The market for fitness, nutrition, and weight management has evolved dramatically and looks set to grow further.
Rebecca Spicer caught up with a dynamic businesswoman who has made a healthy profit from innovative products and marketing.
As office manager for an accountancy firm, Maria Deveson Crabbe’s interest in personal fitness was limited to her spare time. But while working as a volunteer promoting body-building and fitness events, it wasn’t long before she was helping competitors get sponsorship, and promoting athleticism as a desirable body shape in a time when anorexia was the industry standard.
Through her involvement in athletics, Deveson Crabbe learned about the vital role of nutrition in competition sport, and, in 1992, with deep knowledge of the benefits of protein as well an established network to build her brand, Aussie Bodies was launched.
Producing health and weight management products such as ready-to-eat protein-based beverages, supplements, snack foods and core protein powders, Aussie Bodies’ target market has evolved dramatically since the business started. "When we started I knew a lot about protein because of my sporting background," Deveson Crabbe explains. "But the consumer market that existed for protein was very small. We initially directed it at body builders and elite athletes because there was a demand for protein supplements in that market, and such awareness of the benefits. But that’s not where I wanted to stay because I really wanted to get it into everyday users’ hands."
Starting off very product-driven, Deveson Crabbe realised this wasn’t going to propel the company forward. "We’re always so passionate about the technical merit of our products but we forgot about the consumer proposition. In the old days everything tasted like hell. We thought that was okay because we had our integrity and were doing a really good thing for our customers.But of course that’s just craziness because in this day and age, people want things to taste good, they want portability, the product has to explain succinctly what it’s for. Our technical department has created something that delivers value in a technical sense, but we’re now not compromising on what the consumer wants," she says.
As the body-building market became more competitive and price-driven, Deveson Crabbe wanted the brand to become much more mainstream, which meant communicating differently. So, instead of advertising in a men’s body-building magazine, she looked towards mainstream men’s magazines.
Then, realising customers needed to become more educated about the products—their benefits as well as health in general—Aussie Bodies invested in customer education through its customer inquiry centre as well as online (www.aussiebodies.com.au).
Looking to target the hard to reach women’s health market, Aussie Bodies embraced the Australian trend towards snacking, and launched a trim range. This range is about promoting smart snacking and healthy supplements, says Deveson Crabbe, as opposed to food deprivation.
Over time Aussie Bodies’ range of products has been redesigned and renamed to appeal to a broader market. Distribution has expanded dramatically beyond gymnasiums to include health food stores and supermarkets, enjoying an annual growth rate of around 30 percent. She now employs 38 staff, a far cry from the six employed to start the company.
Deveson Crabbe also collaborated with staff to write two books: Your Body Your Life and a pocket-sized version, Your Body Your PCF. "I never thought I would write a book about nutrition, but I realised there was a lack of information out there," she says.
Last year Aussie Bodies won the Business Innovation award in the City of Port Phillip Business Excellence Awards. The awards presenter regarded the company as having an ability to identify emerging trends and an overall ability to lead and innovate in the highly competitive field of nutrition.
"If you’re in the food industry in this specialised area, you need to be growing because there’s such an interest in it and there are so many consumers, we have to be growing at a reasonable pace," Deveson Crabbe says.
She is also very humble and credits her team for the business’s success. "I can’t take all the credit," she says. "There are too many people in here doing a great job."
Her technical team comes up with innovative products that incorporate a difficult product to work with, like protein, that also meet the needs of consumers, such as in taste. And then it’s up to the marketing and sales team to tune in with what customers want and the various distribution channels to get the products out there.
Deveson Crabbe also believes that engaging the help of someone who is objective and doesn’t have a day-to-day role in the business is important. "I’ve been really lucky because my dad and a few semi-retired ex-CEOs have really helped us to benefit from their wisdom." Her networking group has also proved helpful in getting good advice.
"I’m still looking forward to the day when I can work on the business instead of in it, but it’s really hard when you start the whole thing yourself." She spends her average day with her management team, while maintaining a large role in making financial decisions, while adding more public relations into the mix.
"If you want your company to grow and you want everyone to come with you, you have to invest in their knowledge," she says. And so, much of her time and money is spent on human resources, in training and succession planning. "It’s also about keeping the staff stimulated, so I spend a lot of time working out which consultants, coaches, or seminars would be best for different departments and individuals."
And while Deveson Crabbe admits her job can be stressful and she’s had to make sacrifices along the way, this obviously hasn’t diminished her passion or commitment. "There has been some big trade-offs, I haven’t had kids pretty much because of work. It’s been all-consuming and I’ve put so much of my best maternal energy into it. But my husband and I have a great marriage and it’s not something we make a negative. There are sacrifices when you want to have something that’s virtually your baby and you turn it into something that’s got its own life-force. And that’s what I’ve done but I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve worked with such amazing people, it’s been hard but it’s been fabulous as well and I wouldn’t change any of it."
Deveson Crabbe enjoys life outside the office, spending any spare time with family and friends. And despite her career focus, she says she’s not a fitness fanatic, exercising by walking her beloved pooches and doing yoga. "I’m the furthest thing from a puritan that you could ever meet. You’ve got to have a laugh or a drink or whatever you enjoy, and you just counter-balance it a little bit more with what you eat or how much exercise you do."