The Norco ice cream factory in Lismore has a heritage spanning 128 years in the region. After it was left decimated by the 2022 floods, the uncertainty surrounding its future proved it was far more than ‘just a factory’ to Lismore and its people. The factory has now reopened after an 18-month recovery costing more than $100 million.
Reopening with 130 employees, the first wave of staff were welcomed back in September 2023, with other team members returning in a phased approach. Approximately 40 staff remained active during the rebuild, including maintenance and technical assistance workers.
The 10 800 m2 heritage listed factory sits on 2.279 hectares of land, and had $40m in Australian and NSW government funding behind the the year-long rebuild and commissioning process, resulting in a more modern, flood-resilient facility.
From disaster stems opportunity
The factory’s new flood-proof design features built-in mezzanine levels, elevated electrical equipment, physical flood barriers and quick decoupling technology, all of which have equipped the site to defend a 15 metre flood – higher than the 2022 flooding event. A key flood resilient design feature includes two submarine rooms featuring steel doors to keep water out.
The rebuilt factory also features Australia’s first stick production line that allows for big chunks to be included in ice cream sticks, the first products of which will launch in 2024. Three of four production lines are currently operational, with the factory set to be fully operational by early 2024.
Norco said the new high inclusion ice cream stick line was imported and is the first of its kind in Australia, with the team currently working through the customisation and programming for the new style of ice cream stick production it will deliver next year.
The ice cream stick end of line packaging for both the inner and shipper carton packing has been automated using equipment from CT Pack, utilising flex picking technology for flexibility in packaging formats.
Additionally, new computer control systems have been installed throughout to make the production process more automated and standardised for quality repeatability in products. The valving at the site is all computer controlled, allowing operators in the control room to select programmed control sequences that run operations in batching, mixing, transferring, production and cleaning.
Norco CEO Michael Hampson said he was proud to be able to celebrate the milestone with team members, the community and the people who helped make the rebuild a reality.
“Today is indeed a rewarding day for our co-operative and I’d first like to thank our incredible Norco workforce who have worked tirelessly on all facets of this rebuild over the past twelve months, from commercial to construction and manufacturing, as well as the team members we have welcomed back to work over the past couple of months.
“It’s been a challenging period for our co-operative, but we certainly wouldn’t be standing here today without all of their hard work and commitment, and belief in the vision for Norco,” said Hampson.
Hampson said Norco understood how important the factory was to its workforce and the Lismore community and would remain future-focused on continuing to create opportunities for the region.
“We will be maintaining a strong focus on innovation, jobs creation and investment in people, to create exciting career development pathways from right here in Lismore,” said Hampson.
Norco had to retrench 170 employees in September last year after failing to secure the flood recovery financial support it was seeking from the federal government after the project options it had submitted to the Anchor Business Support Program were not supported in its funding allocation, receiving $34.7 million.
Hampson expressed gratitude to the Australian and NSW governments and the Anchor program for the funding allocation, which enabled the twelve-month rebuild process.
NSW minister for agriculture and regional NSW Tara Moriarty said the government’s investment in the rebuilt ice cream factory would ensure the business would be able to get back into action quicker.
“The reopening of the Norco ice cream factory marks a huge milestone in the flood recovery efforts for the Northern Rivers.
“As one of the biggest employers in the region, we know how important it is to invest in projects that deliver resilient infrastructure in regional communities so people can stay in jobs and the economy can thrive.
“Our shared goal with Norco is that in the event of any future flooding event, this investment in the rebuilt ice cream factory has ensured the business will be able to get back into action quicker,” said Moriarty.
Lismore mayor Steve Krieg said the town’s confidence had been boosted by the reopening of the ice cream factory.
“The spirit of Lismore is as strong as ever, and like so many of our rebuild and recovery stories, the factory reopening is proof that from tragedy can come triumph, while sending a very clear signal that Lismore is well and truly back in business.
“Norco’s workforce, our community and the many small and medium businesses in the region who will ultimately benefit from this facility being back up and running, stronger and better than ever,” said Krieg.
Hope for dairy farmers
As Australia’s last operating dairy co-operative, the reopening is also welcome news for Norco’s 273 farmer members, many of whom are still working to rebuild following the floods.
Released earlier this year, the National Farmer Wellbeing Report, commissioned by Norco in partnership with the National Farmers’ Federation revealed the declining mental health of Australian farmers, fuelled by the impact of natural disasters.
Hampson said the reopening offered a signal of hope, giving dairy farmers confidence in the future farm gate milk price, saying that a stronger farmer-owned cooperative will result from operations recommencing.
“Norco is a 100 per cent farmer-owned co-operative which means that anytime someone chooses to buy Norco, every cent goes back to supporting our farmer members – so seeing Norco branded ice cream back on supermarket shelves offers a strong sign of positivity for those farmers who have been doing it tough in recent times,” said Hampson.