Dynamic Business Logo
Home Button
Bookmark Button

Margot Spalding: Keeping Jimmy Possum local helps us thrive

Margot Spalding: Keeping Jimmy Possum local helps us thrive

Jimmy Possum was started by Margot Spalding and her family in a shed they could barely afford. Now the furniture business turns over $25 million annually.

Spalding, winner of the Telstra Business Woman of the Year, tells us what it took to successfully grow Jimmy Possum, while keeping it a local business

Margot Spalding’s approach to her furniture business is reflected in the integrity of her products: locally sourced materials of the highest grade, optimal strength and durability, and an aesthetic that combines fun with practicality. Co-director of a company that is currently turning over $25 million annually, she has ventured a long way from the shed where Jimmy Possum, her furniture company, began. “We started with nothing,” she says. “We actually couldn’t afford the labour to build the shed so our mates built it over a couple of weekends and we paid them in food and alcohol.” With an initial capital injection of $15,000 and just one employee, Margot, a graphic designer, and her husband Alan, an industrial designer, opened the business in 1995.

Named after a turn-of-the-century Tasmanian primitive furniture maker, Jimmy Possum has evolved into a highly integrated family affair. Now employing five of the couple’s seven children, Margot says the family gets along very well. “Everyone is accommodated in their own area of interest.” While Margot and Alan continue to design all the furniture, their children are engaged in a variety of roles: Todd is design and development coordinator, Georgia manages merchandising and marketing, Emily manages PR and creative communications, Eliza is a store manager and oversees retail processes, and Jessica paints with Margot. The eldest and youngest children have pursued careers in other areas.

Despite the close family ties, they maintain professional relationships at work. Having said that, she concedes that occasionally her children will tell her to ‘stop being the mum’. “The values of the family do pass into the business,” she says. “I guess you would think that because we spend all day together we would get sick of each other, but that’s simply not the case. Often when Alan and I plan to do something together in our free time the kids will ask if they can come too. We’re very close like that.”

The Spaldings started their first furniture business in 1979, making reproduction and custom-designed pieces. In addition, Margot ran a business manufacturing children’s clothing from 1981 to 1985. The furniture business flourished until the 1990 recession, which saw the Spaldings sell up and move to a small farm in North Harcourt. Prior to launching Jimmy Possum, the family farmed raspberries, trout and water chestnuts on the property, but Margot says it was a struggle to make money out of such a niche industry.

“We made all of our big mistakes in those first few businesses.”

While she admits they have made a few mistakes along the way with Jimmy Possum, they have been on a much smaller scale. The rationale, from the beginning, was to create a high-end product for an exclusive market. Initially Jimmy Possum sold into a few local businesses, but after eighteen months Margot decided to put together a collection for Furnitex, the biggest furniture trade show in Australia. “We took orders for nine months’ worth of work,” Margot says, “but we only had eight to 10 weeks to fulfil those orders.”

Miraculously, the ‘possums’, as the workers like to be called, managed to pull it off, with only one disgruntled customer walking away from a delayed order. “The business exploded from there,” she says. “We bought a new shed and hired five more employees.”

The company currently employees around 100 people in its factory, has five flagship outlets nationally and supplies to seven exclusive retailers. One of the many unique aspects of the business is that the Spaldings have maintained complete control of the supply chain and have adamantly chosen not to export. “We only want to service the Australian market,” says Margot. “Australians treat furniture differently. They’re generally a lot rougher than Europeans, so we have tailored our offer to accommodate this.”

The furniture is constructed from all-Australian recycled and sustainably farmed Victorian ash. They chose this timber because it has a very plain look that can be stained easily and has minimal grain pattern; essentially it’s a ‘fashion’ timber. Despite the fact that most European furniture is timber veneer, Margot and Alan still go on annual trips to European trade fairs to check out what’s happening in fabrics and shapes to inform their designs for the Australian market. These aspects are all reflected in the price tag, with Jimmy Possum products positioned in the mid to top end of the market. For example, dining tables start at $2,200 and range up to $6,000.

So, what is the secret to keeping this behemoth running smoothly? Margot believes there are three keys: passion, absolute focus and hard work. “Passion is infectious,” she explains. “It drives hard work but it also means that you enjoy the challenges and you have fun while you’re doing it.” She also says that effective communications, good relationships and keeping firmly to your values will pave the way for a strong company ethos.

Margot says winning the Telstra award has given the business an extraordinary boost. “While we have always had a high profile in Victoria it has given us solid credibility in other states.” It has also added a number of interviews and speaking engagements to her already hectic schedule. “Finding enough time in the day to do everything is an enormous challenge,” she admits. “Because we do everything ourselves, we wear a lot of different hats.”

Like most business owners, Margot says that managing staff is always a primary concern. “In the future there may be more Jimmy Possum stores but we have to balance our manufacturing capacity with our sales potential, which is a constant juggling act.

“We have had several offers to write a book about Jimmy Possum and the way we do business. Our culture strikes people so strongly and is such a profound part of our business, it seems people are curious to read about how we do it. In addition to the book, we will introduce new sofa designs and timber ranges as we keep up with international trends and lead design in Australian-made products. There might even be franchise opportunities for store in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory…who knows!”

What do you think?

    Be the first to comment

Add a new comment