Carman's Fine Foods: Nuts about the business

Today, Carman’s Fine Foods is a $50 million operation exporting to 32 countries.

It has been a 20-year trip for the 18-year-old with A$1000 to spend, but the passion still burns.

Carolyn Creswell says it is street smarts rather than high‑end business knowledge that has driven the success of her muesli business, Carman’s Fine Foods.

Twenty years ago, when she was just 18, she took a punt on a small muesli-making and delivery business in Melbourne. She worked there part-time while studying for her Arts degree at Monash University, but when the owner told her she was about to lose her job because they were selling, Creswell and a friend offered A$1000 each to take it off their hands.

That A$1000 bought her a job, a muesli recipe and a list of 80 customers, mostly cafes around Melbourne.

Creswell told CPA Australia CEO Alex Malley how a politics graduate who started her working life pushing the cash register at a supermarket turned A$1000 into a A$50 million enterprise.

Malley: What’s an 18-year-old student doing buying a small business?

Creswell: I was buying my job. My parents didn’t give me any money, so I had lots of part-time jobs. I’ve always been quite a risk-taker, I push myself a bit harder and try to do as much as I can whatever the situation. I knew it was a big deal, but you also need to factor in it was only A$1000 and it was my own money. It was a very small business – it didn’t have a bank account, it didn’t have a business name. And the difference between an 18-year-old starting their business and one saying, “we already know what we’re doing on Tuesdays, I already have 80 clients” – I think it’s easier. I bought something that, even though it was tiny, had a little system ... I didn’t have to start from scratch.

Malley: You say you are naturally a risk-taker. Do you think today when you look at yourself and what you know about business, you still have that same attitude?

Creswell: I’m someone, if there’s a job to be done – let’s just get sorted. There’s no mucking around, I’m just a doer. I can take a random lot of complex issues and sort them out. I’m quite good at breaking down a task, segmenting it and forming a strategy. I sound like I’m so full of myself, but trust me – there’s plenty of things I’m not good at.

Malley: In the early days, that personality type would have been suited to owning and doing every part of what needed to be done. 

Creswell: And that’s what I did for 10 years.

Malley: How easy was it to transition to the next level, where you’re above that?

Creswell: I didn’t hire anyone until I was about to have kids, so I did everything in the office myself, which was silly.  I thought I couldn’t afford it. If I’d got help I would have been able to focus on other things. So I hired Mandy as my first employee and she’s about to hit her 10th anniversary.
Once I had the kids my life and priorities shifted and I knew if I couldn’t delegate, I could never have that balance. So my life changed, and changed for the better, as I could get specialists in their field.

Malley: But you needed that variable to come into your life, to see that it’s OK to trust.

Creswell: There are some entrepreneurs who want to do it themselves and there are some who are brilliant delegators, and that’s what I do now. I’m always working out what needs to be done, which list it should go on.

"He took the whole range on the spot, which is unheard of, and once again I got outside and the tears rolled." — Carolyn Creswell

Malley: Take us to the first step when you were taking Carman’s product to the supermarket. What were those first trials like?

Creswell: Well, they said no. I have a letter here somewhere with “No” written on it and a circle drawn around it. So I said, “how do I turn your no into a yes?” and they’d say, “you need to get a bar code”, so I’d go and do that. Then they’d say, “you need a nutritional panel”, so I worked on that. It was just perseverance.

Eventually I was invited to Coles head office and I remember the night before, I ironed and ironed a brown paper bag so it would be as crisp as it could look for my little samples. I was very nervous and eventually this buyer said to me “I’ll give you 20 stores”. I walked out the front of Coles Myer with tears running down my cheeks.

This was the big break.

Carolyn Creswell has worked in and knows every aspect of her production process.

Carolyn Creswell has worked in and knows every aspect of her

production process.

I was at Woolworths last week presenting our new sub-brand and he took the whole range on the spot, which is unheard of, and once again I got outside and the tears rolled. Honestly, the wins are just as exciting today as they were 20 years ago. If you don’t lose that passion, you’ll keep pushing forward.

Malley: You studied politics, you didn’t study business at all; do you feel you studied the right topic?

Creswell: What university taught me is that whatever you need to know you can just go off and find it out. You can learn anything. If I wanted to learn about Ancient Greek civilisation, within three months I could be one of Australia’s leading people on it because I would dedicate all my time to it. Potentially it’s been a benefit to me because I haven’t done things the way other people have. I’ve said: “This is how I like to be treated and this is what I think our business should do.”

We have more degrees here [at Carman’s Fine Foods] than you can poke a stick at, but those people do operate in a certain way – you sometimes have to challenge them and say: “That might be how other people do it, but that’s not how we do it at Carman’s.”

I don’t think I ever had business nous as such, I was just street smart. I was not the smartest girl in my class, but I was able to learn what I needed to learn to do what I needed to do. I’ve done everyone’s job in this building, so I understand all the issues. If you understand people, you motivate people. Get rid of the bad people pretty quickly.

I’m never afraid to ask a question. Some people are afraid to ask because they think “I won’t look smart”. I went back to school and did my company directors’ [Australian Institute of Company Directors] course last year – it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.
I want us to be different and real. We may hit less people with the marketing we do, but have a deeper impact.

I think people feel differently about the Carman’s brand because we don’t do above-the-line advertising, and we’re a bit more quirky in the way we approach brand positioning and the way we deal with our customers.

Malley: What does the customer see as the values and personality of Carman’s?

Creswell: They think that Carman’s is a trusted friend, they realise that when Carman’s brings out a new product we’ve gone to the effort to get the ingredients right, to make sure it’s as healthy as it can be, it’s going to taste good – “I’m going to trust what you do because you haven’t let me down before”. You can’t abuse that trust. A lot of the time brands think it’s about advertising and pretty packaging, when really, once you’ve bought the product you think “oh, that’s a bit disappointing”, so you don’t get that depth of loyalty we have.

Malley: Do you do much research?

Creswell: We’re starting to do much more sophisticated research now.

Malley: With the Asian Century and all the preparation that involves today, how do you maintain that intimacy and that trust and focus on product when you go into a new market?

Creswell: I used to think that was the big worry. I used to think if a customer has a problem they can come to me directly and I represent the brand. What I’ve realised is that we now sell a product every two seconds, we export to 32 countries, there is no chance I can be on top of every single thing.

But what I can be on top of is that every time you buy that product anywhere in the world, it will be pretty good. Our quality control is unbelievable. We are very aware of the scope of Carman’s for China, it’s a massive focus for us.

Malley: You’ve got four kids; how is your work-life balance? How do you rate it out of 10?

Creswell: Eleven. I made a conscious choice 10 years ago for a family priority. First, I take 12 weeks holiday a year, so I take all my family holidays. I use all of my public speaking money for family holidays – Janine Ellis from Boost Juice gave me that advice – so this morning I made enough to take my entire family to Queensland for a weekend and I’ve done that by 10 o’clock in the morning. Otherwise I might be grumpy that I had to be somewhere at 7.20 this morning, but to know that’s the payoff, that works. So I work really hard when I’m here, but when I get home I make that time as great as I can. And I married a ripper bloke.

Malley: In 10 years’ time, where do you want to be?

Creswell: You want to be happy and content with your life. I’m there now. Yes, Carman’s will grow, we’ve got amazing plans and I’m totally still as dedicated and focused, but I don’t think Carman’s defines me as a person.

Malley: Ultimately, there’s the contentment factor and then there’s the business potential. So if a multinational came up to you tomorrow and said “here’s a slab of money”, is that a business decision for you or are you so connected to it that you would find it tough?

Creswell: I think I would find it tough. I’ve had a lot of people approach me … what people don’t get is that often they want to buy me. I don’t really need the money, I am not here for a job, I do this because I love it.

A lot of venture capital people don’t get this. So we’d float on the stock exchange, so every year I have to be worried about what the market thinks of my decisions.

At the moment I’m the one who has to make the right decision for the customer. No one has ever come and said “we want to take it without you”. And there’s not very much they could bring to me, I’m not interested in having a partner – I don’t want to have to respond to them.

As an 18-year-old student, Carolyn Creswell bought her muesli-making business for just A$1000.

As an 18-year-old student, Carolyn Creswell bought her

muesli-making business for just A$1000.

Malley: Who is Carman?

Creswell: The first three letters of Carolyn and the first three letters of my business partner’s name – we made a combination of the two.

Malley: What was it called originally?

Creswell: Home-made muesli.

Malley: I’m glad you changed the name.

Creswell: I know!

Creswell’s tips for success

“Success is doing the best you can with what you have.”

  • Think of the people you work with as another family, delight your customers constantly and your business will quickly thrive.
  • Have a crystal clear vision of where your business is heading and refer to it every day when decision making. 
  • Write lists, prioritise and clear your inbox every day. Learn to say “no” to things that are not important, so you can work smarter rather than harder. 
  • “Drive it like you stole it” – sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, dive into the deep end and go for it.
  • Love what you do! Your passion, drive and enthusiasm will determine your business’s success.

This article is from the April 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK.


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