE Weis family has launched a broadside against food giant Unilever for its ­decision to close the Toowoomba factory where the ­famous Weis ice-cream bars have been made for more than 60 years and relocate to NSW.

Unilever announced yesterday it would shift manufacturing of the Weis bars to NSW, resulting in the loss of 93 local jobs and breaking a promise to the family, which sold the business in 2017 on the basis the factory would remain in the Garden City.

Julie Weis, the former managing director of the Toowoomba factory and daughter of founder Les Weis, said the family would never have sold the business to Unilever if they had known the food giant would shift manufacturing out of its home city. She said Unilever had given assurances to the family when the sale was made that the local manufacturing operations would be retained.

 

An undated picture of the Weis factory in Toowoomba.
An undated picture of the Weis factory in Toowoomba.

 

"Keeping the manufacturing local and the jobs was our number one priority in the sale," Ms Weis said.

"That did not mean it could never happen, but it is only two years (after the sale).

"It was always more than the money to us. It was about providing a quality product and providing interesting jobs for local people."

She said the deal had been struck with Unilever on the basis that it understood the local image of the brand and continued using locally sourced ingredients, such as ­mangoes, passionfruit and macadamia nuts.

"It was always a profitable business and this is a sad day for us," Ms Weis said. "We are deeply disappointed (with Unilever's decision)."

 

Les Weis at the factory in the early 1990s.
Les Weis at the factory in the early 1990s.

 

She said the quality of the Weis bar, which uses the slogan "the taste on everyone's lips", would suffer as a result of the shift to NSW.

"Even when we shifted into the new factory on the same site in Toowoomba it took time to adjust," she said. "We had one man working here for 30 years sourcing our mango puree."

The family-owned company had humble origins, with the Weis bar starting out as a home-grown recipe of Ms Weis' grandfather, using fruit salad and cream.

Her father, Les Weis, who owned a shop opposite the Empire Theatre in Neil St, Toowoomba, began selling what were then called Fruito Bars in the 1950s before branching out into home delivery and retail distribution.

 

Weis refrigerated truck making deliveries in Queensland circa 1960.
Weis refrigerated truck making deliveries in Queensland circa 1960.

 

The ice-creams are now distributed nationally in service stations, convenience stores and milk bars, as well as being sold in major supermarket chains Woolworths and Coles and independent grocery stores.

Under the Weis family, the company had invested in new equipment to double capacity and opened up export ­markets. The deal with Unilever was designed to provide the financial resources necessary to make the ice-cream a global brand, much like Paddle Pop, which also was invented in Australia.

Toowoomba Region Mayor Paul Antonio said ­Unilever's announcement was a blow to the city.

Three generations of the Weis family, Les, daughter Julie (white shirt) and granddaughter Lucy.
Three generations of the Weis family, Les, daughter Julie (white shirt) and granddaughter Lucy.

"My first thoughts are with the 93 workers whose jobs are on the line," he said. "The impending loss of a family firm that was built up in the city and grew to establish a nationally, even internationally, recognisable ice-cream brand is a bitter blow."

Unilever Australia and New Zealand chief executive Clive Stiff said the company had spoken to the Weis family and "we appreciate their deep disappointment, and we understand this is not something they would have foreseen when they sold the business to Unilever."

Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington called on the State Government to get the decision to close the factory reversed.

"Queensland already has Australia's highest unemployment rate and this is a massive blow for the local community," she said.

"I am determined to protect local jobs, so I implore the Palaszczuk Labor Government to pull every lever it can to get this decision reversed."



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