The muesli bowl of Asia

It is 21 years since Carolyn Creswell was an 18 year old babysitter working for a couple who wanted to sell their small muesli business. She and a partner could only scrape together $2000 – which the owners initially knocked back. Today Carolyn is on the BRW Young Rich list.

"There‘s that trendiness around Australian food and how that’s perceived."
Carolyn Creswell, Founder Carman's Kitchen

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The company they finally bought was renamed Carman’s – after Carolyn and then partner Manya who she bought out a year later – and its emergence as one of Australia’s best known gourmet food brands is well known. 

But over the last decade Carman’s has been exporting its products to the US, the UK and several Asian countries including Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and China.

“As time’s progressed, we’ve realised that, for us, export is all about Asia,” Creswell says. “We’ve had our biggest successes there and have the most opportunity there. Our biggest market is Singapore. We do a lot of stuff into Malaysia and Hong Kong, but the big issue is China. Everyone is working on strategies for China.” 

Creswell says there are “amazing opportunities” in China where Carman’s is now selling into mainstream supermarket chains, predominantly with its muesli bars. China seems to be embracing the “Australian-ness” of the product. 

“There’s certainly a Westernisation of their diet and there‘s that trendiness around Australian food and how that’s perceived,” she says. “There is a clean and green perception of Australian food. They realise that in Australia there are the open skies and the freshness and greenness. The perception of our food is very appealing. 

Creswell says Carman’s challenge now was to work out whether there needed to be changes to flavor profiles or to do smaller pack sizes. “We have to work out what to do in a product and packaging point of view, to tweak to be able to have the greatest success that we can.” 

She says there needed to be different approaches to doing business in different Asian countries. 

“Asia is not one country,” Creswell says. “There are idiosyncrasies and ways of doing things in certain areas. 

“There is definitely more of a sense of relationships and trust. It’s probably deeper than just pure trading. I’ve been in a meeting in Singapore where the CEO stood up and said ‘We’re going to double your sales in the next 12 months’. And everyone stood up and clapped. He walked out of the room. 

“I looked around and said ‘Well, hang on, where’s the strategy?’ and they said they didn’t need a strategy, they didn’t need to discuss how that was happening. He just issued this mandate and everyone had to make sure that that happened. Whereas I’d be like ‘Hang on, how are we going to execute that?’ There’s a lot more stuff, I feel, done over lunches and dinners and getting to know each other as people.” 

Creswell said Carman’s aim was to achieve 30 per cent of its turnover in export. And Carman’s is far from alone in the push into Asia. 

“Australian food manufacturers are clamoring over each other, setting up offices over there,” she says. “For instance Blackmore Vitamins has set up an office in Singapore.” 

Today Creswell is juggling trips around the world to keep building that business, in Asia in particular. 

“As a business we put a lot of effort into the UK and the US. I think the opportunity in Asia is stronger for us,” she says. 

“If we can get in early enough into some of these supermarket chains – there’s one in Asia that’s just placed their first order with us – there’s massive potential. We sell to places like the US that have big populations, but I think there’s this ability to get to scale quite quickly in China that’s a bit trickier to do in places like the US.” 

In this year’s BRW Young Rich, Creswell was number 25, the richest woman on the list with $83 million and one of just six women. 

“People think that we’ve been this overnight success,” she says. “I laugh at that, 21 years – overnight? It’s never been one moment. There have been ups and downs. I never anticipated it would be as successful as it is today.” 

From small beginnings, Carman’s Fine Foods, based in Cheltenham in Melbourne’s south-east, now exports its muesli bars, roasted bars, muesli, gourmet porridges, “rounds” (muesli bakes) and “Yummos” (wholegrain popcorn bars) to 32 countries. 

“That’s probably what I’m most proud of in what we do,” Creswell says. “That we take Australian grains, we value-add them here, we have a very Australian brand in our positioning and our look. The fact that that can be on the supermarket shelves… from amazing supermarket chains through Asia, the Middle East, Europe. Without question that’s what I’m proudest of, our international footprint. 

After several rejections, getting her products into supermarkets was a key milestone, a break-through for the business. “It was, but it was 20 stores,” she says. “I knew it was a big breakthrough, I knew it was really exciting, but that was the opportunity to say ‘Right, now the real hard work starts’. 

“Once you get in the door that’s one issue. It’s getting people that last 20 metres, getting them to buy it, that’s the real issue.” 

Creswell continues to refine the business and the products. Earlier this year Carman’s introduced Blueberry Seed Nut Bars which didn’t perform well. She replaced the word “seed” with the word “superfood” and doubled the sales. 

“Ninety per cent of new products you introduce fail, that’s the industry standard,” she says. “I have a healthy paranoid of getting (the products) to be flying pretty quick-smart. We probably work on a 90 percent success rate of products we launch.” 

Creswell’s antennae are always up to what could be better. “Always,” she says. “My big thing is the product. I’m obsessed by the product being as good as it can be. I’ve got a lot of people here who have come from big multi-nationals. They are always margin-driven.” 

“Often (they’ll say) can we strip this or that out of a product, it will give you an extra point here. I’ll say ‘Look, I am happy to take less margin, we just want the product to be right’, and I think that’s the success of Carman’s, that people will go ’It’s actually a great product’. 

“For all the marketing in the world, for everything else you can do, you might buy it once or twice but are you going to buy it year in and year out if you don’t love the product? That’s been my obsession. I look at people I admire like Steve Jobs and think his obsession with the product and his obsession with people loving the experience - that’s been the success for them far more so than the advertising.”

Carolyn Creswell and Carman’s are ANZ customers.

Peter Wilmoth is a former Sunday Age journalist of the year with three decades of journalism experience in Australia, Europe and Africa. As well as business, he covers sport, the media, politics, health, film, theatre, art, books, music and food.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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