Hansells the very essence of a Kiwi family firm

BIRTHDAY GARDEN PARTY: Gillian Maunsell, 84, left, and Rena Fellinghan, 89,  who worked at Hansells from 1936 to 1945, with a staff photo from 1936.
BIRTHDAY GARDEN PARTY: Gillian Maunsell, 84, left, and Rena Fellinghan, 89, who worked at Hansells from 1936 to 1945, with a staff photo from 1936.

As a growing number of companies head overseas, one brand synonymous with Kiwi baking is celebrating its staying power.

Hansells, best known for its flavour essences, celebrated 75 years as a locally owned and run business yesterday.

Old and new employees gathered at the original factory in Masterton, which is still operating.

Sitting together under the trees in the factory grounds, reminiscing at the 1930s-style high tea garden party, were Rena Fellinghan, 89, and Gillian Maunsell, 84.

Mrs Fellinghan worked at the factory from 1936 until 1945.

Her job was to put the flavour essences into the bottles, and put the labels on – all by hand.

The job was "a lot of fun", she said, looking fondly at a staff picture from 1936. She can still name all the people.

Staff would play tennis and swim on the property. It was lovely being back at the factory, having been there to celebrate the 25th, 50th, and now the 75th anniversaries, she said.

Mrs Maunsell came to the factory after World War II, when she married John Maunsell, who had inherited the firm from his father, co-founder L B Maunsell.

She had corresponded with him for years during the war – she served as a signals operator, and he was in the air force – and was excited to move to the factory property. "I was very grateful to him, asking me to marry him."

The family lived in the house on site, and if Mr Maunsell nipped from the house to the office when he got up, he had to be careful to be back for breakfast, she said. "Otherwise the girls [staff] would find him in his pyjamas."

Staff members were like family. "A lot of things happened in the house. We used to play charades, and have dinner parties."

Mrs Maunsell's daughter Sarah Andrews, 57, was also at the celebration.

She and her two brothers would play hide and seek among the packing crates, and go roller skating in the factory.

The grounds were always open to the staff, and many had married there over the years, she said. "The garden, the factory, and the family were an entwined unit."

Although the factory had since been sold, the house had remained available to the family. She was thrilled the company had not followed the trend to head overseas. "I'm very proud of that."

The company is now part of Old Fashioned Foods. Chairman Alan Stewart said keeping it local was an easy decision.

"We cater for the New Zealand market."

The company had always been about innovation, having started as a series of experiments in the chicken shed, he said. "It's growth by innovation and good management."

Employee Sandy Wallens, 47, has worked at the factory since she was 16.

It was still about family, and staying local was part of that, she said.

"Everyone supports everyone else."

Staying Power

The name Hansells comes from the co-founders, L B Maunsell and a Mr Hansen, a chemist. Mr Hansen did not last long in the firm and it is believed he was shipped back to Australia on a bigamy charge. Hansells NZ Ltd began operating as a manufacturer of culinary essences in 1934. Today its brands include Vitafresh, Thriftee, King Traditional Soup, Sugromax, Sucaryl, Hansells and Kings. It is still best known for flavour essences, but other products include food colouring, gravy browning, drinking chocolate, drink powders, pancake mixes, baking goods and mousse. Hansells and its various brands were acquired by Old Fashioned Foods Group in 2006. Today, more than 350 people work at the factories in Masterton and Auckland and subsidiaries in Australia and Britain. Last year 4.5 million sachets, mostly Vitafresh, were produced a month.

The Dominion Post