The Inside Story

HOW A TINY MUESLI COMPANY BECAME A GLOBAL SUCCESS

Carolyn Creswell, Carman’s

“You’ve always got to be learning, figuring out what you don’t know and then finding ways to know it. For 26 years I’ve been building Carman’s by embracing a philosophy of deep thinking and continuous learning. You can’t remain static. You need to create a forward motion. Always,” Carolyn Creswell, founder, Carman’s.

We’re excited to meet Carolyn Creswell. We saw her speak at the Family Business Australia national conference a year ago and she was nothing short of inspirational. Her muesli and nut bar brand, Carman’s, has become a household name in Australia. Now, this is no easy task. Carman’s competes against the corporate giants of brands like Kelloggs, Sanitarium and Uncle Tobys in the breakfast category. These large brands have big marketing budgets and bargaining power with the supermarkets. And they don’t like to lose. But guess what? Our much loved Australian independent brand Carman’s is the only brand currently growing in the category. And we want to know why. How does one woman buy a tiny muesli brand at age 18 and turn into a huge success?

When we arrive at Carman’s HQ in Huntingdale, Melbourne, we are immediately enamoured with the Carman’s reception area and its stylish interiors (which is ingeniously disguised as a cafe). We soon learn that Huntingdale is a working-class industrial area in Melbourne’s south. And we realise that the new Carman’s building (once a chocolate factory) is a beacon of joy, warmth and modernism, in this somewhat grey backdrop. And it draws in the locals, like a moth to light. Black and white stripe awning, an industrial feel of black metal shelving and white tiles coupled with evergreen hanging indoor plants. A menu of tastiness and products perfectly placed on shelves. We feel like we’re entering a beautiful and delicious store in the hub of East Village New York, not a former factory in Huntingdale, Melbourne. But what leaves the biggest impression is the incredible greeting we receive from Carman’s staff Janice and Tom. Not only are we welcomed with enthusiasm, we feel cared for and celebrated. Carman’s core philosophy is centred around ‘creating delight every day’. And we truly feel this. We are in wonderland.

But Carman’s HQ is more than just a cafe and retail store; it’s an innovation in collaboration and workplace wellbeing. There are many spaces within the building, all purposefully renovated to not only create working office areas, but also spaces for the staff to enjoy, to exercise or to get inspired. There is a fully equipped gym, yoga studio, sleep retreat, phone booths, private working rooms, massage chairs, an infrared sauna, a hair salon, an outdoor conservatory and a communal garden where Carolyn encourages her employees to spend time in nature. There is also an in-house chef who cooks scrumptious healthy meals for the team every day (which we personally tested out, and were delicious) with an option for dinner to take home. And there is a car cleaner who comes weekly, an alterations person, a jewellery person who comes regularly and a dry cleaning drop off. Now some of these services are ‘user pays’, but it’s the convenience that counts. All of those annoying personal things you have to get done, that make your life a juggle, are taken care of.

Quite possibly it’s the best place to work in all of Australia.

“I tried to think of everything that would make my employees’ daily life easier, and decided to implement it here at Carman’s. If they’re happy, I’m happy,” Carolyn explained.

When we meet Carolyn one of the first things we asked her was ‘can we work here?’ She thought we were joking.

There’s no doubt, Carolyn Creswell is an innovative leader.

But what we really wanted to know is ‘what is the secret to her success?’ So many people aspire to build an iconic, much-loved brand. Few achieve it. What makes Carolyn so different?

AN OVERNIGHT SUCCESS?

“When I walk down the supermarket aisles I feel proud because I know that people understand what our brand stands for,” says Carolyn. “We aren’t just some shallow brand that doesn’t have any depth or a true story behind it. Understanding and defining what your brand stands for, then making sure people know this is key. I’m good at this, and this has helped with our success.”

Carolyn has made sure that everyone who is part of Carman’s knows that their goal is to delight people every day.

“Our staff may send flowers to someone in hospital, or gift someone more product than they think they need,” she continues. “They will find some way to help a supplier who is going through a tough time or send a hamper to a charity event. People that begin working here are always shocked by our generosity. But they soon learn that delighting others is embedded in our DNA. Other brands may define what they stand for successfully, but do they truly ensure every staff member lives and breathes these values?”.

People often mistakenly refer to Carolyn as an overnight success. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I was 18 years old and at the right place at the right time. I had worked a few part-time jobs and one of these was making muesli. One day the owners said to me ‘we need to sell the business and you’re going to lose your job’. So, I scraped together $1,000 and bought the business, alongside one of my colleagues,” she shares.

Now it is clear from her success, that Carolyn must be an extraordinary leader, a rare visionary. And, as we uncover her story, we find many small acts of extraordinary that truly illustrate her remarkableness.

EXTRAORDINARY ACT NO. 1 – At 18 years old Carolyn takes a risk in buying a small muesli business with her hard earned savings.

It takes someone special to go against the curve and try their hand at something so different (like running a business) at the tender age of 18.

“My business partner Manya and I were running this tiny little business and we weren’t really making any money,” says Carolyn. “We were just a startup. Manya was 45 at the time and she wanted more stability. She wanted to know what time she would start in the morning and what time she would go home. It was too hard financially for Manya and I’ve run the business myself ever since.”

Carolyn has found that people often get stuck on the start of her business, but that feels like a lifetime ago for her. Or, 26 years to be exact.

“Starting is not an issue, it’s the continuing that’s hard,” she says. “I spent the next 10 years doing everything from product development, to delivery, to even sorting shelves in the supermarkets. Sometimes I couldn’t pay myself. The hardest times were when I was broke and couldn’t pay the bills. I felt sick having to tell people I was about to pay them, but then not knowing how I was possibly going to do that. But I stuck it out.”

Carolyn shares with us what it’s like to constantly worry about money. It consumes your whole life, you can’t breathe properly let alone run a business. It was some of her darkest hours in the history of the business.

EXTRAORDINARY ACT NO. 2 – Despite not making money for long periods Carolyn never gave up. She had an unwavering belief that she could do this. She was in it for the long term.

We want to know what the turning point was for Carolyn. Was there one moment that changed everything, or was it a gradual build?

“There have been so many moments of excitement in building this business but one of the most memorable is the day I was listed in Coles,” Carolyn explains. “Other moments include how after 10 years of hard work, I took on my first employee, who is still with me today. The day I won Telstra Business Woman of the year (after entering eight times) was beyond exciting. And moving into this new building has been a dream come true.”

While these are all great wins, Carolyn’s ‘ah-ha’ moment was something that on the face of it seems far more mundane.

“When I learnt how to become numbers and data-obsessed,” she says. “That was a high point for sure. You really need to know that it’s not just turn over, it’s profit. You need to know what levers you can pull, what you can’t. I would never risk more than I could afford to risk. I live with this healthy paranoia. And I am always doing everything to perfection. Everything I do I feel proud of. It might not always work but I can never say ‘oh I was a bit sloppy on the execution.”

EXTRAORDINARY ACT NO. 3 – Recognising the customer is the foundation of everything.

“About five years ago I realised that the only person that can fire me is the consumer,” shares Carolyn. “If the consumer stops buying our products we don’t exist anymore. So I started a process of coming back to what the consumer wants. The consumer doesn’t want pretty packaging with a crappy product inside. People want something to love. They want to be delighted and to come back again, week after week.”

Carolyn believes that the consumer is Carman’s only stakeholder. And they have become obsessed with understanding what their consumers want. She has implemented all sorts of processes into the company to capture the consumer’s voice – ‘truth booths’ for people to express their honest opinion, a consumer panel of 3,000 for Carman’s Kitchen, constant surveys. They find every opportunity they can to talk directly to their customers.

EXTRAORDINARY ACT NO. 4 – Plan, plan, plan. Say ‘no’. Free up time for the things in your focus.

One thing we are fascinated about with Carolyn’s path to success is how she managed to balance steering the ship of her blossoming FMCG brand, while raising four children alongside her husband Peter, and still maintaining those important relationships in her life. Carolyn considers herself to be a calm person. Stress is the product of feeling out of control, and she believes the answer is working smart and mastering the art of scheduling.

“Basically everything you say ‘yes’ to means you say ‘no’ to something else,” she explains. “So each time you consider saying yes, you need to ask yourself what’s the pay off for doing this and is this how I want to spend my time? I have an ability to look at something from the perspective of the long term benefit.”

Carolyn systemises everything she can. Her morning routine is busy but organised. She gets up at 6am and meets her girlfriend at 6.15am for a walk in the park or a pilates class. Then she gets home and supervises her son who does his homework in the morning. Next, she gets ready for work. Her kids all have morning tasks. They know they have to be downstairs by a certain time, and they have to be out of the kitchen by a certain time. There is a system for the kids to walk themselves to school. Even Carolyn’s eight year old meets a friend and together they get to school.

“I used to be a bit out of control. I was one of those people that wouldn’t hop on a plane until my name was called on the loudspeaker. It was this sense of just trying to keep it all together,” she says. “But now with my systemised approach, life is a lot smoother. For example, I was always worried about not getting the time to see my parents, so I made every Monday night dinner at my place.

“Now, my parents come over and see all of us. I let everyone know that they have to be home by a certain time on Monday nights, or they will miss out. It created a nice rhythm. And again you have to choose what you say no to. When I had my third child I made the call and said ‘I can’t ever get my fingernails painted again.’ Getting my fingernails done, does it really matter? No. But losing a close friendship because I didn’t have time to see them anymore, that matters.”

So, what’s next for Carolyn Creswell?

“I think that we have so much more potential in the types of products that we do,” Carolyn explains. “We’re always evolving and obviously bringing out new products, but there are also new ranges. We are moving into savoury biscuits and some more premium categories.”

“There is definitely more opportunity in the supermarket, but there is also a lot of opportunities outside of the supermarket. It’s what we call alternative channels – from vending machines to petrol stations to airlines. And of course China – are in about 1,500 stores there. It’s been like building a whole new business, but it’s beginning to work which is very exciting.”

EXTRAORDINARY ACT NO. 5 – A constant philosophy of learning and self-education. If Carolyn doesn’t know how to do something, she finds a way to teach herself or the right person to coach her.

Carolyn spends a few more minutes chatting with us about her favourite books and her favourite apps, and just about life generally as we eat an incredible lunch by Rosa the chef. And we think to ourselves – as no doubt her inbox is building up by the second – how lucky we are that Carolyn, this extraordinary leader, decided that today’s interview was a ‘yes’ in her schedule. We are eternally grateful.

CAROLYN’S PIECE OF ADVICE ON BUILDING A BRAND

“You have to understand that you are not your brand. Your brand is a separate living entity, and there are things that your brand would and wouldn’t do, that you might do differently personally. Understand the difference. And secondly, don’t do anything unless you really commit to it and do it really well. Anything Carman’s does has to be awesome or we won’t put our name to it.”

Carolyn Creswell

CAROLYN’S BOOK AND APP LIST TO INSPIRE

Words: Emma Scott
Photography: Monique Easton

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