It was a conference on corporate social responsibility back in 1993 that first planted the entrepreneurial seed in Ilse Keijzer’s mind. The now-42-year-old was studying communications and business in her native Netherlands and walked away impressed with the idea of a company needing a soul.
Seven years later Keijzer moved to Australia and five years after that, in 2005, the Dutch entrepreneur co-founded the Australian arm of Alter Eco, a manufacturer of 100% fair trade, organic and non-GMO chocolate and other food products.
Now living in San Francisco but visiting Australia regularly, Keijzer helps oversee a company with 25 employees and $3 million in annual turnover in Australia. Globally, Alter Eco turns over $18 million each year.
I have always been interested in corporate social responsibility. I studied communications and business at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and in 1993 I attended a conference about social responsibility of companies.
I was really impressed with the idea that companies need to have a soul and I thought I would like to do that later. During my studies I also had a placement with Canon Europe at the University of Rotterdam and I completed a research project into the social responsibility of large companies like McDonald’s and the Body Shop.
After I finished my studies I started to travel and I spent time in Central and South America working with non-government organisations. It was at this time I met a Frenchman named Tristan Lecomte, who was one of the co-founders of the first Alter Eco business in France.
He told me about his ideas. He was proud of the work NGOs do to help people but he wanted to help them also make a profit. So he started a big fair trade brand selling all sorts of products to large supermarkets.
Alter Eco works directly with the growers, it forms a core part of the business. The products are imported from a co-operative. The growers benefit from not only growing the products we buy, but also maintaining varieties that other companies do not buy.
I moved to Sydney in 2000, just before the start of the Olympics. But when I looked around there was very little fair trade products in the market here, whereas in the 1990s there was quite a lot in supermarkets in the Netherlands.
I spoke to Tristan and said what do you think about me bringing Alter Eco to Australia?
During 2003 and 2004 I worked for the Dutch consulate in Sydney and I was lucky to be able to work part-time. I could still have an income but it allowed me to start the business and do the courses and learn the things I needed to.
The business is based on imports and I didn’t realise what I would have to learn. The cacao comes from South America, the sugar from the Philippines. I had a lot of products in the beginning and there was so much going on.
I needed money to buy my first container of products and Tristan introduced me to a group of his friends and family, even monks from a monastery, who became my investors. They gave me a once-off loan of $160,000.
After that it was a bit harder as they weren’t in Australia but I managed to grow the business.
My background in communications helped me understand why it was so important to tell people who I am, what Alter Eco stands for and what is so special about the products.
It was very important for me to go personally to stores and let our retailers taste the food. And I sent samples to media.
I was alone in the business so I needed other people to invest in and love to tell the same story – the story of the farmers and that one, the products are delicious, two, the products are healthy, and three, the producers get rewards.
My business studies also helped. I took courses on advertising, negotiating, how to set up a network of people, how to write a business plan. It all helped.
I used to visit lots of small stores, drop off their orders and then go back to the warehouse. But after one or two years I came across the concept of a distributor, who could take a pallet of products for me.
My distributor has helped introduce me to retailers, like IGA. This month Alter Eco chocolate bars and chocolate truffles will be launching in all Coles supermarkets.
I’ve had a long-lasting relationship with Coles since 2005, when they first approached me and I have met with them each year. We have already done a trial in some Coles stores.
I think we are growing at the right time with the right products. There is an organically growing market for ethical products. And our story helps as well.
We are working at getting Alter Eco products in new channels, including cafes and hotels. I would love to grow this channel as well as other different channels including cinemas and airlines. We have been approached by a big company that does airline catering and it would mean a lot of people would see the products.
We are also expanding into the New Zealand market, which is close by. And there are so many more possibilities with online.
I have always used a business plan. It is a lot of work and can be a bit annoying, but it does give you guidance about what to focus on. I like the structure.
The logistics of my business keep me awake at night. One time I had a container leaving Bolivia to come to Australia and somehow it ended up in Peru. It is my worst nightmare. I can’t run out of products.
The best way to motivate staff is to first be respectful of them. The other thing is to work with them on targets. Have clear and open communication.
We also take our staff on an annual retreat, full of fun things and team building. It is important to have fun together.
Our staff also get three or four days each year to volunteer, whether at a food bank or a garden project, and we take them to see the co-operatives that we work with. They see with their own eyes what people are doing and the difference the company is making.
I could imagine starting another business. I have at least a hundred business ideas. I’ve always wanted to start my own handicraft business.
But I’m not finished with Alter Eco and I have plenty of new ideas to develop in this company. One wish I have is to develop a chocolate range with native Australian ingredients or to work with Indigenous artists to develop packaging for our products.