Reminiscing over their wedding photos Cliff Fleming and his wife Lee never imagined their family business Bundaberg Brewed Drinks would become Australia’s largest non-alcohol brewery and an international sensation.
Inviting Bundaberg Now into their Bargara home, Cliff and Lee shared not only a part of their history but also the passion behind Bundaberg Brewed Drinks and their lives together.
With two children, Rae-Lee and Michael, and five grandchildren, Cliff and Lee have been happily married for 54 years.
“I am very proud of our marriage, we met in Rockhampton where we both grew up, and were married in 1965,” Cliff said.
“I thought I was marrying a CEO at the time,” Lee chuffed.
“I thought I was going to be an executive’s wife and make cups of tea and things like that at the time!
“I ended up cleaning a lot and making soft drinks, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Cliff said in the 1960s his parents, Neville and Gladys Fleming, owned a snack bar in Rockhampton but he never realised the impact that would have on his life.
“Dad and I had worked in a finance company, AGC, and actually we had established the agency for this business (originally known as Electra Breweries) before we took it over, which had started some 10 years earlier, we took it over in 68,” Cliff said.
It was during Neville and Gladys’ days at the snack bar when a rep selling malted milk syrups approached them and suggested they should sell ginger beer and root beer from Bundaberg.
“We thought that sounded interesting and asked for some to be sent to us to sell,” he said.
“Because I was a representative in the field for AGC, I told our story as I travelled around, and I got a little agency business set up with what was then known as Electra Breweries.”
During the next few years after Cliff and Lee were married, Cliff was transferred to Darwin with the finance company AGC.
“It was a good move actually it was the last place in Australia to establish an office before AGC became national and I went up to Darwin and opened the office, and we were only there for just over 12 months and we had Rae-Lee in a hospital in Darwin,” Cliff said.
“Lee wanted to get back to her mother and so I resigned, and we bought this business; dad and mum moved from Rockhampton and I moved from Darwin and we had our business here in Bundaberg.”
It was 1985 when Neville, 68, and Gladys retired and handed the Bundaberg Brewed Drinks reins on to Cliff and Lee.
Cliff shared fond memories of both his parents and said his mum was like “superwoman”, and when Gladys retired, she had to be replaced with two-and-a-half people just to cover her workload.
“If anyone ever tells me that I am not as good as my mother-in-law, I believe them,” Lee said.
“She was a mighty woman, and we are very proud of mum and her achievements,” Cliff said.
“All businesses have ups and downs, and when we would have our downs, she was the one who always brought us back up and got us going again.”
Bundaberg Brewed Drinks a family business
Cliff recalled taking both his children to work with him, saying the playpen came in handy at times.
“They really grew up in the business and Michael stayed in the business for 25 years becoming a graphic artist,” Cliff said.
“He was involved in some of the artwork; in the early days he was the only graphic design artist we had, and in the later days he couldn’t produce enough artwork for all the labels, posters and in different countries as we had already sold in to a little bit of Europe, California, New Zealand, Singapore and England, so we were producing stuff for them and it got too much for just one person.”
For both Cliff, 76, and Lee, 77, there was one defining moment in the family business history, one that brought tears to Cliff’s eyes.
“Our daughter Rae-Lee married John (McLean), and they were both teachers out in Western Queensland, and a friend of theirs said to them ‘I think your father has a good business back in Bundaberg’ and so they came and asked me what the chances were of them getting involved?’,” Cliff said.
“I was so proud and pleased, my eyes swelled up and I said how soon can you get here?
“John worked in the business for about 17 years before we decided to give him the chance to be CEO, and he is still CEO.
Cliff said a golden rule that each family member was to always have a career before becoming part of the Bundaberg Brewed Drinks family itself.
“Absolutely the number one highlight for us both is that family, that they joined the business,” he said.
“We got excited when we sold a trailer load of mixes to Woolworths, we got excited when we sold the drinks to Coles, but the sticking point for us both was the family, and the family staying with the business and we have all made it grow!”
Cliff said he hoped that his grandchildren would all step in to the business in the future.
“We have a family rule where no one in our family can expect to have a job straight up, until they have worked for five to 10 years and experience another job, because the feeling you have when working for dad and mum is a lot different,” he said.
“That way they know if they ever come and join the business how workmates will treat them, and how to treat others, if they just came in as the boss’s son or boss’s daughter from the start, there’s a difference.”
Protecting the Bundaberg name
Cliff said he never thought during the sixties when he was on the road setting up small agencies to sell the ginger beer that one day it would be sold all over the world.
“We had always been looking to the future in the business and I remember having the first forklift in town and when the Woolworths food would come in, we would drive the forklift down the road and unload the pallets off the railway, before sending our stock away,” Cliff said.
“Australia is a bloody good place, as time went on, we grew, and for a number of years now we have even had Qantas wanting a little can of our ginger beer from us for their passengers.
“We have come to realise there is a lot in a name.
“Protecting the name of Bundaberg, I have always had the attitude we are responsible for the name, and we don’t need to dirty it in any shape or form and must care for it and protect it.”
Cliff said when they started there was 327 soft drink factories in Australia, and by changing with the times and ensuring the authentic taste and flavour of an original helped keep the business booming.
Cliff said in the early days, there was six people working in the business, including himself, Lee and Neville and Gladys, and for two years he had marketing man phone him to discuss the possibilities of expanding.
“For these two years I would say to him ‘I don’t need my business to grow I am flat out with what I am doing’,” he said.
“In the third year, he always phoned at the same time of year, he said he could grow my business by one third, and I said oh really that sounds exciting.
“I learnt a little about marketing and about using the name of Bundaberg in our name.”
Cliff said Bundaberg Brewed Drinks having strong roots in the Bundaberg Region helped make the business become successful.
“Absolutely, it was a highlight and also an understanding in my career, that being in Bundaberg because of the city it is, not only did it have sugar, the rum, and both the distillery and the sugar experimental station here, it all helped me in designing the way we do business,” he said.
“Not just our ingredients but the people here, from the engineering people in this town, it has been and still is a very marvellous serviceable city with all sorts of services available, and I will be forever grateful for those services.”
Cliff Fleming said along with the local engineers, there was also the help from other local business owners, such as Mr Schmeider who crafted the wooden kegs, who in turn helped with the success of Bundaberg Brewed Drinks.
As Rotary member for four decades Cliff said he’d seen some magnificent support given to others.
“I have been in Rotary for 40 odd years and I learn now that Bundaberg has one of Australia’s highest numbers of volunteering and giving,” he said.
“This just proves what I have been saying, as it follows on even through the business side, if you need a hand you can always just pick up the phone and talk to another business person for help.”
Bundaberg better than sliced bread
“Growing up in Rockhampton I envisaged I would go into business there, my grandparents and therefore my mother’s brothers were all bakers there,” he said.
“I remember my grandfather who had a big bakery in Rockhampton, I had gone off to a Jamboree in Melbourne, and there was something like 25,000 scouts from all over the world there, a big deal for about 1956.
“They had their own sliced bread, with a wax wrapper – it was brand new, so I brought home the wrapper and showed my grandfather and he replied, ‘I have heard about sliced bread, it’s a fad and it’ll never take off’!
“Oh boy, did it take off, at the time it was new to Melbourne and new to Australia and I thought it was marvellous!”
And in the last 51 years Bundaberg Brewed Drinks has taken off around the globe itself as the local company enjoys the international success of selling to more than 59 countries around the world.
“Our city here in Bundaberg has been big enough to provide all our business needs, with its wonderful people who have been very friendly to our business,” Cliff said.
“The people who have helped us over the time in Bundaberg, the availability of experienced people here and all the help given are the memories we treasure and are proud of the most.”
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