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Turning a $1,000 investment into a global business is a cake walk for Carolyn Creswell

The business owner may become buried in the daily grind; sometimes it helps to raise the head and look farther a field

Carolyn Creswell purchased the Carman’s muesli business for $1,000 when she was just 18. Today, Carman’s Fine Foods exports to 26 countries and is the leading muesli brand in Australian supermarkets.

Creswell started the gourmet muesli brand in 1991 when, as an 18-year old she paid $1000 for a homemade muesli business selling cereal and muesli bars through a few cafes around Melbourne. Today, Carman’s range of 14 products is found on supermarket shelves and specialty food stores across Australia, served on many of the major airlines and exported to 26 countries. Growth rates have been consistently in double digits over the period, taking turnover from a meagre $80,000 in 1991 to “many” millions.

“We’re beyond the small business, more like a medium-sized, well known brand; very much the competent and confident brand. But we’re also nowhere near that part of the life cycle of a business where we ask ‘what are we going to do next?’ There’s enormous potential. There are a lot more resources behind me now. “

From kitchen table to global business

Creswell’s evolution from kitchen table entrepreneur to mid-sized player in the food industry may have all the hallmarks of the toil and struggle that most entrepreneurs confront, but it also breaks down some of the mythology about success in dealing with major players such as the supermarkets and the value of a brand. Indeed her story of young businesswoman to entrepreneur is part of the Carman’s branding. “It’s a more personal brand.”

She says her “break” came when Coles agreed to trial the muesli in 20 of its Melbourne stores. “By 1997, they stocked the muesli nationally. Woolworths followed in 2001. I’ve had an amazing run with the supermarkets because I could give them what they need. They are not unreasonable. You need to weigh up what works.

Creswell believes that entrepreneurs seeking to be on the supermarket shelves should not be intimidated by their size. “They are not the 800-pound gorilla. I started in one state; tested and measured the outcomes. Now it’s much harder, you need a lot more capital behind you; they want national coverage. Creswell’s ‘laundry’ list:

  • Try it out in the farmers market
  • Get feedback
  • Get the product right
  • Get in to the delis so you can get the right pricing
  • Then, 12 months later go to the supermarket and show them you what you’ve achieved in distribution.

They need new product; they’re not as closed-minded as you may imagine.”

She says that her “awakening” to brand value altered forever her approach to business. “It wasn’t until about 10 years into the business that my accountant pointed out that the brand is actually worth something. I had never put effort into it.

“Building brand loyalty has been crucial for the business. I’ve moved from making a product to building a brand. This strengthens our success so that when there’s a new product launch people trust it. I feel I am custodian of a well respected and loved brand and that’s what I do everyday – look for ways to enhance the brand.

“I could never image that this business could be so big. When I started muesli was so daggy. People are more conscious of treating their body well. That shift has gone into our category. Ours is wholesome and it tastes good.”

It absolutely is about the ability to take calculated risks. You back yourself and this attracts others like the big customers and your bankers. That’s important too.