At school I had ambitions to be the world’s greatest secretary, I was always typing and doing shorthand at home and taught myself to type 80 words a minute. That was the thing to do, 30 years ago, you worked in a factory or became a teacher or nurse, or worked as a secretary. And there were amazing positions around, as a legal secretary or managerial secretary. Things have changed so much now. I got my first part time job at the age of 12 when I was in primary school, making and selling stuffed toys – clowns actually – to neighbours and relatives, so my first business really started back then. Even my public speaking started quite early – it is something I do quite often and with a degree of comfort - a girlfriend and I used to charge fellow students 5 cents each to come into the shelter shed and hear us sing! So maybe I always had some sort of self-assurance and loved an audience. I saved some money and my father agreed to pay the other half that I needed to buy my first typewriter. I actually started my first real business 20 or so years later using that same purple typewriter.
l left school at 15 and started working as a secretary and then joined the accounting area before ending up working for a magazine in a small publishing company. I talked my way into every role I could, including writing the beauty pages at the ripe old age of 22. The magazine was a high end consumer magazine, and I was able to do marketing, modelling and book reviews and lucky to be able to work with the art director, putting the beauty pages together, writing the copy and deciding on the colours and the fonts. I had a lot of hands on experience which was really crucial for what happened later on.
I left there and I got a job working for a company that did accessories and fashion items for a lot of major retailers and the couture fragrance houses. I ended up creating gift with purchase packs for Dior, Lancôme and Givenchy. I also got the Sportsgirl account – working on product development. The founder of the company encouraged me to do this against my will. He said he would give me a promotion, my own office, a company car and send me overseas, and if I didn’t like the role he would give me back my old job. So I said okay – and never looked back. He really gave me the confidence and kick start I needed, because even though I was confident I perhaps lacked some self-assurity. He helped me move into the space I am now. Because of him I was able to convince the company to send me on overseas buying trips. There were trends emerging from cities we weren’t visiting and I felt we needed to capture the emerging trends and adapt them to the local market. So I travelled to New York, Paris and Tokyo, and developed the Sportsgirl account from $100K in sales to a million dollar account. I thought I had done a great job, but then the company explained that the margin wasn’t high enough which I didn’t understand at the time. Clearly I had no understanding about running a business and profit margin, so it was really interesting when I started to run my own business I finally understood how vital it is to work on profit, not just sales. However I also understood that higher volume sales often meant a very low margin, but you’re getting a presence, visibility and reputation in the marketplace, and the turnover and that’s building your business.
I came up with the idea to put the first body care range into Sportsgirl, called ‘Body First’. Through that experience I was in a soap making factory and in a cosmetic chemist lab, so I became quite intrigued by the whole process, and the idea of putting natural essences into products – like lavender flowers in to soap rather than lavender fragrance. The idea was quite entrepreneurial and ahead of its time back then, but within a few short years the company I was working for closed because it just wasn’t profitable.
It was around that time I bought a place with my first mortgage, was retrenched from my job, and I found out I was pregnant with my first son Beau, who is now 21 years old. Having Beau was life changing. He asked me recently what the best thing was that had ever happened to me in my life, and I said ‘You. Having You.’ And he said that wasn’t fair because I have two sons, but I explained that both births were equally as beautiful, but when I had him, my first born, I became a mother. Becoming a mother for the first time is so powerful. It changed my life, and it gave me an idea to start a business not only for myself but for so many other mothers.
I registered Aromababy within two days of being retrenched. After crying for two days when I lost my job, I dusted myself off and thought ‘that’s enough’ – time to get on with life. I had become quite concerned about the issues with skin conditions in babies. So many of us think that what the hospitals give us to use for our babies is what we have to use. The more reports I read and the more research I did about infantile eczema, the more I found links to skin irritations being caused by ingredients. I became quite concerned and quite passionate about making a difference and providing a choice. At that time, there was no natural skincare commercially available for babies anywhere in the world – 22 years ago. There was nothing in the hospital system. Aromababy was the first. We created a category in retail that didn’t exist.
I had been working with a number of laboratories in my previous job but none of them were really using natural ingredients, and then I stumbled across someone who had some experience working with them on a product for a European brand and he agreed to work on the formulations with me. That was here in Melbourne. I own the IP which is unique in the industry – most companies go to a lab, get an existing recipe and they may or may not tweak it by changing an essential oil, so it’s really unusual to develop something and own the formulas from scratch. The formulas are quite high grade and quite high percentages of particular oils, and the efficacy is what makes Aromababy so different. There’s now an over saturation of baby skincare options, but Aromababy really is still in a class of its own because the way I formulated products for my own baby, and the way I am as a person, it couldn’t be any other way. I didn’t expect miraculous results, but I wanted to create something that was good, not just another product on a shelf. Within months of launching, midwives started telling us about the wonderful effects the products were having on nappy rash, I was getting letters from customers saying how effective they had been for their eczema, and it was the wonderful result of using a certain calibre of ingredients and not compromising on the quality. Our reputation was built on that.
Marketing Aromababy almost happened by accident. I was so concerned about eczema in babies and the correlation to natural ingredients, and that there was nothing natural available, I became so passionate about offering choice. So I went to my local hospital, which was a private hospital, and they thought it was an amazing idea. Their first priority was the care of the baby so they embraced it and trialled it and that was the beginning. At the same time I was a new mother and I was talking to midwives and I was passionate about the end user – I was the target market. The word started spreading and more and more hospitals took it on, as well as some pharmacies.
It was just me working on the business, and the turning point came along before Jacob-Thomas, my second son, was born (he is now 15 years old). I had been working from home and then moved the business to a warehouse that was part of my in-laws business which was great, and then once it started to take over that space I realised I had to go out on my own. At that stage I had two staff, one was a nurse and she was an amazing asset to the business in those early days and she worked closely with the hospitals – our angle was always passion and education rather than sales.
Within a short few years Myer had taken it on. It was one of those situations where the Myer buyer would ring and the baby would be crying so I’d quickly hang up because I didn’t know what to say. It’s quite crazy, and I know a lot of mums in business feel the same way, it’s so embarrassing and you don’t know how to handle the situation. I think it ‘s a lot more acceptable now – fast tack 20 years and there’s a lot more mothers in business who are working around babies and children. It’s embraced now. In addition to Myer, Japanese department store Daimaru was a great retailer for us, as were Mothercare and Kids Central (which have all since closed down). The business had such growth during the first ten years.
When I was pregnant with Jacob I decided to go back to school and do a Diploma in Aromatherapy Massage because I really wanted to learn the science behind massage and how the essential oils enter the body. It was a difficult time though, being pregnant, looking after Beau, running a thriving business and studying. I also lost my brother during that time, and I found it difficult to manage the grief. But I did, and I moved on. I finished the Diploma, and Jacob was born - he was a beautiful, happy baby who slept really well and came everywhere with me. We travelled a lot as a family and my husband helped out looking after the boys.
Having a child and building a business was a really, really rough time. I’m a very hands-on mum. Nurturing is a very important part of who I am, with my friendships, with my business, with my employees, with my children. Jacob was breastfed for two years, and that meant that when I was travelling I had to keep expressing so that when I came home I could still breastfeed. It was full on, and a lot of pressure, and it taught me to juggle. In hindsight maybe I could have done things differently, but I did the best I could. My husband and I drifted apart, and we separated when Jacob was four. My ex-husband moved overseas, so really for the last 12 years I have been raising my sons pretty much on my own.
Within the first eight years, Aromababy grew to a multi-million dollar business. At that point, when I was raising two boys on my own, my focus changed to my children who had just been through their own loss of their father. So I reigned things in and scaled the business down. The export market happened by default. I was not planning on growing the business any more at that point, but the export business just kept ticking along. Some of the export markets just ran themselves almost. There was a lot of regulatory compliance and documentation involved and managing relationships, but it allowed me to bring in the bread and butter and keep the business going, and do all the things I loved like education rather than sales.
The business took a back seat for the last decade, but in the last year or so I have refocused back on the business because the boys are now 15 and 21. I am finding there are amazing opportunities for a business that is over 20 years old with a stellar reputation, that manufactures everything in Australia, and that has its own IP. It does feel like I am starting from scratch in some ways, but the opportunities are larger. We are now approached from much larger organisations for much larger volumes, so there is tremendous growth ahead. Export has always been a larger market for us than local, and China in particular has been amazing – our product sells in stores throughout China.
After 22 years running Aromababy, I still believe in the products as much today as when I first launched. There are times when I don’t feel like working on the business, but these are personal, purely emotional reasons. Some years ago someone tried to copy the brand, and at that point I thought, you know what, if this is what cut-throat business is all about, I can’t do it. But I kept going. Financial concerns don’t worry me, I can work around them all, I can cut corners when I need to and get by. But when it comes to issues of integrity, that’s something I really struggle with. I just want to run my business authentically, ethically, and make a difference in my own little way.
Staying true to your values and doing what you love is the key to success in my view. If you want to start your own business you need to surround yourself with people who empower you. You may be really confident and secure in many areas of your life, but when it comes to making a decision about going into business for yourself, perhaps you’re not that confident. It might be something you haven’t done before, or you’re leaving the corporate world and the income stream is unknown, or you have a young family – talk to people who’ve done it. Get a mentor. Talk to women you admire. Approach people with what you can do for them, rather than just what they can do for you. That’s how to approach business. How can I serve, what can I give you, how can I help you? When you surround yourself with people like that, the rewards flow.
AROMABABY® was developed as the world’s first, natural skincare brand for mother and baby to combine the use of organic ingredients with research. Launched more than twenty years ago, AROMABABY® is now exported around the world and found locally in select baby stores, pharmacies, hospitals, online and where quality natural products are sold.
What great advice from Catherine. At Business Mamas we believe in empowering women, helping them find their tribe and coaching them through the creation of their business dream. Call us to see how we can help you. Click below to organise your free business consultation!
Copy: Melanie Quirk Photography: SomedaySomehowStudios
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