'A staff shortage changed my business for the better'

You don't need to change the world to be disruptive, but simply bring new flair and ideas to change the product mix and their route to market. For Kris Lloyd, doing so was never really the plan, until a staff shortage forced her hand and helped her boost turnover tenfold in just two years.

The artisan cheesemaker based in the Adelaide Hills tells My Business about starting out in an unfamiliar industry, dealing with variations in raw ingredients, growing a boutique business and how she has marketed her brand by becoming an international judging expert and a global award-winner in the process for her uniquely Australian green ants cheese, Anthill!(pictured below).

Can you tell us about the – have you had a long association with them?

I've actually been a judge now for... it's my third year of judging. The judging is by invitation only. So yeah, it was three years ago when they approached me.

My introduction to them came through the International Cheesemakers Guild, of which I was inducted probably five years ago. I am familiar with the awards and the process, and it's just such an honour to a) be asked to judge, but also to then be a part of the super jury panel, the final panel that has the final say, it's just fantastic.

It must give you a lot of credibility in your craft to be among such peers globally.Kris Lloyd, artisan cheesemaker

I just do what I do. I don't over-think it, but it's just an incredible opportunity to see what is happening out there globally in my sector. The friendships that I've forged with other judges, the conversations are just really quite incredible.

We are all there because we love cheese; that's the one reason that everybody is there, is because they have some connection with cheese. Maybe it's not necessarily a cheesemaker, it could be a cheesemonger, and there's lots of chefs, there's lots of journalists, there's just cheese lovers, retailers ... but some really amazing palates, I've learnt so much.

Being on the judging panel and involved with the awards in general, what has that actually done for you in terms of your own business and your own experience?

I guess not everyone can say they are international cheese judge, and so it's a really great honour to be able to say that, but certainly personally, it's given me a great opportunity to see the broader industry.

I think that to be able to bring that back into my own business ... for me personally, I'm obviously very proud of it, and it's given me the status of an international cheese judge. For my business, I do a lot of public speaking, and if you travel and do all these things, and of course you gather stories, so I guess I'm a lot richer for it in so many ways.

Is it difficult though, because obviously you are trying to run a business, but then you've got all these other commitments on top of that – how do you go about juggling all of those?

No, that's what I love! [Laughs]. I am the world's best delegator. So while I run a business and do a whole lot of other different things, and I have a new festival this year which I am very excited about ... I'm a busy person, I like being busy, and you never get better by doing nothing.

I love the challenge. I have a fairly healthy risk appetite, so I love to be a little bit entrepreneurial and a little bit innovative, and I don't mind taking risk. And I do like to have a lot on the go, because my mind just needs it. I'm creative, and I like to have a lot of different things happening in my life at the one time.

"I'd never made cheese in my life, ever, ever, ever, and I was never going to be a cheesemaker – I think the idea [was] that I would just be the manager, put my marketing skills and my business planning skills and my strategic planning skills to use."

You mentioned the connection to cheese, so what is your connection? Is this something you discovered; is there a family history of cheesemaking?

No, not at all. My career was very accidental. My background is marketing, I basically came across working with our family business, which is a winery. I just wanted to value-add something to the experience that we were able to give at the winery, and we already were doing some artisan food products like olives and oil and vinegar and whatever.

I just thought it would be amazing to add cheese to what we produce, but of course none of us were cheesemakers, so that was just a small problem. Anyway, Woodside [Cheese Wrights] came up for sale and I decided to buy it. I'd never made cheese in my life, ever, ever, ever, and I was never going to be a cheesemaker – I think the idea [was] that I would just be the manager, put my marketing skills and my business planning skills and my strategic planning skills to use.

There was one particular day where there were quite a few people ill, and so I was basically just given the recipe and told that I was really the only one around and available and I needed to make the cheese. And so I did. And I guess the rest of it, you could say, is history.

Anthill green ants cheese, by Kris LloydHow much of your product is down to established recipes and how much involves experimentation?

It took me ages to get it right, and I just made mistake after mistake ... One of the biggest issues with cheese is consistency, and getting the product consistent all the time. And that's partly because as an artisan, everything we do is handmade: it's all small batch and handmade. We're not into quantity, we're into quality.

So we don't standardise our milk; that is just a part of the way that I have the business set up and the way that most artisans operate. What that means is basically you need to be abreast of what is going on with the milk, because you're not changing it in any way; whatever the cow, goat or buffalo gives us, that's what we've got to make cheese with.

The seasonality of the milk alters, and so along with that, so do our cheesemaking methods; they need to alter. That was probably the biggest learning curve for me to be able to understand 'OK, the milk is a bit different now, we need to change our cheesemaking procedures and practices in order to be able to maintain that consistency of product'. So a big learning curve.

I would say cheesemaking, it's at least a five-year learning curve, and really there wasn't any cheesemaking school here in South Australia back then – I'm talking probably the year 2000 now, or even [earlier] than that slightly – so it was a lot of trial and error, I made a lot of mistakes. I'm still making mistakes.

But we experiment and we do lots of trials of different cheeses, because I'm always adding new things. We have a range which is our uncommon offering, and that's where we just do limited editions or seasonal cheeses, and that's great because it means that we can still keep our customers really excited about what we're doing.

Yes we make our mainstream cheeses and our food service cheeses – and they are very important to me as a businesswoman, because they are great cash cows, if you'll pardon the pun – but then there is also the other segment which I have a lot of fun with, and that's my uncommon offerings, and they're different.

You purchased the business in the late 1990s. What has the growth been under your ownership?

Over 2002 to 2004 I had massive, massive growth, and it was probably 10 times over what we started off with.

A few things happened: the penny dropped, I was sort of understanding what was going on with cheese and how to manipulate it and how to keep it under control more, so the consistency was there. And so over the period, we grew about 10 times over. And then we've just had growth year on year; we haven't had a year where we've gone backwards.

We've added products as well: we've added buffalo milk, that's probably in the past three years; and we've also added a new brand under my name – Kris Lloyd artisan – and that's also been integral for us to be able to capitalise on space in retail, by having the second brand.

"You can actually go online and buy cheese hampers with your Frequent Flyer points. Qantas approached us just late last year about that."

Where are your products distributed and sold, given that you don't have large-scale production?

Right across Australia. We've got representation everywhere ... distributors in all of the states. South Australia is obviously very strong.

We tend to operate with the independent supermarkets in South Australia and good gourmet stores; we run three farmers' markets; we've got a cellar door here as well. We're also on Qantas [Frequent Flyer], so you can actually go online and buy cheese hampers with your Frequent Flyer points. Qantas approached us just late last year about that; and I also have an online store.

The online stuff is really interesting, because that segment is growing so much. Basically it's a hamper that arrives on your doorstep, and in five or 10 minutes, you can have a cheese platter with condiments, crackers and a bottle of wine delivered to your door; all you need to do is put it together.

Fast facts:

Business name: Woodside Cheese Wrights

Location: Adelaide Hills, South Australia

No. of employees: Approx. 20

Customer base: Australia-wide

Established: Mid 1990s; under Kris’ ownership since late 1990s.

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