Marvellous muesli: how Carolyn Creswell built
the Carman’s empire
For Carolyn, it took “slow, long growth” to build her FMCG brand Carman’s Fine Foods to a business that now exports to 32 countries.
“It’s been 22 years of building Carman’s so there wasn’t one moment where it went boom, and I’m very grateful for that,” Carolyn says.
She attributes her business success to having complete focus on customer needs, a tenacious thirst for learning, an ability to manage calculated risks and implement change, and to make opportunities a commercial reality.
“If you’re really customer-focused, always thinking about what they want, ‘what can I do to make them happy’ and what’s the best product or service offering that we can provide, then that’s the best basis for your decision making.”
Seize your business opportunity
For Carolyn, those sound decision-making skills proved most important when, at 18 years of age, she bought out her employer - the homemade muesli small business that would become Carman’s - for just $1000.
“I never thought it would be as big as this. But, I remember feeling super proud, with my chest puffed out, that hey, I own a business. I thought that was very cool.”
Carolyn launched Carman’s in 1992. She made and distributed muesli to cafes and delis in Melbourne.
From the business’ humble beginnings with a limited product offering, Carman’s range now includes muesli, muesli bars, oats, porridge, breakfast biscuits, and clusters.
Never stop learning about your business
Carolyn admits it took a lot of learning and asking her network for help to understand how to successfully operate and build a once-small business.
“If you need to know a certain thing, don’t be afraid to ask who can teach you,” Carolyn advises.
“There’s no such thing as a silly question.”
She chuckles recalling asking someone about how to reconcile a bank statement.
But she admitted she never previously personally needed that skill. As a new small business owner, she understood it was very important for her to learn.
That attitude towards learning is something she’s held strong, and believes has paid off.
“At work, they call me the firefighter because I’ve seen so many things. When there’s a crisis that happens, I’m always the one who steps in because I’ve dealt with all sorts of crises. There’s that clarity of thinking – how do we narrow this down, how do we focus on what we need to achieve – that only comes from wanting to learn all the time.”
What to expect when you’re building your business
After several years selling her muesli range to gourmet cafes and butcher’s shops, Carolyn expanded Carman’s into supermarkets. She admitted once being somewhat naïve about the role retail buyers held.
“I presumed the buyer was thinking about me and my business every day. They don’t care how tasty my muesli is, they want to know that it sells.”
So she changed her process to address what buyers needed from her to help sell Carman’s. Once she showed buyers how she could help them meet their KPIs, she built strong relationships with them.
Now, when she brokers a deal with a new stockist, she first asks how she can fulfill their needs before presenting a solution.
“You have to say ‘you tell me what you need and I’ll see if I can tailor something to suit your needs’.”
Carolyn doesn’t just tailor her products to stockists, she also constantly adapts her products to meet consumer trends.
Whether it be changing callouts on packaging to address a new low sugar trend, or developing a new product to service a new niche market, Carolyn pushes to keep Carman’s agile and consumer-focused.
Know your numbers: data can change your business
To identify these market trends, Carolyn places a huge importance on research.
“I’ve become much more data obsessed. We do a lot of market research about how people feel about our brand. I look at what rate of sales I need to achieve by a certain date, how we got certain customers…”
Carolyn believed failing to monitor and analyse these numbers was part of the reason her muesli line was once removed from a major supermarket’s shelves.
“It halved my business overnight,” Carolyn says.
By “knowing [her] numbers” and understanding her consumers Carman’s was able to eventually bounce back.
Create yearly goals and solid business plans
Carolyn creates yearly growth plans each Christmas. She looks practically and realistically about the steps needed to achieve the longer-term goal.
She asks herself: “If you need to grow your business from here to there, what do you need to do?”
She gives an example of a small business trying to achieve five new accounts and how, realistically, an owner might have to approach 50 people to earn those five accounts.
“Sometimes you get lost in the sea of all the possible things you could do.”
But it’s about breaking down the process to identify the next small step to work towards your larger goals, she says.
Empower your staff and create a happy workforce
Carolyn believes the strength of her team and their belief in the brand helps to keep these goals on track.
She tries to instill a sense of empowerment in her team to make decisions.
Carolyn believes establishing this level of trust and respect helps “build an engaged workforce”.
“I want people to really care about their role.”
Understand the challenges of your employees’ roles
Given her growth in the business from being the sole operator to managing a 20-plus-strong head office team and other factory staff, Carolyn has a lot of empathy for her staff and the challenges they face.
She recognises how losing one team member throughout production “stops the whole process”.
“Understanding what it takes for your business to be a well-oiled machine and having a sense of empathy and respect for each person’s role is important,” Carolyn says.
Carolyn believes it is of “great benefit” to small business owners to intimately understand their business and the various roles required to operate seamlessly.
Start working on your business idea now
For potential entrepreneurs looking to develop a product or service, Carolyn’s advice is to simply “start developing ideas on the weekends”.
“An entrepreneur has the ability to see an opportunity and make it a commercial reality. A lot of people might see it but think ‘I could never make that happen’. It’s about taking that step to actually make it happen. Taking the first step is sometimes the hardest step in the journey.”