Celebrating Rural Women

(L-R) Jenni Finn from Factory and Field in Cohuna, Lauren Mathers from Bundarra Berkshires in Barham, and Andrea Harrison from Kawaii Kids in Birchip, engaged in conversation with Kerry Anderson to celebrate the International Day of Rural Women on 15 October, 2017.

(L-R) Jenni Finn from Factory and Field in Cohuna, Lauren Mathers from Bundarra Berkshires in Barham, and Andrea Harrison from Kawaii Kids in Birchip, engaged in conversation with Kerry Anderson to celebrate the International Day of Rural Women on 15 October, 2017.

On 15 October, to celebrate the International Day of Rural Women, Kerry Anderson invited three female entrepreneurs to share their inspirational stories of starting a rural business.

What a pleasure and privilege to have these three dynamic and extremely busy women together in a room sharing their passion for starting a rural based business.  Their introductions alone were inspirational.

Jenni Finn: Factory and Field, Cohuna 

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When Cohuna teenager Jenni Finn got a casual job in an orange juice factory in the 1980’s she had no idea that one day she would own that historic building – originally a butter factory - and establish one of her home town’s most successful businesses in recent years.  Tucked away on a back road in an industrial estate, Factory and Field is not exactly where you’d expect to find a popular home wares and gift store and that is part of its charm.  Opened in somewhat of a rush in September 2013, Jenni’s vision is rushing ahead in leaps and bounds as she continues to bring her ideas into reality across the four acre industrial site.

Andrea Harrison: Kawaii Kids, Birchip 

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What do you do when you live in an isolated rural community and can’t buy shoes for your toddler?  Well, if you’re Andrea Harrison from the agricultural town of Birchip, you start up your own online business, Kawaii Kids, importing children’s shoes and clothing.  Operating from the family home; clothes were stored in industrial containers in the back yard and a laptop on a small desk in the hallway acted as a business hub.  Fast forward a decade, Andrea has opened a retail store in Horsham and collaborated with retailers Australia wide to manufacture a specialist baby range. 

Lauren Mathers: Bundarra Berkshires, Barham 

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In 2009 a lone Berkshire sow ‘Doris’ was the beginning of what Lauren Mathers envisioned as a whole herd of free roaming black heritage pigs rooting about improving the soil.  “Bundarra” is Lauren’s family free range Bio-dynamic farm on the Murray River just outside the small township of Barham in Southern NSW. The farm itself was dormant land that she and husband Lachlan saw potential in and, after years of patience, the farm was finally theirs.  Not content with just breeding, Lauren learned the skills of butchery and in 2013 started processing all meat onsite.

How did they gain the confidence to start a new business venture?

Research has shown than over 30 percent of people are more likely to go into business if they know someone in business, most often a family member or close friend.  In Jenni and Lauren’s case this happened to be their grandmothers who had also started businesses.

‘Nanna comes into Factory and Field and likes to remind me that it is all because of her,’ Jenni confided with a laugh.

Confidence is a huge impediment to anyone starting out in business especially for rural women with no formal business skills. 

A classic attribute of an entrepreneur is a quiet self-belief in themselves.  Rather than blindly take a leap of faith they avidly research to the point where they are both excited and confident that they have a great business idea.

All three women alluded to this as they spoke about their vision and the determination to bring their new businesses into reality.

‘You have to have an appetite to take a risk,’ Lauren admitted.

Andrea, who lays awake at night dreaming of all the things she would like to do, believes that you have to be passionate about what you do otherwise you wouldn’t do it.

Overcoming financial barriers.

One of the biggest hurdles in establishing a business is accessing finance, and right from the start it became evident for each of the women that a business loan from a bank is not the answer.

Jenni’s advice is ‘don’t accept the first no.’  Factory and Field was born in a bit of a rush; three months to be exact.  She made the decision in July, purchased stock at a trade fair in August and opened in September.  While the bank had been happy to support the purchase of the building, it wasn’t prepared to finance the business.  Undeterred Jenni gave the building a bit of a tidy up and used her personal credit card to purchase stock.  Thankfully she sold out on opening night and had the cash to stock up for the next influx.

Andrea and Lauren also found alternate ways of funding their business activities.

Andrea managed to self-fund the start of her business but recalls how a bank wouldn’t loan her money to expand despite the impressive cash flow figures she presented. Having no credit history was a bitter lesson.

Financial pressure can be felt every time there is a major investment in stock or improvement to the business.  Cashflow is crucial.  At times Andrea admitted to anxiously waiting for the EFTPOS sales to be deposited into her account just to cover her expenses.  While determined to keep the business separate from the family assets, at one point the family car was sold but thankfully it was a short term solution.

In 2014, a commercial kitchen was required when Lauren wanted to take her business a step further making traditionally cured pork products to sell online and at Farmers Markets. Cashing in on the great goodwill there is for free-range products, she used a crowd funding platform, Pozible, to successfully raise $18,000 ($3,000 more than required) for the project.

The panel agreed that it was worth looking at other short-term options such as a personal loan or through an online lender such as Prospa.  While the rates are higher, they are far more accessible.

Balancing business and family life.

With Lauren a mother of three, and Andrea a mother of four, they clearly rely on a lot of passion and drive to nurture a young family and business at the same time.  It’s not always easy but business does have some advantages over a 9 to 5 job.

‘I work every spare minute that I have,’ Lauren admitted. In addition to a little bit of child care relief, she often works into the night as and when the need arises. ‘It gets me ahead and puts me in a better place.’

Child care is also a lifeline for Andrea especially when she heads to the retail store in Horsham. Her time is much more flexible at home dealing with the online side of the business. 

‘I couldn’t do this without the support of Daniel my husband,’ she is quick to acknowledge. ‘And when he is busy with cropping on the farm I have to hold back on my business so he can concentrate on what he needs to do.’

Like many children of working parents their children grow up thinking it is normal to be in a work environment.  Their mothers are role models demonstrating that it is possible to control your own destiny in a rural town.

Jenni’s children were teenagers when she started her business giving her much more freedom to put in the long hours although she does admit that perhaps they were a little ignored. ‘I don’t think they really cared at that age,’ she smiles.

Already her 16-year-old daughter is working part time in the business and has developed valuable skills.  ‘My daughter is capable of running the business and has already done so when I can’t be here.’  There will be no shortage of opportunities as Jenni prepares to open another business, Factory and Field Waffles in the main street of Cohuna.

Despite the hard work and frequent frustrations, Jenni, Andrea and Lauren clearly love being in business.

‘The best thing about being in business for me is the satisfaction I get from people picking up my garments in store and loving them, without knowing that they were once only an idea in my head,’ explained Andrea.

It was of significance that this celebration was held at Factory and Field.  Four years ago, as part of an Operation Next Gen conversation, I brought a group of local leaders to this vacant building and challenged them to look at existing landscapes with fresh eyes.  Jenni did exactly that and, within six months, this old butter factory was experiencing another exciting chapter in its long history.  

With the vision, passion and determination of an entrepreneur anything is possible, especially with a supportive local community.

 

Kerry Anderson, author of Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business, works with rural towns all over Australia.

www.kerryanderson.com.au

The Shoe Dilemma

What do you do when you live in an isolated rural community and can’t find shoes for your toddler?  Well, if you’re Andrea Harrison from Birchip, you start up your own online business importing children’s shoes and clothing.  Then you start manufacturing your own lines, collaborate on a specialist baby range with selected retail stores and introduce an upmarket point of sale system to cater for even more growth. And that’s just in the first nine years!

It all began when Andrea, a young mother and wife of a dryland farmer, wrestled with the shoe dilemma. 

“I started thinking that probably many other parents in rural areas were also experiencing the same issues,” says Andrea who didn’t just stop at sourcing shoes.  After experimenting with eBay, in 2007 she launched her online business, Kawaii Kids, selling children’s clothing and accessories imported from Japan, Korea and China. 

At this period in time online businesses in the rural sector were a rarity and won her a local business award as well as a Victorian Regional Achievement & Community Award in 2011.

Operating from the family home, clothes were stored in industrial containers in the back yard and a laptop on a small desk in the hallway acted as her business hub.  Birchip’s post office suddenly had a lot more throughput.  Recognising she was on a winner, Andrea started planning for growth when she was barely 12 months into the business.

Much has been achieved in almost a decade since launching her business career.

Her next step was to free up the family home by opening a retail store in Birchip.  A few years later it was relocated to the larger regional city of Horsham.  After being approached by a new shopping centre developer, Kawaii Kids then moved into the brand new Gateway Shopping Centre in Horsham in prime position next to Target.

“I was aware that it takes people 18 months to change their shopping habits and our landlord helped in many ways to us get through that initial period in the shopping centre,” says Andrea.

During this period she also worked a lot of days in the store to save on wages which gave her great insight into the shopping habits of customers.

“One big lesson I learned in retail was to stop listening to what people say and go with my own gut which is generally right,” she says.  “Shoppers are really savvy now and compare your products with online prices.  The big chain stores have copied a lot of the designer brands and saturated them online making it hard for the smaller stores.  My strategy is to stock brands that don’t have a big online presence. That is my main point of difference.”

As part of that point of difference Andrea has also started manufacturing her own line of children’s clothing under the Curious Wonderland brand which required her to take on a second lease when the adjacent store space became available.  Removal of the dividing wall allowed staff to service both businesses.

As always Andrea put a lot of thought and research into her new venture making the decision to rebrand away from Kawaii Kids so that either of the businesses could be sold separately in the future.

After being approached by one of her contacts in China about the possibility of manufacturing her own line of clothing, Andrea quickly leapt at the opportunity but it did come with some challenges, the first being finance. 

Instead of just buying a certain number of items off the rack she now had to commit to large quantities to make it viable.  Without a credit history – she had self-funded all her business activities to date – the banks would not consider a business loan despite the impressive cash flow figures she presented to them.  It was a bitter lesson for someone who had worked hard to prove her worth in the business world.

“We had to sell everything we possibly could, including the family car, to fund it. We really jumped in the deep end.”

Ironically, 12 months on with the new business proving its worth, the banks are finally starting to show interest.

The Curious Wonderland line was successfully launched at the Sydney Trade Show in February 2015 picking up 23 retailers on the spot.  It was a huge relief to Andrea who had considered the possibility that her own children may have to wear these clothes forever!

Another challenge was the uncertainty of whether customers would like what Andrea designed.  Based on her own children’s preferences (by now she had three) and following her own gut instincts, Andrea sketched out her own designs before passing them on to a graphic designer to prepare for the manufacturing stage.  Attention to detail on the Pantene colours and interpretation of the smaller design details were crucial.  Samples were scrutinised and evaluated by the ever vigilant Andrea.

“I’m very fussy and what I’m doing is very different to what everyone else is doing.  They’re getting to know me,” she laughs.

As always Andrea relentlessly researched every aspect of manufacturing in China during the lead up.

“I just hopped online to do my own research and joined retail groups on Facebook. I asked lots of questions about labeling and manufacturing,” says Andrea.  “You have to be aware of what chemicals are used in China that aren’t allowed in Australia. It would be devastating to have it pulled up in Customs.”

Despite being a great success overall, there has been a few expensive lessons along the way.  In Andrea’s words, “it’s been a huge learning curve.”

 A line of denim clothing ordered through a separate manufacturer was delayed by extended Chinese holidays missing delivery for the last winter season and resulting in cancelled orders. 

“I remember driving down to the docks in pouring rain aware that I had just thrown $55,000 down the toilet despite putting my heart and soul into it,” Andrea admits.  “I learnt the value of staying with just the one production run.”  She now understands the Chinese holiday system a bit better as well.

In her latest project manufacturing a range of baby clothes, Andrea has opted to minimise the risk by sharing the cost with seven other retailers who will get to exclusively stock the products.

“We’ve all agreed on the designs and prepared to try it out.  It’s not so risky and we don’t have to commit to such high quantities when the order is split between seven of us.  So far, so good.”

Andrea was strategic about who she invited into this collaboration, asking for expressions of interest through an online retail forum.  Selected store owners from Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria have agreed to pool their ideas and knowledge.

With growth in mind Andrea has also committed to Retail Express, a point of sale system that has the capacity to track inventory over multiple businesses, both instore and online.

“It will bring everything together and allow me to oversee all my businesses from home.”

Balancing family and seasonal farm priorities has been an ongoing challenge for Andrea who is grateful to have the support of her partner, Daniel.

“I’ve got so much I want to do,” she admits with a hint of frustration.  “My business is now contributing to the family income which is a relief given the number of dry years we’ve had.  It’s good not to have all our eggs in the one basket. I just have to be flexible and fit in with when Daniel is available to help out.”

With the latest arrival in April of Ava, their fourth child, one could be forgiven for thinking that Andrea has slowed down but this appears not to be the case.

“I wish I was wired differently and could sit down and relax. I really envy people who can do that,” she admits.

Fortunately with three trusted staff to run the two combined Horsham stores, Andrea has the flexibility of running the online sales and monitoring the store from her laptop on the kitchen bench.

It goes without saying that she is also exploring new ideas. 

“I research everything I want to do just in case I can do it one day,” she says with a hint of defiance. 

Knowing Andrea, she probably will.

Andrea’s top business tips:

  • Be proactive and stay ahead of your competitors.  Find a point of difference.
  • Ask for referrals and interview other customers before committing to large cost items or services for your business.
  • Understand overseas cultures and potential impact on your production and delivery processes.
  • Research, research, research!

BREAKING NEWS!

Andrea Harrison is one of our guest speakers celebrating International Rural Women's Day in Cohuna on Sunday 15 October, 2017.  Please join us for a great conversation.  MORE INFORMATION

Kawaii Kids Website 

Curious Wonderland Website 

KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, philanthropist and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry Anderson is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE