Kakapo Chat 005. Catherine van der Meulen. Supré to THiNK
The family business (Australasian fast-fashion brand Supré) sold to Cotton On Group in 2013 with 160 stores, Catherine then relocated from Sydney to NZ to begin empowering small and medium business owners through her industry leading consultancy 'THiNK Business'. Catherine shares with James Ashwin her very candid views on the state of the fashion industry, the unique pressures of working within a family business and the imminent death of the traditional 9-5 work day.
Your father founded iconic Australian youth brand Supré in 1985 which remained in the family until being bought out by Cotton On Group in 2012. What challenges did you face working within a family business?
When I first started at Supré in 1997 when I left school, the business was in voluntary administration. Those two words meant very little to me at the time, except to know that there were a lot more suits in the office during that time and many tense moments in the family home.
As I started to learn the ropes of the business and seeing the restructure go on, the pieces of the pie started to connect for me to understand what was going on and the layers of complexity that we were moving through not only as a business first and foremost but as a family.
Over the years and at different times, we all worked in the business together. My parents and my two older sisters. We all loved what we did and worked in different areas but there were certainly times when the family dynamics crossed over into business and vice versa and many varied opinions on how to run the business, what the future would be for the business and how we all fitted into the journey.
In a family business, there is often not a lot of structure to how things are done, often roles are blurred and things being done that way as they have always been done that way. So this can create a level of unrest when things don’t go to plan and we had many moments when they didn’t.
As an incredible entrepreneur and having that entrepreneurial spirit, my father would take huge risks with some of the decisions that were being made. Trialling, testing and building. Some worked and some didn’t. When they worked the business flourished with a dynamic spirit and grew to where it was sold with 160 stores across Australia and New Zealand. But as we know what goes up, always comes back down. With lots of new brands entering the market, we struggled to find who we were and what we meant to our customers and ultimately the brand began to lose its way.
It was a huge challenge to continually steer the business back into a state of profitability and to keep all the cogs of the machine working.
What were the feelings and emotions you experienced when you finally signed on the
dotted line to sell the family business?
I wasn’t involved in the sale of the business, as I had left to have children and was working in a very different role than that to which I had started. It was hard to not be involved and watch from the outside and not have a voice or opinion on what that should and would look like.
In the end it was a celebration of the business but it was a bittersweet celebration as deep down I would have loved to keep the business in our family for generations to come so there was certainly grieving and mourning of the business and the empire that we had created.
To pass the baton on was certainly a process. When I finally met the then General Manager, Elle Roseby who took the reigns of the brand under the Group I finally felt that the brand was in safe hands and she would lead it in a meaningful direction with the incredible infrastructure and resources that the Group supported the brand with. Two things we could never completely accommodate for the growth of the brand.
My identity and who I was, was so sewn up into the brand that it took me many years of work on myself to uncover who I truly was and what I stood for, without the identity and framework of the business. So within that process were many feelings and emotions, many rollercoaster experiences and ultimately peeling back the layers to build myself into me, what I stood for and how I wanted to live my life with my values and what was important to me.
The fashion industry is experiencing a big shakeup with regards to ethical production, rising business costs and more consumers choosing to purchase online instead of visiting retail stores. Is it a bad time to be in fashion?
If I was starting a business today, it wouldn’t be in fashion and anyone that I speak to that is in fashion I am very vocal about my views and that is to either change and overhaul your business model or get out. It’s really that simple.
The industry is experiencing a shake-up which for me is an amazing opportunity for businesses to start to see that there are other more efficient, positive impact industries that not only can create successful organisations but also doing something for the greater good of the world.
The world does not need more fashion, so if fashion brands could produce less, consumers could purchase less and we can begin to reduce the impact, our beloved environment and in turn the human and animal populations of the world may just see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Online is still a relatively small percentage of retail sales holistically and would look to cap at around 20% of sales overall over the coming years. People still love the experience of shopping, trying on products, engaging with people in a store and the feeling that buying something personally gives you, so I don’t think this will change dramatically. Online is an incredible opportunity to reach new markets, build the story of the brand and connect with people on the global stage.
Ethical production could really just be relabelled “production” and doing it the way that it was supposed to be before the word of greed began to dominate.
To me, production means designing, developing, producing and distributing products that:
- People need
- That don’t cause any unnecessary harm to anyone in the process of production
- That don’t pose a risk to the environment in the process
- And that all stakeholders win in that process
Rising business costs for me reflects a great opportunity to simplify businesses and really just capitalise on the most important components of the business. To see it as an opportunity to generate revenue and growth in a lean way that is in line with what the company needs. A rag trader once said to me “cut the cloth to fit the man” and this saying is still so pertinent today in any business as it goes through change and adapts to new markets.
When I first started at SUPRÉ we had no money to invest in creating growth so we had to be very savvy in our approach to doing this and ultimately it came down to creating meaningful partnerships with like-minded and non-conflicting brands, organisations and associations that support us in getting our core messages to market without huge advertising and campaign bills.
Boutique online fashion retailers seem to be popping up daily on my social media feed, what advice would you give to someone looking to enter this seemingly crowded market?
If you are in this space, it is certainly a crowded market so creating a unique proposition is key.
To build a brand with purpose that underpins the organisation and a true reason for being, not just about creating wealth and building an empire. That is no longer a satisfactory reason for being. Does your product solve a social issue? Does it contribute positively to the world's people? Does it enhance the environment to which we live in? or is it just to make money? The “just make money” model at any cost is definitely a model of the past that we are paying for now. It's a 1 dimensional model where brands need to be creating 3D business models that take a holistic view of the industry, the customers, the workers, the environment and the community.
This model is incorporated into a certification and movement I have been avidly following and engaging with for many years, called B Corp. There are approximately 25 B Corps in NZ and growing every day. If I had a fashion brand, I would certainly be getting my business B Corp certified. It is the business model of the future that has purpose, meaning and true impact.
From Supré to Super Business Coach...
After the sale of Supré you relocated from Sydney to sunny Marlborough to found Think
Business Coaching, what noticeable differences do you see between the way business is
done in NZ & Australia?
There were certainly a few years between that transition, but we have been travelling to the Marlborough for many years after buying a house in the Awatere Valley, so over the years I have seen New Zealand go through some incredible transitions in the business and economic environment.
I remember when we first opened Supré in NZ many years ago, the country was in a recession so the outlook was challenging for the growth of the business. And even when we sold it we still did not have the market penetration and impact that we had in Australia. But I don’t think we created enough distinction between the markets and they are so very different. We translated an Aussie brand into the NZ market with the same products, the same marketing and communication messages but very different customers. This was a huge lesson for me and have often likened it to say it's like translating Chinese to Italian... it's just not that simple.
Now being immersed in the business sphere here in New Zealand but from a different perspective I see a much more prosperous, well rounded and holistic business scene with loads of incredibly innovative and emerging businesses, new business models and business models that create significant social impact to solve the countries biggest social and community issues.
I find that people are more open in New Zealand to explore what's possible and not so stuck in the ways that things have always been done. I find the Australian market so cluttered and congested that its harder to move in a state of flow and open doors where as in NZ everyone is very receptive to new ways and new perspectives.
There is heart, soul and human needs at the centre of businesses in New Zealand and a feeling of everyone wanted to support one another far more than I ever did whilst working in Australia.
When joining Supre in 1997 you set out to build a brand with a purpose. What advice can
you offer to a small or medium business owner who is looking to create purpose and
take their brand to the next level?
The first part to connecting to the purpose of your business is firstly identifying what your life purpose is and connecting to the truth of who you are. By being able to unpack these elements is a big contributor to being able to build these elements into an organisation.
And not everyone has to have the same driving purpose for themselves as the organisation but certainly in some way aligned. I recently interviewed Icebreaker which you can read in Inside Retail NZ where the General Manager highlighted “For instance, Scott McNab notes that most people who work at Icebreaker are high performers who could choose other employers who, in many cases, offer better packages. They choose Icebreaker because it aligns with their values and often their own personal purpose.
When your own purpose and values align with your place of work then everything changes. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows but it’s worth it to know you're part of something bigger and something that provides you with a sense of pride and satisfaction,” McNab says.”
But you may also be wondering what exactly is purpose. For me it is all about the reason for which something is done or created and for which something exists and can also mean a person's sense of determination. So ultimately if we overlay these two together and simplified it, it's about a reason why and the determination to achieve it.
For me, my why is about sharing, educating and empowering people and businesses with the knowledge that I have acquired in my years of being at the helm of an iconic Australian business but more so the knowledge that I have acquired since leaving the business to discovering business models for the future.
The things that I am forever preaching about is that it's important to create growth in your organisation but ensuring that growth is underpinned by purpose. Growth is short lived and not sustainable if it is not built on the right foundations.
When I left the business I took myself to do a university degree in business as I knew that I needed to acquire a set of new skills to position me in the current world with the 21st century credibility of knowledge. It set me on the path and great love of education so I will never stop learning, teaching and the hunger for continuous education.
We're seeing a trend of more Kiwis growing amazing businesses from home and one of Kakapos highest website searches is 'work from home'. Think Business Coaching largely operates from your home office, what are the pros and cons or working from home?
I have worked from home 80% of my time since having children 7 years ago and I am certainly not wanting to give this freedom up any time soon. Being in my own space, with my own comforts allows me to be productive, focused and creative when I need to be and switch off when I am feeling blocked and unmotivated. I find when I work from home I wander through spaces so on any given day I can be working from the dining table overlooking the garden, or sitting on the lounge or propped up in bed where I feel more creative and to tap into a different part of my brain, to sitting in our super cold freezer like office if I need to just put my head down if the kids are home. I follow the natural warmth that the households at different times of the day.
The positives are
- I can work in peace or play loud music when I need some motivation
- It is flexible to work my lifestyle with my children into the working day
- I only have to drive to school and back without a single point of traffic congestion
- I can be productive and focused or tune out and reconnect to the day if needed
- I can put a load of washing on
- I can prepare dinner
- All whilst on the phone, creating and building meaningful projects and connected to wonderful businesses across New Zealand and the world.
The Cons are
- Bouncing ideas off team members where you need the human connection and elements of relationships.
- That your children don’t feel like you work as you are always at home, and they wonder why they can’t just be at home all day with you.
It feels like the days of the typical 9-5 work day are numbered and I believe this will have a flow on effect into business ownership, do you predict any trends for small business ownership over the next 5-10 years?
I couldn’t agree more, they are definitely at the end of their cycle. People are recognising that there is more to life than a job, and our other life roles are equally as important and we need to prioritise them just as much as our career and finance.
The strategies of one of my all time favourite books The 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss is a shining example of this - remote work, automating your projects for them to need less of you and building a life that you want rather than working all of your life to retire without your health or your sanity on your side. There are definitely new rules of business in this regard and we will see more examples over the next few years of how people and organisations are making them work.
I see a big trend of people leaving the corporate world to start their own business as they value the model of the New Rich - Time and Mobility as opposed to the desires of becoming a millionaire. They just want the freedom to live like they are.
The trends I see for small businesses
- Adapting to the new rules of business
- People wanting to work less and how to make this work for your business
- Building business strategies and the future of the business around the needs of the leadership team and management not the traditional way of people fitting into the needs of the organisation.
Thanks so much for your time Catherine. If any of our readers would like to get in touch with you about partnering with you to take their business to the next level, how can they get in touch?
Thank you for giving me the platform to share my world and the things that I am passionate about. I would be happy to support your readers with a 60 minute Complimentary Coaching session valued at $500 which they can book online at THiNK Business Coaching.
+64 21 887 383