Carolyn Creswell purchased the small muesli business she worked at part-time for just $1,000. Now, Carman’s is a household name brand selling in 33 countries worldwide. Here’s how she did it, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Walk down the cereal isles of your local supermarket and you’re sure to come across the Carman’s products.
Yet it’s a 25-year long story of evolution, adaptation and sheer perseverance that helped build the business to its current size and status.
My Business chats with company founder and managing director Carolyn Creswell about how she has scaled the business from a tiny investment, how she has achieved an eight-hour work day and what advice she has for other business owners looking for strong, sustainable growth.
Starting out with $1,000
Just like jewellery designer Samantha Wills, with whom My Business chatted in 2016, Carolyn Creswell is an entrepreneur who began with the humblest of beginnings.
“I was working part-time for the people that owned the small business, and they wanted to do the honourable thing and let me know that I was probably going to lose my job because they were selling this tiny business, and whoever bought it might not keep me working there,” recalls Carolyn.
For an 18-year-old first-year uni student, you’d imagine the logical response would be ‘bugger’ before beginning the search for a replacement job. Carolyn, however, took a very different approach.
“I thought 'well, maybe I could buy this tiny business'. So I put an offer in.”
The offer was accepted, and so began Carolyn’s entrepreneurial journey.
“I think a lot of people just go 'my product is suited to the supermarkets', and I would say to you it’s categorically not.”
Tenacity and perseverance
Carolyn is quick to point out that success was anything but overnight.
“For the first sort of 10 years, I didn't employ anyone, and I was just sort of doing everything myself,” she says.
One of the biggest transitions for the business was to go from selling to cafes and independent fruit shops to being stocked on the likes of major supermarkets. It was a painstaking task that took several years to achieve, and a whole heap of perseverance not to give into repeated rejections.
“I kept kind of plugging away trying to get into one of the major retailers, and I kept getting 'no',” says Carolyn.
“[But] I kept thinking 'no is not forever; no is just for now – how can I turn that no into a yes?' And so I kept plugging away. I've still got a letter at work where they just wrote ‘no’ and circled it on my application!”
Her determination and willingness to adapt her product line and messaging eventually landed her an opportunity to supply 20 Coles stores.
“I wasn't going to let that opportunity go, so I was really driven to make the most of it. It got in, and I ran around with my little Daewoo trying to do the deliveries, and put Uncle Toby's on the bottom shelf and Carman's at eye level to get the best shelf position!”
Your product is nothing if the distribution is wrong
While being stocked on supermarket shelves has been a big contributor to the growth of the Carman’s brand, Carolyn says this is only the case because it served as the perfect distribution for her particular product.
Many businesses may see failure, or at least less than desirable results, not because their product is poor, but simply because they are pursuing the wrong distribution channel.
“I think a lot of people just go 'my product is suited to the supermarkets', and I would say to you it’s categorically not,” she cautions.
“A supermarket needs products that really move, and if you have something that is niche or boutique or isn't going to do the right rates of sale, it's just not really a supermarket line.
“That's probably been my big learning from big supermarkets: just because something tastes great, doesn't really matter – it's getting people to put their hard-earned money over to pick that off the shelf, put it in their trolley and go that last 50 metres to take it through the register. That's the hard bit. You need to get enough people all over the country doing that, and that's how you can get that success.”
“It's absolutely fine to make a mistake; it's not cool to make it twice.”
Learn the lesson, not the mistake
Carolyn is very blunt when it comes to mistakes and learning from them as a means of raising the bar for the future.
“It's absolutely fine to make a mistake; it's not cool to make it twice,” she says.
As a fervent believer of innovation and adaptability, Carolyn believes that mistakes are a common and even necessary part of the journey as a business owner. Yet it’s important to ensure that you learn from those mistakes to identify the right way forward on a given issue.
“Just try and always systemise to say what have you learnt.
“What systems do you need to set up and what do you need to do to try and get your business better tomorrow than it was yesterday? So really think about 'how do I embed innovation into my business? How do I embed excellency and make sure that I'm really pushing myself?'”
She adds: “My favourite saying is 'the most dangerous phrase is we've always done it this way.' How do you make sure you've got fresh thinking and you're not just falling back into 'we've always done it this way?'”
So after almost a quarter of a century in business, what does Carolyn say is the biggest lesson she has learned in business?
“I think it's probably to come from a place of truth,” she says.
“In the early days, I was worried about upsetting someone if I had to let them go at work, or... I remember I didn't have enough money, I was pretty broke for quite a few years, and to buy some ingredients one day, I didn't know how to deal with them. I thought ‘I'll just give them a cheque and let them work out it's not signed and they'll come back tomorrow and I'll be alright’.
“But the guy I was working next to at the time said 'hey, just tell them what's going on, put a post-it note saying hey, I'm a bit short of money in the account today – could you just hold this cheque and bank it tomorrow. That was such a life lesson for me, because it really taught me to come from a place of truth and people are generally happy to support you if you are giving life a crack and doing everything you can.
“You only have one reputation, and your integrity is so important, so really protect that as a number one priority.”
“If someone asks you on the street for $20, you'd say no, but if they ask you for 20 minutes, you feel obliged to go and have coffee with them.”
How work/life balance is ‘absolutely’ achievable
As the head of a sizeable business, mother of four kids under the age of 12 and the ambassador of a number of charitable organisations, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Carolyn is a superhuman who never sleeps. Not so, she insists.
“You can absolutely have work/life balance: just work hard when you're at work and don't get involved in things that you don't need to do,” she says.
According to Carolyn, that involves being ruthless in what you commit yourself to, as well as what she calls “the art of the graceful 'no'”.
“We all get asked to do a million things, and you just really need to make sure that every time you say 'yes' you're going to do something, that it's meaningful and it's progressing you and all the work that you want to do.
“If someone asks you on the street for $20, you'd say no, but if they ask you for 20 minutes, you feel obliged to go and have coffee with them. I look at people who have 700 emails in their inbox and they're out having coffee every second day; you just don't have time to do that.
“I don't do lunches, I don't do coffees - I just get my work done. I drop my kids at school, get here just after 9am, and I'm never really here after 5.30pm. I just work hard and effectively during the day, and I try and have as much time as I can for people who work at Carman's, but anyone external I try and just do stuff with phone calls and via email.
“I try and leave every day with an empty inbox, and that means my emails aren't long and beautiful, they're often bullet points and short, sharp and shiny so that I can get home and be a mum and do whatever I want to do after hours and particularly weekends I keep as family time.”
Fast facts: Carman’s
Established: Rebranded as Carman’s in 1992 following the acquisition of an existing small business
Industry: Processed food production
Stockists: Approximately 5,000 retailers Australia-wide
Markets: Made in Australia; exports to 32 countries including China, Japan, Singapore, the Maldives, Ireland and across the Middle East.
Product range: Approximately 50 product lines
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.