Soft drink company rich in history

Proud heritage: Cousins Matthew (right) and Darren Shelley now run the business their fathers started in 1968. Picture: Chris Lane
Proud heritage: Cousins Matthew (right) and Darren Shelley now run the business their fathers started in 1968. Picture: Chris Lane

NEXT year not only marks the 45th anniversary of Berts Soft Drinks, but the 120th anniversary of the original Shelleys soft drinks in Broken Hill.

Arthur Shelley's grandfather, John Augustine Moore, or "Jam" Shelley, arrived in Australia as a boy.

As a young man he worked at a cordial factory in Adelaide and later, after moving to Broken Hill, put that knowledge to use in 1893 by starting his own soft drink factory, Shelleys Aerated Waters and Cordial Factory.

Jam's two sons, Matt and Herb, helped him run the business until his death in 1927.

Mr Shelley said soon after that they realised the business could not support two families so they decided to go their separate ways.

"Matt's share was £3000," Mr Shelley said. "Matt came to Sydney with [his son] my father Bert. They came on their motorbikes in 1928."

They found a factory in Marrickville where they started producing soft drinks in 1930 and in the early days made deliveries in their cars.

Bert's older brother Jack had followed him to Sydney. Eventually all of Matt's four sons joined the business, as did his daughter's husband.

As the business grew, Shelley & Sons acquired other businesses and a second generation began working for the business, including Arthur.

"I left school when I was 15. It was considered that I could learn more in the business," he said. "My grandfather was still alive at the time. He had a policy that you had to start at the bottom and do everything."

He eventually found himself in the syrup room, where he was one of only five people in the company who knew the soft drink formulas.

"In those days you were not allowed to write the formulas down," he said.

"We had a locked up room [and] you had to get a key to go to a room.

"We would take in a bucket to make up the formula and bring these buckets of concentrate back and put them into large 700-gallon tanks. Everything had to be done by memory."

After receiving a £30,000 tax bill, it was decided to float the company on the stock exchange to raise cash. British Tobacco, now Amatel, bought into the company and took it over in 1964.

Arthur stayed on for five years but grew tired of working for a multinational so he and his brother Denis approached their father for a loan to start their own business.

In April 1968, they started building a 13,000 square metre factory at Taren Point. Everything inside was Australian made, down to the bottle washer. Only one piece of machinery, the bottle labeller, was brought in from overseas because none were made here.

The first Berts Soft Drinks bottles came off the production line on October 17, 1968. In the early days salesmen rode motorbikes door-to-door.

By the early 1980s they were supplying shopkeepers and had depots in Liverpool and Wollongong. Their biggest customers were sporting clubs until the mid-'90s when the multinationals started offering clubs free fridges. "We could see the writing on the wall and we decided we would start to do contract packaging," Mr Shelley said.

That, and their contract to manufacture Unique Water, remain big parts of their business today.

But the Berts Soft Drinks name continues through sales direct to the public and vendors (wholesalers) who supply small businesses.

"We have still got a loyal following of people who buy our brand," Mr Shelley said.

Today, Arthur and Denis remain co-directors but their respective sons, Matthew and Darren, take care of the day-to-day running of the business.

"I come in every day but they run the show now," Mr Shelley said, adding they were not interested in selling despite offers over the years.

Do you have fond memories of Berts?

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