After more than a century of being the face of Bendigo milk, the doors to Symons' Dairy closed for a final time last month.
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Deb and Ian Symons closed the doors on their beloved Symons' Dairy in February. Picture: NONI HYETT

What started off as a dairy distributor 102 years ago has transformed into a staple, family-run business that has touched the hearts of almost every Bendigonian in one way or another.

But it was a three-lined email that brought this local treasure and booming business to a grinding halt.

“We knew the franchise was always up for renewal at the end of February this year, but then Lactalis changed and wanted to go to a distributor model rather than a franchise model,” owner Ian Symons said.

Servicing the area since 1919, Symons’ Dairy was established by Albert Symons and run by him for 34 years until 1953.

“Deb and I had just had our first child, my mother was ill with cancer and dad had just turned 70 so we decided to come back in 1993 and we’ve been here ever since.

“It was a very good and well-received business that’s had a great amount of loyalty from the people of Bendigo and obviously my father’s work over about 50 years was too much to let go.”

Throughout their 30 years in the business, Ian said it was important for the team to give back the community that gave them so much.

“We’ve done a lot of charity work and worked with our customers to help where we can,” he said.

“We’ve always felt a responsibility to deliver milk to the emergency and healthcare services so they can do as good a job as they can.

“We’ve been sponsors of many different things around town and we go out and work at local events such as the swap meet so we can assist the Rotary clubs.

“We always had the theory that if you show loyalty that you will get loyalty back.”

While Ian said there was no bitterness to the business’ ending, loyalty was the one thing he believed needed to prevail.

“We bought our milk from Sandhurst Dairy, and if we bought the milk from the processor with a local distributor then most people around Bendigo would support that,” he said.

“It’s ironic now that Sandhurst became Parmalat then Lactalis who have now terminated our contract.

“Loyalty goes a long way, but in this current circumstance it doesn’t.”

Ian said he and his family were honoured to have worked with “such a great team” over the years.

“Our office staff have been fantastic the whole way through and it’s really been a team effort,” he said.

“Our delivery drivers are very long-term asset and they’ve all be with us for a minimum of 10 years and so their relationship and their repour with the customers and the job they do has been magnificent .

“And our customers have been absolutely magnificent and terribly loyal.

“It’s been an amazing ride over the last 30 years for us and we can’t thank everyone enough for their support and kindness.”

But for now, Ian said it was time to slow down and take in their next adventure as it comes.

“I think Deb and I will take a well-earned break,” he said.

“We do intend now, like a lot of other people I’m sure at this post-COVID time, to take a holiday somewhere.”

His son George kept the business in operation for the next 40 years, until 1993.

Since then, for over 26 years, a third generation of Symons in Ian and his wife Deb have run the business with the same enthusiasm as when it began.

And it’s that love of keeping the family name going that made letting go all the more difficult.

“It was very, very distressing,” Ian said.

“We’ve got an 102 year old business that we’ve celebrated, but for supply to be taken away was very heart-wrenching.”

Ian said despite moving away in his earlier years, he would eventually be drawn back to his roots.

“I’ve always had a part in the business, as kids we were essentially born into it, but I was in Melbourne for 10 or 11 years teaching before I moved back home to take over,’ he said.

“We were quite happy with the franchise model and told the company we would be happy to sign that contract.

“But they had decided the franchise was an inferior offering and we were told we had no choice, it was either that model or nothing.

“The next advice we got, in a three line email, was we wouldn’t be offered a new distributor model, thanks for the last 10 years and we’ll be in touch throughout the month to transition you out.”

With a third of dairy farms seeking to fill vacancies ahead of calving season, Kiwis are being encouraged to give dairy farming a chance.

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