An athlete’s career always has an expiry date, so many plan for the day when they’ll have to hand in their towels. For swimmer and Olympic gold medallist Michael Klim however, hanging up the goggles hasn’t meant the end of a successful career.
When Dynamic Business caught up with Michael Klim, he was speaking from tropical Bali. “I’m trying not to boast, just on a bit of a working holiday at the moment. I’m pretty much running Milk by email and Skype right now.”
Being away from it all, for the moment, is perhaps contributing to Klim’s steely focus on his business, Milk&Co – a range of men’s and baby’s skin products, and a new range of Milk Active food supplements.
Trying the trade
After a chaotic last 18 months for the Klim family, with Klim making a return to the pool, a new baby (and two other young children) and a flourishing business, the now retired swimmer is happy to finally only have one thing to focus on. “There was a lot of uncertainty about what we were doing, but that chapter’s been and gone and now we know very much what we’re doing,” he says. “We’ve got so many great, exciting things happening with Milk that it’s great there aren’t as many distractions any more. I still struggle with having my family hat on and business hat on, but it’s just making sure I can put them on at the right moments.”
Despite facing the same struggles that all small business owners face, Klim’s happy to be out of the pool and firmly in the business world, after years of dipping his toes in during his swimming career. “The idea for Milk came, initially, in 2006 when I was coming towards the end of my swimming career, my first one that is. I’d endorsed and I’d been the spokesperson for a lot of brands but I really wanted to create something of my own. Even though I always believed in the brands I was endorsing, it’s a different thing when you’re creating your own brand. So both my wife and I decided that we would create Milk.”
The name, which is Klim spelt backwards, seamlessly lends itself to the range of products that Klim and his wife Lindy have created. Using naturally sourced products such as seaweed and algae extracts, Milk&Co products are competing with the growing men’s grooming market. “There was definitely a massive spike in growth in the men’s grooming market in Australia when we got started. We’re still trying to catch up to the rest of the world, but there was definitely enough data for me to say I’m going to get stuck into it and create products for men by another bloke. That’s what motivated me.”
Manning the market
While Klim believes that the stigma associated with men using grooming products is definitely waning, there remains a degree of reticence among men using particular types of products. In order to deal with this, the company endeavours to provide a non-threatening alternative to male skincare. “That’s why we built our products around sunscreens, and around keeping your face clean. We try to use products that aren’t, for example eye creams. There is a small percentage of men that might use eye creams but not many,” he explains.
“Our Scrub+Cleanse wipes, for example, are great for tradies at the end of their working day. We really try to make it a relaxed approach to skincare for which I think there is definitely a need.”
When Milk&Co was in its developing stages, the company was fortunate to have a ready audience on which to try out the products. “Because I’ve been exposed to chlorine and swimming outdoors for years, I developed a bit of an understanding about how to look after yourself,” Klim says. “I was lucky enough when I was swimming that I used to take samples to the swimming squad and say hey boys try it and tell me what you think. You couldn’t get a better focus group than swimmers that are constantly using product!”
Fish out of water
After spending years in the pool, stepping into business was a completely new experience for Klim and, unfortunately, it hasn’t always been a straight run. “Unfortunately I made some costly mistakes early on in terms of sourcing and cashflow and those sort of things, where if I had my time again I probably wouldn’t have done them,” he admits.
“My education has come on the job, which does sometimes come at a price, but it’s a crash course in business. One thing I learnt from my swimming career was how important it was that I had a really good team around me; from coaches to doctors to dieticians, all experts in their particular field,” Klim says.
“So I decided that if I’m going to build a brand I want people that are really good at business around me, so good at finance, PR etc. I try and surround myself with people that are a lot smarter or more experienced than I am.”
Klim has been fortunate enough to have some great friends who have acted as business mentors through the early years as well. “I say let’s catch up for coffee than I fire a hundred questions at them,” he laughs. But most importantly, Klim has started the whole business hand in hand with his wife.
“Lindy and I do well working together. We’ve got our different strengths and weaknesses. She is definitely the more creative one in the team. She has these wild ideas that a lot of the time we have to go woah, just settle down,” Klim laughs.
The brand’s creativity however, in leveraging off the strong name and its associated healthy connotations, has given it a launch pad in a crowded market. “L’Oreal, Olay and Gillette have these massive advertising budgets and their spend is just so much greater than ours that we just have to be clever and innovative,” he says.
Knowing this, Milk does its best to ensure that it can offer an unrivalled experience in every other aspect of the business. “At the end of the day it’s that repeat purchase that we rely on so we have to make sure the product is good, people like it and they’ll talk about it and buy it again,” Klim says, adding, “We’re quite strategic on how we keep expanding the brand because there’s no way we can do big TV commercials, we just don’t have that budget.”
In spite of the competition, Milk has around four percent of the Australian market and has recently had some promising export success after being picked up by the flourishing Boots chain in the UK.
“That was a fairly easy sell to be honest,” Klim laughs. “I was lucky enough to get an appointment with the buyers at Boots when I was flying through. I sat down and they loved the story: the fact that it’s Australian made, and the fact that it’s a relaxed approach to skincare made by an Aussie bloke. They had that affinity with Australia already.”
Klim attributes the business’ success in export to brands that have trodden the path before him. “People tend to neglect the reputation that Australia has created generally with consumer products. Over time people overseas have really started to respect anything that’s Australian made. I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that a lot of Aussie brands have paved the way before me, and for me to make the most of it,” he says
Milk&Co will also soon be launching in Korea, and the baby range has just been signed exclusively to children’s retailer Boshiwa in China. “They’ve got about 1,000 stores,” Klim explains. “We’re looking to expand into that market and for our numbers to increase dramatically.”
Looking ahead, export is a big priority for Milk but it’s not its only one. “I think expanding the lifestyle brand as a whole, is very exciting. The Milk by Lindy Klim range, which is a suncare range we’re launching in early 2013, is also exciting. We also want to expand on the Milk active range, which we’re just starting, so we’ll be focussing on expanding through all the different extensions that we have.
“I think we have a pretty strong vision about where we want to take the brand in the next three to five years so we’ll be quite proactive in trying to take it to the next level.”
The Milk trade
When counting the business’ successes over the years, Klim finds it hard to narrow it down to one particular achievement of which he’s most proud. “Ticking over that million dollar turnover in the business, that’s nice. And I think having recently launched in the UK with a brand like Boots is a good achievement as well.
“We were pretty fortunate that we hit the one million in probably our third year. People were saying it will take you three years to become profitable but I was so fired up I thought I could do it in a lot less. But it took us a fair bit of time to make sure everything was lined up properly and we were a profitable business.”
With the brand’s rapid expansion into international territories, it might not be too long before we see Milk compete with the L’Oreals of the world in the global arena. But first thing’s first, and Klim understands that now is the time to put his head down and get stuck into making Milk the best it can be. So after years of early morning starts, long days training and endless laps, he has turned his determined athlete’s focus into a thriving business career, completely separate from his time chasing the thin black line at the bottom of the pool. And it seems like it won’t be long before he’s earning medals of a very different type.