Business

The 'muesli queen' who built a $60m food business

  • 9 January 2017
  • From the section Business
Carolyn Creswell Image copyright Lisa Atkinson
Image caption Carolyn struggled in her first years of business

When an 18-year-old Carolyn Creswell was told she might lose her job, she decided to take a leap of faith.

While at university in Melbourne, Australia, she supported herself by working part-time for a little company that made muesli for a handful of cafes and shops.

This was in 1992, and the husband and wife who owned the business said they were putting it up for sale. They warned Carolyn that this would probably mean she would be out of work.

Wanting to save a job she enjoyed, Carolyn decided to try to buy the business.

Pooling her savings with those of her friend and co-worker Manya van Aker, their offer of the princely sum of 1,000 Australian dollars ($735; £590) was accepted.

They dubbed the new incarnation Carman's, combining the first three letters of their names.

Despite their youthful enthusiasm, increased sales were hard to come by, and Manya left the business two years later. Carolyn, however, persevered on her own, and in 1997 the company got its big break when Australia's second largest supermarket chain, Coles, started to stock its muesli.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Supermarket group Coles gave Carman's its big break in 1997

Today Carman's Fine Foods is worth 83m Australian dollars ($60m; £50m), while Carolyn is dubbed the "muesli queen" by the Australian media.

The company's breakfast cereals and other products are stocked by more than 3,000 outlets across the country, and exported to 32 other nations.

"I wasn't afraid of hard work," says Carolyn, now 42. "[But] the first few years were really hard. If I could have given it away I would have."

'Really broke'

For the first three years of the business Carolyn continued with her arts degree at Melbourne's Monash University. She would make deliveries early in the morning before lectures, and then do the business's bookkeeping in the college library over lunch.

After she graduated Carman's still wasn't making enough money for it to be Carolyn's only source of income, so she also held a number of part-time jobs, including working behind the till at a supermarket.

Image copyright Lisa Atkinson
Image caption Carolyn bought out her co-founder two years into the business

She was so hard up at times that she had to ask her brother to siphon petrol from their mother's car.

"I was really broke," says Carolyn. "I remember I couldn't see my way out of it."

However, sales to independent stores and cafes starting to rise thanks to word of mouth. With no money for advertising, Carolyn's mum helped with an unusual marketing initiative - she'd stand in shops and loudly tell people how good her daughter's muesli was.

Then after five years the company's fortunes were transformed when it started being stocked by Coles. At the time Carolyn still didn't have any formal staff, instead relying on help from her husband Pete.

Today the company has 25 employees at its Melbourne head office, and another 160 people at its manufacturing facilities. In addition to six types of muesli it now makes other granolas, plus breakfast and snack bars.

'Immature'

Although Carolyn says she will never regret her decision to set up Carman's, she says she had to miss out on many of the fun experiences that come with being young. For example, she never partied or travelled the way her friends were able to.

And she wonders whether her age might have hindered early success. "It might have happened a bit quicker if I was a little bit more mature," she says.

Image copyright Carolyn Creswell
Image caption Carolyn balances running the company with helping to look after her four children

Carolyn also says she faced challenges as a young woman running a business that are - thankfully - less common than they are today.

She says being a 20-something female meant she struggled to convince banks to lend her money. Much more distressingly, she says she occasionally faced sexual harassment from suppliers and other men who wouldn't take her seriously.

"Now I'd be like, 'you've got to be joking, that is so inappropriate.' [But] I think 20 years ago I was a bit nervous to stand up and go, 'hey that is not cool,'" she says.

While Carman's has continued to grow strongly following the first Coles contract, it has not all been plain sailing. For a brief period eight years ago Carman's lost another supermarket deal because of a temporary dip in sales.

Carolyn says she was able to win back the contract, and that the episode was one of the biggest learning experiences of her career.

"I wouldn't be living with the healthy paranoia I have now," she says. "That is never going to happen to me again."

Image copyright Carman's
Image caption The business has expanded beyond muesli

Nathan Cloutman, a senior food industry analyst at research group Ibis World, says Carman's is able to charge premium prices for its products.

"Consumers see Carman's as promoting that healthy, rustic lifestyle that people are moving towards," he says.

Mr Cloutman says the two main challenges for the company in the future are to cope with the big cereal producers increasingly trying to copy what it is doing, and for it to expand without sacrificing its local, homemade feel.

With Carman's now entering the giant Chinese market, Carolyn says she continues to set three-year goals for the business, while regularly testing and measuring her chances of success.

"It's kind of like climbing Everest. What do we need to do to get to base camp?"

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