Queen of the cereal aisles earns her crown

SHE may be Australia’s muesli queen, but for the owner of Carman’s Fine Foods, Carolyn Creswell, starting her food empire was not at all glamorous.

“People look at Carman’s now and think it’s been this overnight success, but it’s been 20 years, and a challenging 20 years,” the 38-year-old entrepreneur says. “For the first 10 years I was literally trying to sell enough product to survive.”

Creswell’s career as a food manufacturer began at university, when she worked part-time for a small muesli-maker that supplied cafes in Melbourne. When the owners told her she might lose her job because the business was going to be sold, she teamed up with a colleague to buy it, offering $1000 each.

The owners originally laughed, but after failing to find another buyer they eventually caved in. Spending the money she had earned as a “checkout chick” at Coles, Creswell was a business owner at 18.

“I had more money in my bank account on the day that I started and bought the business than I did definitely for the next five years,” the mother of four laughs. “I guess I’ve always bitten off more than I could chew, and then chew like crazy.”

The name Carman’s combined the business partners’ first names, Carolyn and Manya ( van Aken). Two years on, her colleague left in search of a more predictable income and steady working hours.

The big breakthrough came in the late 1990s, when Carman’s made it onto the supermarket shelves. Having been repeatedly rejected by the two big grocery chains, a local buyer for Coles finally agreed to stock the mueslis at 20 outlets in Melbourne.

Creswell remembers unloading her car behind the big Linfox semitrailers to make her deliveries, moving things up on the shelves to put her products at eye level.

After six months, Carman’s was supplying Coles’s Victorian distribution centres, then its NSW centres. Today, it delivers to Coles and Woolworths, which comprise 80 per cent of its annual sales of about $50 million. It has also begun selling to Metcash, which supplies independent supermarkets. Creswell says Carman’s exports to more than 30 offshore markets; to chains like Sainsbury’s in Britain and Whole Foods Market in the US.

Yet there have been “heaps” of setbacks, most notably when one of the big chains deleted Carman’s range from its shelves to change the product mix, Creswell says. It came back a year later, but the experience was “devastating, financially and emotionally”.

Ironically, while many food manufacturers groan about the supermarkets’ relentless discounting and promotion of house brands, Creswell says the emergence of private label products was “the best thing that happened to us”.

The chains began promoting Carman’s as a superior product to their house brands, which “for us meant there was less competition, our [retail] price was reduced, we were put on eye level and we were their premium offer”.

The company employs about 20 staff in its head office. Its products are made by third-party manufacturers. Muesli bars and biscuits have become the main growth driver, comprising more than half of sales.

Does Creswell ever think of cashing in and selling the business to one of the food giants? She has had approaches, she admits, but “I can still see how many new things we can do”. She has ambitious plans: doubling sales in three years; boosting the brand’s profile; launching new products and expanding beyond mueslis and snacks; “going into different aisles”, perhaps even bakery.

The right balance

WITH four children under eight, work-life balance is a passion for Carolyn Creswell. While her husband retired to look after the kids, she keeps a tight structure around career and family, working four days a week and refusing to answer emails or work calls at nights and on weekends. Her main strategies:

Don’t mix work and family. “When I come to work I’m focused, I know what I want to achieve for the day, and I’m making sure I’m on top of my work here. … And then when I go home it’s absolutely about being in the moment there. I love doing homework with the kids.”

Find time for yourself. “On my day off I have that as a day where I do whatever things that interest me. I might go and look at a gallery, or I’m reading a book for my book group. I organise my week, and for me that means that I get to do all the things that I like doing: on Monday nights I play tennis with a girlfriend after the kids have gone to bed.”

Challenge public perceptions. “I know people would say about me, ‘you’re not a good mother because you work’, but you would never say that if I was a guy. There’s this whole thing that you can’t be a good mother and work, and I challenge them constantly.”

Miriam Steffens
From: The Sydney Morning Herald

July 30, 2012

Posted by: mums@work, www.mumsatwork.com.au