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When Carolyn Creswell bought half of Carman’s Fine Foods at age 18 for $1000, she never expected to be running a multi-million dollar business just two decades later, and exporting her 14-product range to 32 different countries.

The initial running of Carman’s was a juggling act for Creswell, as she balanced finishing her university degree with building a business. She excelled at it though, and within two years she’d bought out partner Manya van Aken (Carman’s is an amalgamation of their names) and was running the business solely under her vision.

Becoming a recognisable brand and large exporter didn’t happen overnight though, with Creswell putting a great deal of time and effort into creating a well systemised business renowned for making products with only the best local ingredients.

Creswell’s also become a much-sought after employer by building a strong company culture that rewards employees who live up to her company values.

This cereal entrepreneur shares her secrets to attracting and retaining the best talent in this week’s Friday Entrepreneur Fix.

How have you built a great company culture?

I think culture is so important to a business. We do a range of things, for example our five company values are stuck up behind every toilet door in the building and every Friday afternoon we all sit down and nominate one person who has best lived the company values that week, and the winner gets two gold class tickets.

We also have office nannies who come and make our tea and coffee and cut up fruit and salad to make sure we’re all eating healthily. We have someone who comes and washes the cars every second Friday and we also have something called POQ (“piss-off quick,”) which means once every fortnight you can leave two hours early if you’ve got less than 10 emails in your office. We also have an office library where I arrange copies of any book or movie I’ve enjoyed to be stocked there for employees to take home.

It really comes down to my employees though, I can only do so much to build great culture, they also need to meet me half way!

What drove you to take the risk and start your own business?

I was 18, so it was more about buying myself a job at that stage! I’ve always been quite good at recognising opportunities and being able to push myself to not be too conservative and try things that might be a little bit out there.

My share of the business initially cost $1000, so it wasn’t really a big, high-risk decision for me. It was hugely exciting, but I never thought I’d be still running it 20 years later and I never assumed the business would become as big as it has!

Carman’s has a strong reputation for using the finest Australian produce – how important do you think reputation and branding is for a small business?

A business has to have integrity. If you think about a brand you like, you want it to be genuine and not just built around good marketing. You don’t want to buy into a brand, get your hands on a product and be disappointed when it doesn’t live up to the marketing.

A small business needs to think about their point of difference, and it’s something I’m really passionate about. For us, it’s good-quality products. We don’t have a marketing or advertising budget and I often get in trouble here because I’m always trying to improve on our quality, which obviously costs more. But I’d rather put money into the Carman’s brand that way than by putting it into a marketing budget.

I just hope people see where we’re putting our dollars!

You’ve become a large exporter over the past few years, so do you have any words of wisdom for other entrepreneurs looking to move into exporting?

Try to keep the number of markets you focus on smaller, because it’s quite a lot of work to export.

For us, with 32 countries in different time zones and different currencies, it’s an enormous amount of work to do it properly. So it might be best to start with a similar time zone, like Asia, and try and choose a few of the better markets there, and once you’ve had a bit of success and know what you’re doing, then roll out to markets elsewhere.

Just don’t spread yourself too thin, or you won’t do a great job.

When Carolyn Creswell bought half of Carman’s Fine Foods at age 18 for $1000, she never expected to be running a multi-million dollar business just two decades later, and exporting her 14-product range to 32 different countries.

Now that your business has become a multi-million dollar organisation, do you have any advice for making the transition from small to medium business easier?

Get your business absolutely humming first. Get systemised, get organised and become a well-run business.

We have a ‘clean desk’ policy where every email has to be actioned within 24 hours, and it’s policies like this make us well-run – and when you are it allows you to grow successfully while still delivering to your bottom line.

If you get your act together early, it makes it easier to springboard to the next level. You don’t want to be out of control, and just grow your business for the sake of growing it, because doing it in an unstructured way won’t work.

Are there any entrepreneurs you look up to? Why?

I look up to Gillian Franklin, who owns the Heat Group, a Melbourne and Sydney based company, because she’s got all the time in the world to be a wonderful mentor. She’s a specialist in great company culture and systems, so if I ever need to know something or ask anything I just contact her.

Big picture wise, Tony Hseih of Zappos because he’s brilliant when it comes to culture, which is my big thing. If you’ve built a good business culture, great things flow as a result.

From a branding point of view I love Grill’d, because I think the CEO Simon Crowe is doing a great job of marketing that business, and Naomi Simson of RedBalloon because I think she’s built a really interesting business model – I’m totally fascinated by the internet!

Any hints about what’s next for Carman’s?

We’ll be focused on exporting. We export to 32 countries at the moment and we’re looking to up the volume and make sure we’re working with the right people and improve the export business.

We’re also working on our three-year strategic plan at the moment, so right now we’re looking to consolidate what we’re doing now and improve our margins. We want to use the year to look at what we’re doing best and what we should be doing over the next three years.

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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