Carolyn Creswell might be ‘s muesli queen, but we’re having eggs for breakfast. There are six of us – three adults and three kids – squeezed inside a raised timber cubby house, while the hens strut on the lawn below. This is “Grace’s Cafe”, and six-year-old Grace, the youngest of four Creswell children, takes her job seriously. As we arrive, she marks our names off a guest list: Caitlin (that’s me), Poppy (my daughter), Dad (Pete Creswell): check, check, check. Carolyn, the owner of muesli brand Carman’s Fine Foods and host of Network Ten’s Recipe to Riches, is on the guest list as “Mum” but she’s late because she’s doubling as short-order cook back in the main house.
Grace’s eight-year-old brother Oliver helps but she’s the one running the show. It’s no surprise to learn Grace is the child who most reminds Pete of his CEO wife. “She’s a mini-me,” Carolyn agrees with a laugh when I tell her.
The Creswells live in the affluent Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn but spend the summer and as many weekends as possible here, at their farm in South Gippsland. Of course you can stay at the farm, Carolyn writes by text message when I mention that I’d like to spend some time with her in her natural environment. You should definitely bring your kids with you. It’s kids’ heaven!
Her description is apt. Along with the cubby and the chickens there are two ponies, hammocks hanging from spreading oak trees, a swimming pool with a white-and-gold inflatable Pegasus, a sandpit, and views over the golden-brown countryside.
In nearby Kongwak there’s a tiny Sunday market that Creswell calls her “happy place”. As we stand in line for noodles, the stall-holder leans over to me and points at Creswell. “Did you know she makes the most wonderful muesli? It’s called Carman’s.”
In the early 1990s, Carman’s was a small homemade muesli operation in Malvern, selling to local shops and cafes. Now it’s a business with a turnover of more than $100 million a year, responsible for about 255 jobs; 35 at head office at Cheltenham, the rest indirectly through outsourced manufacturing. The brand has a 7 per cent share of ‘s “nutritious snack” market, third behind Nestl?? and Kellogg, according to Retail World estimates, and about 5 per cent of the breakfast cereal market, a share that retail expert Stephen Kulmar says will grow as more people switch to porridge in the mornings. It’s made Creswell a wealthy woman – she was last valued on the BRW rich lists in 2015 at $57 million.
The Carman’s story began some 25 years ago, when Creswell took on a part-time job helping make muesli once a week while she studied history and sociology at MonashUniversity.She’d babysat for both the Aisenberg and the Zygier families, who owned a tiny homemade muesli operation. When a family member who was pivotal to the business decided to move on, the families concluded that it was time to sell. Creswell made a bid for it, in part to keep her job. At just 18, she bought a half-share in the business for $1000. “I was like, ‘Hang on, why couldn’t I buy this little business?’ ” she says. “I had no idea it would grow so big.”
Creswell had a business partner for the first two years, but has been the sole owner since, building up the business without any outside investment. Along the way she has married, had four kids, hosted a television show and served on boards and as public ambassador for human rights organisations such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
Now, at 43, she’s stepping it up: expanding into China, where there’s a growing appetite for imported food and premium brands, but no history of consuming muesli. “I’ve always been excited by the prize of what Carman’s could become,” Creswell says. “I’ve never been the type of person who can sit back and say, ‘I’ve done it now, I’ll go get my nails done.’ I’m always drawn to the excitement of the next horizon, and China is the most exciting opportunity I can think of for the business.”
I catch the lift to the 37th floor of a swish building on Collins Street, the Melbourne HQ of top-tier law firm Allens. Creswell is here for a board meeting of the Human Rights Law Centre, in her capacity as a director. She jumps up to greet me and pours me a glass of water, before resuming her seat, pointing for me to sit beside her. Blonde, with an open face and wide smile, Creswell is dressed in tailored black pants, an earthy-brown linen top and flat shoes. The outfit will take her from the board meeting to her suburban office, then to a playground concert at the local primary school her kids attend.
The meeting is due to end at 11am but it’s running late. That doesn’t stop Creswell rising at 11 sharp and declaring that she needs to go. Another board member follows suit. As we ride to the ground floor, they discuss the need for better timekeeping. They decide they’ve made their point by leaving.
We walk to Creswell’s black Land Rover, and drive out of the city towards the Carman’s offices at Cheltenham in Melbourne’s south-east. But first we swing by her new site, the former Pink Lady Chocolate factory in Huntingdale. A 1960s red-brick box on 4850 square metres, the refurbished site will be 10 times bigger than her Cheltenham digs. It’ll mostly be used as office space, but she plans to open a retail shop in the garden, a kind of “cellar door” concept designed to connect Carman’s to the local community.
Creswell says this property is proof she’s not planning to sell Carman’s, nor to float it on the stockmarket any time soon: two courses of action she’s often asked about. It suits her to call the shots and not answer to a business partner, investor or board. “I sort of feel like I’m hopefully only halfway through my journey, so it’s just really more of the same,” she says. “I love what Carman’s is doing now and I think it can just keep growing and growing.”
Carman’s already exports to 32 countries, but cracking China would propel it into the big league. The first shipment to China has already arrived and Creswell is confident the products will be on the shelves by September.
Later that afternoon, at a strategy meeting, we watch a presentation on what Chinese consumers think about Carman’s cereals and snack bars.
Seems they like the products with chocolate and berries and favour the purple packaging over the black. They don’t enjoy a cold breakfast; king of their breakfast table is congee, the rice porridge. The presenter points out that some of Carman’s competitors are positioning muesli as a topping for salad or steak. “I’m putting my foot down,” Creswell deadpans. “We are not recommending you use muesli to top salad or hamburgers. Ice-cream, I’m okay with.”
The opportunity in China is great, but so are the risks, witnessed in the bumpy rides experienced by other n companies such as Bellamy’s and Blackmores. They’re not the only ones to have shown initial promise in China, then fallen foul of changing government regulations and fickle consumer behaviour. Creswell is not put off, and says full ownership allows her to act quickly and decisively.
Carman’s has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and more than a year preparing for China. “We’re not just testing the waters,” she says. “We’ve got a major distributor and we’re going into the big retailers in the tier-one markets.”
The launch range, including nut bars, protein bars, oat slice, muesli and clusters, with a focus on berries, will be sold in 536 stores within the first six months. Creswell and her team will fly to China next month to hire local staff, visit stockists and research other businesses. “For me, success would be that Carman’s business in China is bigger than in ,” Creswell says. “I’ve talked to the kids about maybe going to live in China for three months, and that would be my dream, to set ourselves up for amazing success.”
Hong Kong-based business consultant Geoff Raby, an economist and former n ambassador to China, says the “clean, green” reputation of n food has huge appeal for the increasingly cashed-up Chinese, but the great risk is the bureaucracy changing the rules. “Regulation can change overnight, without any industry consultation,” he says. “If there’s an area that seems unregulated, or lightly regulated, it probably means that it’s soon to be regulated.”
Creswell has had an early taste of this: her initial plan was to launch in time for February’s Chinese New Year, but the date has been successively pushed back as the company came to grips with the complexity of Chinese regulation. Among the hiccups: a discovery that you can’t label food as “gluten-free” in China.
Born Carolyn Tennent, Creswell grew up with a younger brother in a comfortable home in Malvern. Mum Marcia was a nurse, father David a marketing executive for a multinational. Both parents worked hard to pay for private schools and a holiday once a year. David worked long hours, so the children sometimes accompanied their mum to her night shifts and slept under a table. The family spent four years in Los Angeles while Creswell was in primary school. When they moved back to Melbourne, Marcia started a school canteen business that she could run from home. If the children were home sick from school, they were put to work helping pack pies into paper bags.
Watching her mother run her own business gave Creswell the confidence to do it herself. In 1992, she went into partnership with her workmate from the muesli making job, Manya van Aken, to buy the business together. They renamed it Carman’s, using the first three letters of their respective first names. A few decades older than Creswell, with experience and contacts in the food industry, van Aken helped the brand get a foothold in department stores such as Myer and David Jones.
Those early years were a hard slog, involving huge responsibility and little reward. In those early days the business turned over about $80,000 a year, which translated to a profit of about $5000 each. They outsourced the manufacturing early on, but that came with its own challenges. “At one point the wrong kind of coconut was used in a recipe,” recalls Creswell. “We used shredded coconut but the whole batch was made with coconut powder, so we couldn’t sell it.”
Creswell still lived at home, but van Aken was married with kids. Sandwiched between caring for elderly parents and teenage children, van Aken decided to leave the business after two years. “I couldn’t have dedicated myself in the way Carolyn did,” she tells Good Weekend.
The pair saw an accountant to determine fair value and confirm they separated on good terms. “I was upset when Manya left because I really loved her, and still do,” Creswell says. “But it’s been 25 years and I guess now it really suits me for Carman’s just to be mine.”
Creswell met her husband Pete in those early days of the business. She was 22, he was 29 and working in marketing at Crown Casino. He borrowed $150 from his dad to take Carolyn out to dinner on the night he proposed. She wondered how they would ever pay it back. Pete later worked as an arborist, but quit eight years ago to look after the children and do volunteer work like running the Nippers program near the family’s holiday farm. Solid and blond, he’s laid back and fond of a practical joke, pretending to be still in the shower when Creswell arrives to pick him up for the school concert.
In 1997, Creswell won a contract to supply 20 Coles stores. It was a trial, set up by a buyer she now calls her “angel”. They still laugh about Creswell’s nervous presentation, complete with samples in brown paper bags she’d ironed the night before. Pete drove her around in the evenings to make the deliveries to each supermarket, so she could sneak in, build little displays and leave samples in the tea room for the staff.
As time went on, Carman’s expanded its presence in Coles; Woolworths took the brand on as well. It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. In 2005, one of the supermarket giants delisted Carman’s due to poor sales (she’s reluctant to say which one). When the buyer rang her with the news, Creswell burst into tears, then set about reinvigorating her packaging and marketing in a bid to improve sales at the remaining chain. She was relisted 18 months later. “It’s left me with a healthy paranoia,” she says.
Carman’s has been criticised for its selective use of the government’s health star ratings, the voluntary system designed to provide a quick nutritional profile of packaged foods where half a star equals “unhealthy” and five stars means it’s good for you. Carman’s has put the health stars onto its muesli and nut bars – its Super Berry Muesli Bar has four stars, its Greek Style Yoghurt Fig & Honey Bar three stars – but has left them off others, such as its coconut-flavoured Oat Slice, which would get 1?? stars.
Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, has accused companies of using the system selectively, and is calling for the government to make the ratings mandatory. “If the star system isn’t being used comprehensively across all products, it makes it harder for consumers to make healthier choices,” Martin says. “Consumers are being kept in the dark.”
Creswell argues that the Oat Slice is a bakery product and that no competing bakery brands use the health star ratings. “Why would we be the only ones?” she asks. An easy way to improve the health star rating of her baked products would be to replace butter with margarine, she says, but she won’t do it. “I don’t give my kids margarine, I give my kids butter, so why would I use margarine?” she asks. “I’m proud of the fact you read our ingredients list and it says ‘butter’.” The health star ratings system is under review. Creswell says Carman’s will opt out if it’s not reformed to favour natural food.
A defining moment in Creswell’s personal life came when she felt she wanted no more children after her first two, Will, now 13, and Lily, 11, were born. Pete, who was already hands-on with the kids, wanted two more. “He told me, ‘I’ll give up work, I’ll do every nappy, I’ll get up at night, but I really want four kids,'” Creswell recalls. Another life-altering episode came when their third child, Oliver, was aged two, and the couple noticed a ridge down the middle of his head from back to front. With the youngest, Grace, a newborn and Creswell herself recovering from a botched epidural, she had Oliver checked out by multiple doctors. One specialist told her it was cosmetic, questioning whether she had a problem with how he looked.
By the time Oliver was four, he was missing many milestones, including speaking. This time, the Creswells were told he had a condition called craniosynostosis, and that he would die without surgery on his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. David Chong, the surgeon famous for operating on conjoined twins, rearranged the pieces of Oliver’s skull from his eyebrows to the base of his neck, filling in the gaps with metal plates. Oliver survived and his IQ bounced back to normal. “Here he is now, happy and healthy as anything,” Creswell says. “I count my lucky stars every day.”
It prompted some soul-searching about priorities. “At one point Carolyn probably was a bit of a stress-head, but that’s certainly changed,” Pete says. “Family has always been very important to her and that hasn’t changed, but she’s become a lot more intelligent with her time.”
Having a stay-at-home partner helps, but Creswell has also built other sanity checks into her busy life. She won’t do coffee meetings, doesn’t watch television and walks for about an hour each day. A fan of self-help books, she raves about Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. At Carman’s, staff eat lunch together around a big table, dining on salads prepared by the office manager, and often tackle The Age quiz as a group.
The vibe seems happy and relaxed but, like any business, there are detractors. A couple of former employees describe a workplace culture that’s “quite like a schoolyard”, with Creswell queen bee. Creswell argues that she’s tough when she needs to be. “I want to have a 100 per cent engaged workforce. If you are caught bitching, I’m just not interested.”
These days, she focuses on cultural fit over direct experience when hiring staff. Above her desk, an artwork depicts a bookcase filled with books about truth: The Truth about Love, The Truth about Birds, and so on. “When I need to have a difficult conversation with someone, I look at this and remember to tell the truth. If I have any regrets, it’s the times I’ve been less than honest, and I’ve learnt from that.”
She is trying her best to pass a sense of perspective on to her kids. During dinner at the farm we take part in a Creswell family ritual. Everyone takes turns to talk about the “sparkle” in their day, the kindness they practised, and what they’re grateful for. When it’s Creswell’s turn, she says the Sunday market was her sparkle, that she’s grateful Poppy and I could visit and that she could cook dinner for everyone, and that her kindness was letting her elderly ponies roam the garden.
Creswell may not have been a cook at 18, but she’s developed a keen interest in food as an adult. The meal is a Middle Eastern feast with salads and several types of meat. It’s finished with a ricotta tart made to a recipe by English chef Yotam Ottolenghi. There’s not a muesli topping in sight.