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Muesli rich lister takes on Asia

Carolyn Creswell, founder of food company Carman’s, talks about expanding in Asia and her obsession with making the best product she can.

It’s 21 years since Carolyn Creswell was a babysitter working for a couple who wanted to sell their small muesli business.  

Today, Carolyn is on the BRW Young Rich list and the company she and a partner finally bought was renamed Carman’s Fine Foods. And it has emerged as one of Australia’s best known gourmet food brands. 

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."

Creswell says Carman’s challenge now was to work out whether there needed to be changes to flavour 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.”

  

  

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

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

“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 list, Creswell ranked 25: the richest woman on the list worth an estimated $83 million, and one of just six women. 

“People think that we’ve been this overnight success,” she says. “I laugh at that. Twenty-one 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, based in Melbourne’s south-east, now exports to 32 countries. 

“That’s probably what I’m most proud of in what we do,” Creswell says.

We take Australian grains, we value-add them here, we have a very Australian brand in our positioning and look.

Carolyn Creswell

The fact that that can be on the supermarket shelves… from amazing supermarket chains through Asia, the Middle East, Europe." 

Creswell keeps focused on what could be better in her business: “Always,” she says. “My big thing is the product. I’m obsessed by the product being as good as it can be.” 

“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.”

 

 

Peter Wilmoth

This article is an excerpt from an interview with Carolyn Creswell by ANZ Blue Notes, ANZ's news and insights publication for the financial services industry across Asia Pacific. 

Carolyn Creswell and Carman’s are ANZ customers.