Follow Julie’s on her sweet and crumbly journey to the peak of the cookie mountain.
As a little girl, I was my mother’s supermarket shopping assistant. Fancying myself the consummate helper, I hefted more than my body weight in rice, meat and fruit to our trolley on our weekly excursions.
My favourite aisle was biscuits. Although my tiny hands were tempted to snatch up every box and tin on the shelves, maternal restraint (and discipline) prevailed and we usually ended up with a tin of Julie’s Assorted Biscuits and Peanut Butter Sandwiches.
Like many Malaysian children of my generation, I grew up with Julie’s biscuits. The Julie’s logo – a smiling young girl with blonde pigtails – was familiar to all of us. I was surprised to discover – after asking around recently – that most of my peers did not know Julie’s is a Malaysian brand.
Founded by Perfect Food Manufacturing (M) Sdn Bhd, Julie’s biscuits are ubiquitous in the country. From sundry shops to hypermarkets, they can be found in a colourful array of packages and tins – everything from classics like cream crackers and love letters to their famous peanut butter sandwiches.
Ubiquity, however, always begs the question of origin. So just where did the girl with the blond pigtails come from?
Once upon a time
There was a cute little girl called Julie. She was born in a factory in Malacca, the brainchild of Su Chin Hock. The reclusive founder of Perfect Food set up his first factory in Alor Gajah in 1981. Starting out with only 200 workers, the company has grown to almost a thousand employees and two more factories.
Beginning life as Perfect Food Industries (or PFI) in a domestic market full of very Chinese brand names, Su decided that a change was in order. Just after the first few batches of PFI biscuits were fresh out of the oven, he was already looking to expand overseas.
“He thought our name was too long,” director Martin Ang says. “So out of nowhere, he came up with Julie. It was easy to remember and was a common name. He certainly didn’t have any girlfriends named Julie!”
An accountant by profession who ventured into the construction business, Su traded balancing spreadsheets and selling building materials for baking biscuits. Backed by a talented R&D team, Su set to work making Julie’s a household name, one biscuit at a time.
From its inception, the company has maintained that food safety and quality are paramount. As such, Julie’s has never used any preservatives or artificial colouring in its cookies.
“There is no shortcut to success,” Ang says emphatically. “Mr Su made the decision not to compromise on quality or safety from day one.”
To illustrate this point, he tells the story behind Julie’s Strawberry Love Letters.
One of the company’s bakers told Su that it would be much cheaper and attractive to use artificial colouring instead of real strawberry paste. By using artifical colouring, consumers would be able to see the “natural” redness of the strawberry cream, whereas with the real thing they would not.
However, when Su was told of the potential side effects of the artificial colouring – it included hyperactivity in children – he decided that it was not worth lowering production costs for.
“It was a similar case with our best-selling Peanut Butter Sandwiches. We sourced our peanut butter from a renowned US brand, even though it was very expensive. When we first launched them in the mid-80s, all our distributors said that we were selling the product for too much. The average price per kilo those days was around RM2.50-RM3.50. We were selling for RM5. But you know what? The customers decided. They loved the biscuits.
“Ever since then, we only use the best ingredients. We believe in Mr Su’s motto: ‘What I don’t eat, I would never let my customers eat’.”
Making her mark
From humble beginnings, Julie’s soon started to establish itself on the domestic market. Coming up against competitors who had been around for much longer, the method the company adopted to rise is familiar to many bakers: precision, patience and plain hard graft.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have fully automated factories, so the workers making the peanut butter biscuits had to smear the peanut butter on manually,” Ang says.
“My own success in the company is down purely to hard work. I started out in the warehouse and then later as a deliveryman, carrying goods. I met a lot of customers – some nasty, some good. But I took all their feedback back to the factory. Mr Su’s belief is that you can always improve, no matter how good the product.”
Starting off with a handful of SKUs (stock keeping units or products), Julie’s has expanded to a current total of 150 SKUs.
While other biscuit manufacturers may have put out more products, Ang says that they are content with what they have created.
“We release around two to three SKUs a year. We are very careful with what we sell. The products we put out have been developed and refined for two years before they are stocked on shelves.”
Ang estimates that Julie’s has a 16% share of the local market.
In Ang’s and Su’s viewpoints, competitors are not adversaries. They have no desire to begin an epic biscuit war in the domestic market, preferring to perfect whatever they produce and to cater to their consumers. When probed about maintaining a competitive edge over other manufacturers, Ang is philosophical and diplomatic.
“We are our own competitors. I think we (Julie’s and other biscuit manufacturers) complement each other on the market. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that we’re amongst the top three in the domestic market. But I don’t like to compare and compete in that way, because I think it leads to complacency.
“After all, when you’re number one, who do you have to beat? Where do you go from there? It’s just not a good attitude to have.”
Julie’s bestsellers have always been their trademark Peanut Butter Sandwiches and Love Letters; they contribute to 25% of the company’s sales, with the rest coming from classics like crackers and other Julie’s varieties.
They supply these biscuits to 18,000 outlets across the land, which accounts for the prevalence of that blond girl’s demurely smiling face.
But hidden behind her Mona Lisa smile is the unspoken promise of premium freshness in every bite.
Good enough to eat
If there’s one thing that Julie’s ensures, it’s freshness achieved through stringent quality control.
Every day, a task force of around 300 from the sales division heads out to mini markets, kiosks, hypermarkets and all other distributors for inspection. They assiduously check how the stock is moving and keep abreast of new orders or any potential problems. With 18,000 outlets to inspect, it’s a Herculean task, but one that must be done. Over time, a routine has been put in place. For sundry shops or outlets with a smaller volume of stock, there is a minimum of fortnightly visits. For supermarkets with a larger volume of stock, weekly visits are the norm.
This fastidiousness means that, from the date of manufacture, no product sits on the shelves unsold for longer than six months.
Back at the factory, the production process is equally arduous. The genesis of a particular biscuit could be from something the founder Su has created or it could be an idea from the R&D team. The journey from Eureka moment to shelf is a long one, filled with tests, retests, roadshows and Su’s approval.
“Before we come up with a new product, we study the market. We find out who’s in the market and we taste all their products first. We see how we can improve on what’s out there. We go through a lot of taste-testings before the final product is presented to Mr Su,” Ang explains.
The entrepreneurial foodie Su, much like Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory, does not allow any product to reach the market without his approval. So far, it has proved to be a winning formula.
The cookie crumbles
There are always dark chapters in every company’s history, and Julie’s is no exception.
The company faced its biggest crisis in October 2008, when it was discovered that its biscuits were contaminated by melamine-tainted ammonium bicarbonate from China. Ammonium bicarbonate is a leavening agent used in baked goods, and the contamination sent Julie’s sales plummeting.
Stock was recalled, domestically and internationally. Orders were promptly withdrawn. Julie’s was in free fall.
The cookie had crumbled.
“Our reputation suffered very heavily from it. Our customers lost faith in our products. We had never dealt with such a disaster before. It adversely affected sales for the next two to three years. We lost around RM14mil as a result,” Ang says.
But the company was determined to ride out the storm. They would not be sunk by the catastrophe.
Working closely with the Ministry of Health, they opened up their doors to external inspection. Invitations were sent to retailers and distributors to visit the factories to witness the safety measures in place.
Slowly but surely, they recovered. But the convalescence was costly.
“We lost and spent a lot of money recovering, but we had to do it to regain our reputation with our retailers and especially our customers,” Ang remarks with a resigned sigh.
The message is clear: growing pains are never easy, not even if you’ve already achieved near iconic status within the industry.
After braving out the choppy waters, Julie’s returned to form in 2011 and has continued to recoup lost sales ever since. Su’s vision has never been myopic; from the moment the first batch of dough was rolled out, he was eyeing overseas expansion.
“Our philosophy has always been that the world has so many players. The world is so large, so don’t just turn inward. If we produce quality products, we should send that message to the world: that we can really sell our biscuits to many countries,” Ang says, expounding upon the company’s expansion plans.
Although they have been exporting their products since their early years, the number of countries to which they export has grown exponentially in recent years.
Within the last five years, they have seen the list of countries increase from over 30 to 70, making Julie’s the single largest exporter of biscuits in Malaysia.
It was chiefly this surge in global popularity that attracted the attention of Hershey’s, which led to their most high-profile collaboration to date.
This collaboration saw them produce six variants of chocolate cookies with the chocolate titan’s key ingredient.
The products were launched on the Malaysian market in October and will be released in all ASEAN countries, Taiwan and Mongolia.
“We are the first biscuit company outside the US to colloborate with them – and we’re very proud of that.
They searched for so many biscuit companies in Asia, but chose us,” Ang says, attributing this choice to Hershey’s recognition of Julie’s high production standards.
The international recognition has propelled Julie’s to new heights, but the company is looking to go even further.
“Right now, 45% of our revenue comes from exports and 55% from the local market. We foresee that in the next three years there will be a reversal in the trend.”
Does this mean that they will be the first Malaysian biscuit manfacturer to be a global name?
“We want to put Julie’s on the world map. And we think we can do that. We’re not saying it for the sake of saying it, but we are really very optimistic.
“Why can’t our Peanut Butter Sandwiches fly all over the world?”
You heard it here first, world. Look out, that beaming pigtailed girl may just steal your heart (and palate).