AIB Featured Business Leader – Carolyn Creswell
Carman’s Fine Foods is a story of hard work and determination, thanks to the woman behind it, Carolyn Creswell. She began the business at the tender age of 18, and stuck with it through 10 leans years before the company started to experience any real success. Today, Carman’s have expanded from muesli to a broad range of upscale products, are stocked in all major supermarkets and even exports overseas to a number of big chain retailers in the UK and US. Creswell herself, once “literally trying to sell enough product to survive”, became the youngest woman on the 2013 BRW Rich Women List with a personal worth of $55 million.
It’s a story that starts with muesli. As a young adult, Creswell was working a number of part-time jobs to support herself during her university degree. She tutored, babysat and worked both at Coles and for a local muesli-maker. Unfortunately for Creswell, muesli was a niche business, and the company she worked for decided to cease production and put the business up for sale. Creswell couldn’t afford to lose the work, so she decided to take over the operation. At 18, her entire life savings amounted to $1,000. She teamed up with a colleague, the two of them offered $1,000 each, and the business eventually accepted. “I felt super grown up having my own company”, Creswell recalls, but the reality of the business was anything but glamorous.
Creswell says that $1,000 was more money than she would have in her bank account for the next four years. During that time, her business partner left, she finished her university degree (graduating with a BA from Monash), and Carman’s Muesli ground along. Creswell isn’t exaggerating when she says it was a lot of hard work: she would make the muesli by hand in her own kitchen, including chopping the fruit and nuts and roasting the muesli in batches before packing it into little hand-tied bags. Then she would spend her nights driving around to supermarkets and cafes while traffic was light to make her deliveries.
Back then, her goal was to break even and turn enough of a profit to support herself. For the first five years, that looked shaky, but Creswell stuck to her vision. In 1996, her first big break came when Coles agreed to trial her products in 20 outlets around Melbourne, and by 1997, they stocked Carman’s Muesli nationally. Creswell hired her first employee in the same year, finally selling enough product to need help with packaging the muesli.
Woolworths followed in 2001, and that increase in production caused a more seismic shift in Creswell’s approach when her accountant pointed out to her that the brand was now worth something in its own right. That revelation, she says, saw her focus more from making a product to building a brand. She focused on the Australian-made, GM-free and high quality aspects of her product and leveraged her advantages in a market that was increasingly conscious of healthy eating. An AusTrade event helped her break into the Malaysian market, and Carman’s has since expanded to 25 countries. Creswell told The Australian, “Australia has got a very clean and green image overseas, so it’s a marketing advantage”. Overseas retailers include WholeFoods in the US and Tesco in the UK, big players in the quality food markets, and Creswell expects their market share to increase.
From a single product, the Carman’s brand has moved into a range of products, still focusing on healthy quality-made breakfast options and lunchbox offerings. The Creswell family has expanded as well: Carolyn and her husband Tim have four young children under 10, which means that their approach to balancing work and family life has had to change. Weekends are dedicated to the children, work stays at work, but “You can’t do everything. For our family, they [the kids] are so proud of mum working – it’s the reality”.
They have a lot to be proud of. In 2007, Creswell won Ernst & Young’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and in 2012 she was the Victorian Telstra Businesswoman of the Year. From there, Creswell was asked to be part of Channel Ten’s Recipes to Riches, a show where contestants compete to have their recipe become a branded product. Creswell is one of the mentors on the show, utilising her own experience and determination to help new hopefuls. She sits on the board for Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden program, promoting fresh food and production knowledge for children, as well as active involvement in human rights and asylum seeker advocacy.
How does she manage it all? “Attitude is everything”, she says. If you love what you do and believe in it wholeheartedly, you’ll find business success, and lead a happier and healthier life. And of course, a healthy dose of elbow grease doesn’t hurt either.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Australian, Leaders In Heels, AusMumpreneur, BRW