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Carolyn Creswell, the cereal entrepreneur behind Carman’s Fine Foods

Carolyn Creswell, the cereal entrepreneur behind Carman’s Fine FoodsCarolyn Creswell is storming supermarket cereal aisles around the world with Carman’s Fine Foods and a never-give-up attitude. We discover the ingredients for this export success include quality Aussie produce, mixed with a lot of passion.

Carolyn Creswell first learnt how to make muesli at a small bakery in Hawksburn, Victoria. Creswell was 18 when the owners told her the business would be sold and she would most likely lose her part-time job. And so began what would become the multi-million dollar success story of Carman’s Fine Foods.

Rather than sulk, or look for work elsewhere, the young entrepreneur made plans to buy the business—or at least the recipe for the muesli—together with one of her workmates, Manya van Aken. “I thought well, I already make the product and know the product’s great. We put in an offer of a thousand dollars each, bought this little business and continued it in a partnership,” says Creswell.

They named the new business Carman’s Fine Foods, an amalgamation of their names, and it was quite a juggling act in the beginning as she ran the business while completing an arts degree. “I’d do deliveries before university and do the books at lunchtime,” she says. And while her studies didn’t include business, she believes the academic experience taught her how to think.

Within two years Creswell bought out her partner and shifted her focus, concentrating solely on the business, which will turn 15 in December. Carman’s now offers three types of muesli and muesli bars, alongside a fourth tropical flavour to meet export demands. While Coles and Woolworths have been stocking the products for years, recently Qantas, Virgin Airlines, and Lite n’ Easy joined the ranks. In this time, the company’s annual turnover has gone from $80,000 to $10 million.

Creswell attributes a worldwide soaring of muesli sales to a shift in eating habits. “The trend has moved from 99 percent fat-free and products that have lots of numbers and [unnatural] ingredients to being much healthier. People are more concerned now with what they eat and want to look at the ingredients list.”

The real change that promoted expansion came after two years, when Creswell decided to outsource the manufacturing and free herself to focus on growing the business. “At the end of the day, an oven is an oven and it’s what is in your ingredients and your process that make your product what it is,” she says. “It’s given us an amazing production capacity that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

A natural progression into export soon followed. As a first step, Creswell applied for and received Austrade’s Export Market Development Grant (EMDG). The grant reimburses up to 50 percent of export promotion expenses. Next she signed up for Trade Start, which helps young companies to export. “[Austrade] will meet you and introduce you to buyers and take you to supermarkets, and they give you a partner in each country.” Carman’s now exports to supermarkets in 15 countries, including Park n Shop in Hong Kong and Sainsbury’s supermarkets in the UK, its biggest overseas market.

A lot of thought has gone into making the product suitable for export. In terms of packaging, each box of muesli bars has four instead of six. The design also changed to red rather than black specifically for Asian markets. “In Asia black is perceived to be pretty dowdy, while in Australia black is quite stylish,” she says. “In Asia red is the colour of prosperity.”

Carman’s connects with international customers through a personal approach to marketing. Creswell’s email address is on the packs, a newsletter with photos of her children is sent out, and a referral program posts a small gift to anyone who recommends Carman’s. “We are a lot closer with our customers than some big companies that just have a toll-free number and are not really as accessible. We’ve always tried to treat people the way you want to be treated yourself, so we get a lot of great feedback like that,” Creswell says. “The more I know about my consumer the better my product and business can be.”

Creswell’s approach to stockists, too, has always been very personal, from delivering the product to cafes to having Coles personally close the door in her face. But success lies in persistence and Creswell refused to give up, and kept knocking until Coles agreed to stock her muesli in 20 stores. “I drove around the semitrailers with my little hatchback and delivered my one carton as opposed to a whole truckload of products, and would then run around the store and pick up the products and put them on the shelf. The store managers all knew me,” says Creswell. Despite the small start, the brand was quickly picked up nationwide.

Using Australian produce wherever possible, Creswell says the drought has been devastating at times. Not only do ingredients become more expensive, it’s also tough dealing with quality standard requirements. In fact, she had to act quickly when she recently found a batch of the product not up to her usual standards. “We pulled it off the shelves to protect our brand, and that was the right thing to do.”

Balancing Work and Home

No matter how messy things get, the 33-year-old mother of two knows she needs to balance her work and home life. “I’m really conscious of having to leave work at 5.30 and go home,” she says. “And I think I’m better at work because of that.”

A finalist of Ernst & Young’s 2007 Entrepreneur of the Year awards, Creswell is called regularly to speak publicly about running a family-friendly business. Disarmingly modest, she laughs when referred to as a motivational speaker. “I don’t go out to be a motivational speaker, people just ask me to come out and tell my story. I try to talk to people about thinking outside the square and recognising opportunities.”

While the public speaking gets the Carman’s brand “out there”, so does the time she spends in overseas markets, promoting the product. Having recently returned from the United States, she is now trying to launch the product there, and in India and the Middle East.

Next in her plan is a new range of products, possibly including biscuits, 100 percent fruit bars and gluten-free muesli and bars. “We think we could go into other healthier products in other areas. That’s the plan.”

Creswell advises exporters to insure their product for the entire length of the journey. “There’s a lot of risk with export,” she says. Exporters should expect the unexpected, because products can be delivered to the wrong address or disappear altogether. Credit insurance is also a necessity, she adds. “Halfway around the world it’s really hard to chase your money, so it’s really important to protect your money.”

Creswell believes the secret of Carman’s success, which has taken her by surprise, lies in a commitment to quality and using Australian ingredients in a century-old recipe. “I only ever planned one or two years at a time, I never imagined it would be this big,” she says. “It’s amazing that a little company from Australia can be competing against the biggest players in the world and holding our own.”


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