Helenmary Macleod grew up on a farm and married a farmer but she always loved the idea of selling things to make people happy. Being regularly off farm, especially during cropping in summer, wasn’t an option but then came the idea for Skibo Australia. Not only has this addressed a gap in the market, the skivvies are made in Australia from 100 percent cotton jersey and attract seasonal winter sales which fits in perfectly with life on the farm.
For younger readers, except perhaps golfers and snow skiers, skivvies may be an alien concept but being a country gal, it is music to my ears. The skivvies that I recall from my 1970’s youth have been long gone from the shops. And the other part about Skibo that excites me is that its products are manufactured in Melbourne, a rarity that deserved further exploration.
Recently I caught up with Helenmary who lives with husband Duncan on their cropping property near Willaura in western Victoria.
Helenmary started by paying tribute to women who prompted her to start Skibo Australia in 1998.
‘A number of pioneering women from the western district with their own unique fashion brands were a great influence and inspired me to get started. We had no business forums back in those days but they were very generous with their advice. They told me to look for what was missing rather than what is already available on the market.’
Helenmary didn’t have to look far.
‘I found it ridiculous that you couldn’t buy decent skivvies and wondered why we can’t make them in Australia.’ She decided that this could be her entry into the retail world albeit in a small way.
‘Duncan was very supportive. We put a budget aside that we were prepared to lose if necessary. We just decided to have a crack at this and see what happens.’
Not having a fashion or manufacturing background didn’t deter Helenmary. She knew what she wanted and she had lots of encouragement from her fellow women of the western district. After a google search the couple travelled to Melbourne to source the material and meet with pattern makers, fabric printers and manufacturers. Some of the tasks were easier than others.
‘I was determined not to go offshore for the manufacturing, but it was difficult to find someone prepared to do short runs. We were very green and, in the beginning, didn’t ask all the right questions.’
It was a chance discussion with her hairdresser that put Helenmary in touch with a company that does short manufacturing runs for a women’s fashion franchise. They also assisted her to find the right cotton jersey by sending samples for her to experiment with at home.
‘That took a lot of research as well,’ Helenmary admits. ‘I tested each sample by washing and testing for shrinkage before deciding on what was the right weight, stretch and durability for Skibo.’
In hindsight, Helenmary says the key is to find businesses interested in what you are doing, prepared to work with you, and willing to start off small scale to see how it goes. ‘It also helps if they have an understanding that you live in the country and can’t pop in to double-check stuff,’ she adds.
With a suitable fabric selected, Helenmary designed the patterns and selected the colours.
‘When everything was ready to go for our first run the manufacturer asked me if I wanted to print 20 rolls or more when we only wanted one or two as a trial. Thankfully he agreed to put it through as a sample run and to take it from there.’
The business name came from Helenmary’s research into her maiden family history. The Sutherlands have a connection with Skibo Castle in Scotland. It also had a nice synergy with her products being skivvies.
Over the first ten-year period Skibo built up a loyal customer base through mail order catalogues and seven Field Days across Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. ‘I love seeing customers coming back each year and Field Days are very profitable if you choose the right ones,’ Helenmary says.
Duncan having good engineering skills ensured that she had a good set up for the Field Days. ‘Everything fits into the back of a Falcon station wagon, the poles, lattice for the shelving, and the skivvies in bags. We’ve now started using the back of the ute with a canopy.’
But then customers started telling her that she should go online. Knowing very little about the internet, Helenmary went back into research mode and sought professional support.
The first website proved to be cumbersome and not user friendly so Helenmary sought more advice and made the move to Wordpress so she can do a lot of the updating herself and customers are able to see the amount of stock in hand. At the start of each season Helenmary meets with her website designer to review the site and simply rings her if she has any problems which is proving to be a good arrangement.
‘Some customers were very dubious in the beginning and preferred to give me their credit card details over the phone but now people are so much more comfortable with shopping online.’
Leading into the winter season Helenmary gets busy each year making adjustments to the colours and styles so there is always something fresh for customers. Five years ago she introduced a children’s line of skivvies.
‘We started with small numbers using the scraps from the adult skivvies but the last year they’re really taken off and we’re now doing bigger runs.’
While word of mouth referrals work really well, Helenmay has slowly ventured into Facebook and Instagram.
Logistics wise, Skibo is fortunate to be able to manufacture short runs in the hundreds, one of the advantages of onshore manufacturing. They’re housed on the farm in an old building that has served multiple purposes over the generations and now referred to as the Skivvies House! Internet orders are parceled up and driven 40 kilometres into Willaura to catch the 2pm post.
While the children are now grown up and Duncan and Helenmary were very excited to recently become grandparents, Skibo has worked in well with family and farm life. In their younger days it was common for the children to accompany Helen to Field Days and once they enjoyed a camping holiday to Broken Hill carrying the Field Day products and equipment under the campervan.
While she once shut down sales to take a year off, Helenmary has returned with renewed enthusiasm and has no plans to sell the business on. She sounded a little unsettled when I suggested this option to her.
‘Skibo is profitable and it’s good to have some extra farm income,’ Helenmary says. ‘I keep going because it is mine and getting off the farm and meeting people is good for me.’
Best of all, Helenmary is able to proudly display the Made in Australia logo and can claim that her quality skivvies stand the test of time.
KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of the Operation Next Gen program and author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. In 2018 she was named as one of Australia’s Top 50 Regional Agents of Change. READ MORE