Business Growth: Insights from Carman’s
Work| By Stuart Ridley & Jo McKay | February 8, 2021
Carolyn Creswell, founder of Carman's, talks about business growth, leadership and how she’s carved out a successful business over almost 30 years at the helm.
When she was just 18 years old and a first-year university student, Carolyn Creswell bought the handmade muesli small business she worked for part time, and renamed it “Carman’s” using part of her first name. Nearly three decades later, her food empire has expanded to more than 30 countries around the world. Here, Carolyn talks about business growth, the keys to business success, and how COVID-19 has helped the business evolve.
To Create Business Growth, Play to Your Strengths
The big thing for me in growing my business was working out what to say yes to and what to say no to. Looking back on my 27-year career, the thing that I've learnt over the journey is to focus on what's going to grow your business. I probably did too many things in the early days. Now, we’ve found our niche and we focus on our brand, and that’s been the secret of our success.
As we've grown, we've invested in a bigger HQ, and we've been able to bring more of the packaging and food production back in house, though the two areas I spend most of my time on are still customer needs and product development. I'm not the person to do all the analytics on the figures and to prepare all the BAS statements; I worked out it’s much better to pay someone to do the things that I didn't like doing. That way I could focus more on growing the business and that old adage of working on my business not in my business.
As a Business Owner, You Have to Want to Do the Work
I was only 18 years old when I started working in this business and the only reason I bought it was to be able to buy my job. I never knew that it was going to end up like this and I've never been driven by the size of how big it would be. For me, it was about the pride of what I could do with the resources that I had at that period of time.
It’s really important for people who want to start a business to understand if that’s something you want to do all day, every day. You might love cooking at home, but do you want to cook out the back of a cafe every day? But, I’d also say, just give it a go. You have one life, one opportunity and I always try to encourage people to give it a go; to start.
Trust Your Instincts
“Just as COVID was starting [overseas], I kind of saw the writing on the wall. I’m a gut instinct person, so I decided to increase our stock holdings. My CFO said, “Are we really doing this?” and I said, “Just trust me”. We bought a whole lot of extra stock and packaging, and got it into our own warehouse so we could control our destiny. When panic buying hit, we had clients saying to us, “We’ll take anything you can give us.” The first month of sales were 50% above where they should have been, which in a business like ours is massive. It was a roller-coaster of a year.
COVID Taught Me That What Seems Impossible Is Possible
I personally had never done a Zoom call or any video conferencing; it was a steep learning curve but, all of a sudden, you realise what you can do remotely. I never thought that we could have been able to develop products remotely. But a sample was sent out, we’d do virtual tasting; we could keep going. The ability to embrace technology has meant we’ve leapt [ahead] 10 years. For podcasts, people would send me the equipment; when you listen, it sounds like you are in a studio. Even QR codes. To think that my mother would be checking in at a restaurant! I think QR codes will be embraced on packaging a lot more; before, people didn’t know how to use them.
To Build Your Business, Evolution Is Key
When you look at a business, it should look quite different every five years. You should have grown and evolved to industry trends, to what technology can offer. I feel that that is really important: you can't just stay still. The food industry has changed enormously during my career. In the early days, it was all about being fat-free. Now it’s much more about healthy, clean, veganism... During COVID-19, there has been a resurgence of people caring more about premium food. People care about ingredients and quality.
Focus on What Makes People Happy
When we're designing recipes we try to put a little bit of delight into people's days. It could be that one moment when you're eating a bowl of gluten-free muesli, or an espresso nut bar at three o'clock, or you're having crackers and hummus in front of the TV. I'm very passionate about what we put into our food: it's all things I'd feed my family, and there's attention to detail that's coming from a place of love and care.
Be Ruthless With Your Schedule and Stay Focused
I've got four growing kids and I want to get out of here by 5pm. To be able to do that I have to protect my time during the day, and there’s a lot of people putting demands on your time. For example, I don't do coffee catch-ups. I'm more than happy to have a chat with someone; I’ll schedule that into my diary – but I'm really conscious of my time. [That way], I can focus on the things that the business needs to move it forward.
Look for People With a Can-Do Approach
I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my career and, by the time I sit down to interview someone, generally I know they've got the skills. For me, it’s more for me about their can-do attitude. As technology is rapidly changing, things are changing at a far greater pace that we’ve ever seen before. You really want your employees to be able to embrace it with both hands and to get the best out of their role with a positive attitude.
Your Staff Are More Than What They Do at the Office
What I've learnt is that most people who leave a company don't leave because they don't like the company; they leave because they don't like their manager. They feel their manager doesn't see them as a person or doesn't ask them how they think it's best to do their role. We've spent a long time at Carman’s making sure we've built up extraordinary managers who have the tools to lead effectively. We need to work together with a lot of respect, and respect of the whole human, not just who they are when they're at work.
Looking After Your Staff Is Paramount
My big dream was to be able to have a head office that could bring real work/life balance to all of the Carman’s employees’ lives, but that could also fulfill our business dreams. It took a long time but eventually I was able to buy an old chocolate factory, to gut it and do it up, and I'm very proud of what it is today. [Before COVID-19], we had a chef on site, yoga classes, spin classes, a gym, meditation, an infrared sauna. [During the lockdown], we still spent a lot of time trying to make sure that people were happy. We had virtual cheese tasting, wine tasting and trivia nights. We had exercise classes every morning, health and wellbeing seminars at lunchtimes and personal development sessions. We did what we could to keep people feeling connected to the people they worked with.
Honesty Will Take You a Long Way
Carman's is a values-led organisation. It’s important to me to always tell the truth, whether I'm having to fire someone or whether I'm having a really tough conversation with a supplier. Some people find forthright conversations embarrassing. I'm not running a popularity contest here and sometimes I have to make hard decisions. So, I never lie; I think that’s something that has really put me in good stead. People would say, she's tough but she dealt with that situation in a very respectful way.
Work in the Way That Works for You
In the early part of my career, I thought that being really busy and working all hours was a sign of success. What I've learnt as time has gone on is that you want to be a whole person, giving to all the different aspects of your life. For me, now, being able to be calmer and more organised, working out what I’ll say yes and no to, working out what’s the best use of my time, has been the greatest sense of my personal happiness – because I'm very proud of Carman’s but I'm also very proud of the way I run Carman’s.