“It was a case of business comes first, the family can come second and that seemed to carry through with all of us.”
They were Australia’s version of Willy Wonka, but what started as a tight-knit family business slowly disintegrated after 85 years of success.
At their peak, Darrell Lea had scores of stores across Australia, employed hundreds of staff and exported tonnes of confectionary internationally.
Today, their dazzling store windows are long gone, and the family that built a chocolate empire from scratch have little to do with their iconic brand.
Jason Lea Junior was in the fourth and last generation of Leas involved in the business.
His childhood was one that many can only dream of.
“I can remember from about age five where we actually lived on site at the factory at the time at Kogarah … At the lolly factory,” he tells Insight’s Jenny Brockie.
“My first job was my sister and I at about the age of ten … were told that we had to work in the packing room of the factory and we were packing chocolates in boxes.”
“I came up through the business doing all kinds of jobs: making chocolate, making liquorice, making rocky road.”
But before all this, the Darrell Lea story began with a man called Harry Lea who arrived in Australia as an immigrant from the UK.
Settling in the beach suburb of Manly, he and his wife Esther opened a small fruit shop where they sold homemade lollies and chocolates.
As the Great Depression wreaked havoc on retailers, Harry bought a shirt shop in Sydney’s CBD and began to sell his confectionary wares in 1927.
He named it “Darrell Lea” after one of his sons and began an upwards trajectory to become a household name across Australia.
In less than 10 years, they opened 11 more stores in Sydney and began their expansion into Melbourne with Harry’s sons, Monty and Harris, opening up a store in Swanston Street in 1940.
When Harry died he left the growing chocolate business to his descendants to continue, but when Monty’s son, Jason Lea Senior entered the chocolate business in 1962 things started to change.
Jason was on a mission to increase the business’s success and began to lay off family members who he thought were unqualified or unsuitable for their roles.
This included his own son, Jason Lea Junior and his brother, Lael Lea.
“In his words, I was a square peg in a round hole. I just didn't fit in with what he wanted me to continue to do,” says Jason Lea Jnr.
“He didn't directly sack me … but our then general manager of retail notified me that I was no longer required. He made the decision but it wouldn't come from him.”
His father did offer Jason Jnr a job in his Sydney factory, but by that time him and his wife Karen were living and working in Queensland.
“I didn't want to uproot everything that we'd built, home life and everything like that and I made the decision, you know what? No. I walked away from it.”
To replace sacked family members, Jason Snr brought in outside contractors and university educated professionals.
“It was a case of business comes first, the family can come second and that seemed to carry through with all of us,” says Jason Lea Jr about his family.
“The family that worked together did not play together. Outside of, 4 o'clock of an afternoon when the factory doors, the factory gates closed, we wouldn't see each other socially until the next day. I did not see my father socially at all.”
Despite his father’s effort to grow Darrell Lea, the chocolate business was not doing well.
In 2012, Darrell Lea went into receivership. All of their retail stores were progressively sold and hundreds of staff were sacked.
Today, their iconic products sit on supermarket shelves with countless other confectionary items – a long way from their previous place of pride in dazzling shop windows.
Over an 85-year history, the Lea family had it’s ups and downs, but their eventual demise is an example of how mixing business and family can go terribly wrong.
This week, Insight looks at what happens when family and business mix | The Family Business - Tuesday 28 March 8.30pm SBS