Success Means Giving Back for Olympian

Success Means Giving Back for Olympian

They no doubt feel the benefit of ski jackets bearing the XTM logo but it’s a fair bet that many of the homeless recipients of these jackets, sleeping rough on our city streets, would not know of Pete Forras. But the former Olympic athlete doesn’t care about remaining anonymous.

As winter makes itself felt across the country, those lucky enough to receive a jacket are benefitting from “Heat the Homeless” a program initiated by XTM in conjunction with its retail partner outlets which encourages people to donate a second hand ski jacket.  

So, while Peter Forras enjoys the market share achieved by the XTM range of ski garments, he says one of the benefits of being a successful entrepreneur is “being able to give something back to society and ultimately leave a better company” than the one he co-founded.

With a history of nearly twenty years, XTM’s popularity as a brand can be seen among those taking to Australia’s slopes this winter.  Next February athletes from three countries at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea will wear the garments, which are designed on Victoria’s surf coast.  

The company that is XTM had its beginnings after Peter represented Australia at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics in the men’s downhill.

He started skiing at Mt Buller after his father, having migrated from Hungary, bought the first hotel on the mountain.

As a youngster seeing a photo of the Olympic team, Peter was inspired to compete as a skier and from the age of 15 he moved between Australia and the slopes of the northern hemisphere to train and compete, operating largely on his own.

He describes his skiing career as encompassing everything “from exhilaration to extreme disappointment”, the latter emotion most evident following a bad crash before the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

But, having achieved his goal of making the Olympic team he realised the need to re-set his goals after 1988, a decision which saw him begin to help some friends in their company selling headbands for skiers. It kept him in the sport and enabled him to capitalise on a good global network.

“It was six successful years, uninterrupted by any competition, until the market dried up and we got ourselves in a hole,” Mr Forras said.

Harbouring a long term aspiration to supply garments to the Australian Olympic team, he and his partners started XTM with a modest range of gloves.

The big change came when the company expanded its product range to include garments.   

Securing a licence to use Gore-Tex fabric not only helped foster new products for XTM but it was also a catalyst for the company to realise the importance of moving to a higher echelon with the brand.

“We had to ensure that athletes were happy with the product first before we approached retailers,” Mr Forras said.

XTM’s growth was helped by a “floundering” competitor in the domestic market and also that it had fostered a favourable reputation with representatives in the ski garment sector     

Peter Forras stresses the importance of having a clear vision of what a business is about.

He acknowledges he has learned some lessons along the way from failures. Of these the most important is to “know your maths, regarding cash flow.”

Now a strong player in a small domestic market for snow and outdoor wear –where there are only some seven ski resorts compared with several thousand elsewhere-XTM’s initial endeavours to sell locally designed garment lines internationally met some headwinds.

Among the lessons learned from expanding into export, Peter Forras says “we learned not to run into the first opportunity, to do due diligence and to have a clear cut business arrangement.”   

Operating from a converted residence at Jan Juc on Victoria’s surf coast, XTM’s headquarters might at first sight seem at odds with its target market but Peter Forras explains that skiers and surfers enjoy a similar lifestyle.

“Importantly we learned a lot about distribution and marketing from the founders of Rip Curl who were trail blazers in a global industry and whom we count as mentors.”

Over time XTM has assembled a great team of nearly 30 staff says Mr Forras.

They share in the corporate vision to support campaigns for social justice and environmental issues. In the past eight years this has seen XTM offset its total carbon footprint and initiate “Heat the Homeless” which relies on the support of some 25 retailers of XTM garments in Australia.

‘Teacha’ Sharyn graduates to retail tea venture

‘Teacha’ Sharyn graduates to retail tea venture

It’s no accident that Sharyn Johnston chose a pun by which to name her first tea bar in the Geelong CBD.

‘TeaCha’ is the latest venture in a career that has seen her re-invent herself to become a global force in teaching people about the world’s second most consumed drink under the business umbrella that is Australian Tea Masters.

Drawing on years overseas as a specialist in corporate restructuring, she became fascinated with the varieties of tea and how it was consumed.

Returning to Geelong, Sharyn set her heart on opening a quiet neighbourhood café. With a focus on hand-blended and specialty teas, the café would also offer good coffee. 

But perhaps in deference to Australia’s obsession with coffee the journey to becoming a global tea expert started with a diversion when the person selected to manage that café couldn’t take up the role. So Sharyn and son Nathan grasped the nettle; son roasting coffee on site while Mother managed front of house. Sharyn’s café ended up becoming Nathan’s café and together they laid the foundations for what would become the well-known Coffee Cartel.

But Sharyn acknowledges “there is no way that Cartel would be where it is today without Nathan’s passion for learning everything from roasting to branding and overall knowledge about coffee. Working alongside him and understanding more about specialty coffee made me realise that there were as many, if not more complexities in tea.”

She had also noted that while tea is grown in many countries there was little by way of cross-cultural awareness of tea between those countries. But it was her difficulty in finding a tea education course so she could become tea-literate that pointed to a massive but untapped business opportunity.

Aiding her education she drew on her international contacts to learn about tea, from growing it to drinking it. She visited real tea factories which she says were not the sanitised versions featured on TV travelogues. While noting that the tea industry is 99 percent men, she counsels the need to think about the business on a non-sexist basis.

These initiatives helped lay the foundations for Australian Tea Masters which today offers a range of services including tea education and training, private label blending, tea-related events and tea business advice. The wholesale business provides some eight tonnes of tea a year for 120 private label blends in Australia and last year alone the business made one million tea bags. With an office in Singapore and plans for further international expansion, TeaCha is her first venture into tea at a retail level.

Keen to ensure a legacy, she was recently advised that after a long and detailed process, the Government had accredited the first tea school in Australia.

“The Australian Institute of Tea will be responsible for managing our education agenda,” she said.

Sharyn’s most important advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in any field is “to save and start slowly to avoid stress. You must have cash behind you to sustain you when things get quiet,” she counsels, citing times with which she was familiar early in the life of her business.

As a restructuring expert she learned the importance of needing to know all the job roles in an organisation.

“Understand that no one is irreplaceable, even myself,” she said.

This lesson came home to her when she was charged with restructuring a company in Germany. Speaking little or no German she started on the ground floor of the company rather than the top floor which housed the executive ranks.

“You need to push through cultural and other boundaries and recognise that respect for people is very important. A packer is as important as the managing director.”

Passion and perseverance and the need to stay focussed are the essential requirements for building a business,” she says.

Timing and luck define this serial entrepreneur

Brendan McKeegan says an entrepreneur is someone who gives themselves the opportunity to capitalise on timing and luck. It’s a definition proven as much by failure as success for the Surf coast resident who can now best be described as a serial entrepreneur.

“If you’re risk averse, maybe you shouldn’t consider being an entrepreneur. Risk is part of the business but it must be calculated,” he told Entrepreneurs Geelong’s In Conversation Breakfast audience recently.

The first step in his business life and ultimately to defining that life came when he accepted a scholarship to study information technology after finishing his HSC. The IT course, sponsored by names like IBM and Hewlett Packard, had a curriculum driven by business IT needs and their relevance to real life.

While admitting “I still can’t code to save myself” a placement to work with ICI (now Orica) came Brendan’s way during the course and luck and timing saw him head to the UK with ICI. This was to give him the global perspective that dictates his subsequent business successes.

Returning to Australia in the late 1990s he became involved with Hitwise, a business that capitalised on using data drawn from the fast growing Internet industry to aid marketing. Brendan’s role was to take Hitwise global, the success of which was to see the business acquired for $240 million in 2007, thereby paving the way for his involvement with various IT-related businesses.  

A decade on it is his global perspective which sees a strong focus on the market potential of China. His first success was the securing of one of only 300 licences to supply infant formula to the Chinese market, an achievement built on putting in place in Australia an integrated supply chain of farms, production and packaging.

Exposure to China as a market convinces him that to succeed  “you must help China to lift its game by ensuring that whatever you do helps create jobs in China.” Co-branding with Chinese companies has not only helped the Australian product find its way into some 30,000 retail outlets but has helped defray the enormous expense of brand building in that huge market .

As failure can equally define an entrepreneur, Mr McKeegan is not without examples in his CV. While a business to market personal oxygen ran out of puff he says much was learned along the way about offshore marketing and patents. A credit card authorisation business cemented another guideline that there are times when an entrepreneur should not push too hard.

In an operational sense “you must also realise you may not be the right person to run the business and that perhaps you need business partners with skills which compliment your own. You should also accept remaining hands off with what others are doing,” he advises.

Having travelled extensively he says living or working from a regional location is irrelevant.

“It is critical however to understand your global customers and to do so you must keep asking questions along the way which help support the growth and direction of the business.”

From the perspective of someone living in regional Victoria, Brendan may well be at odds with conventional thinking about marketing: if it can work globally, it should work here, although he acknowledges there are circumstances in which Australia may be a good test market.

While many entrepreneurial initiatives begin around developing a product and then trying to get it to market, Mr McKeegan’s journey has proven that conventional thinking can be overturned: a resilient supply chain is essential to ensure a ready market for baby formula.

In further defining them, Mr McKeegan says “entrepreneurs have an innate understanding or self-belief that they are on the right track”. So, while collaboration is important sometimes the people closest to you “don’t see what you see, so it is important to have a wide circle to relate to.”

Brendan acknowledges there is no recipe to determine if a business is on track to grow.

“But,” he cautions, “if it smells like it’s off, you need to react.”

Outlining the issues influencing entrepreneurship he nominates his highest priorities as finding the right people and cultural alignment, followed by finance.

“By finance I mean the importance of having a cash flow model.  You can’t palm this off to an accountant. “

It is also important to document your goals: to get them from your brain to down on paper.

“And, if you aren’t good at something, get someone to do it that is. For example, it is an offshore company which prepares and provides our reports on those areas of Australian agriculture which affect our business interests.”

Working a lot from home, he typically starts his day with a coffee and reading the papers

“Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be about working 80 hours a week all the time. It has its peaks and troughs but it does appeal more than the corporate lifestyle that I once lived. I realised I was not suited to it,” he said.

He gets most excited by working on something from scratch, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

“Don’t get side-tracked, despite each day throwing up a plethora of ideas. I concentrate on one thing at a given point in time, even though that may be my specific role, across multiple businesses. “

Quick update for March

Quick update for March

Hey Entrepreneurs,
 
Just a quick update on some fabulous things happening around Geelong:

Next EG Breakfast
At our next Entrepreneurs Geelong breakfast we’ll be joined by Brendan McKeegan as he talks about Building Global Technology Giants from the Comfort of the SurfCoast!
Friday 7 April, 7.15am for 7.30am (until 9am)
Australia Post Small Business Hive, 108 Gheringhap Street, Geelong.
Get your ticket today at www.trybooking.com/PCOJ 

Geelong Business Excellence Awards
In it’s 31st year, the Powercor Australia Geelong Business Excellence Awards recognise organisations that have achieved business excellence in the Geelong region. This year there are some new categories including Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Nominate yourself or someone else and be at the awards ceremony on Thursday 17 August. For more information, check out www.gbea.com.au.
 
Small Business Smart Business
Small Business Smart Business is sponsor of Entrepreneurs Geelong and provides low cost education and mentoring for start-ups and existing small businesses in the region.
Seminar topics for entrepreneurs in the next 6 weeks include; time management, taking better photos for social media with your mobile phone, digital marketing tools to grow your customer community, blogging, business planning, Facebook ads, and sales without being awkward.
For more information go to www.smallbusinesssmartbusiness.com.au/events
Check out the mentors available http://smallbusinesssmartbusiness.com.au/our-mentors/

Runway Geelong open for applications
Runway Geelong is Geelong’s startup accelerator and incubator that is looking for companies keen to grow and go global. Applications are now open and close on April 5th. If you are a hard working, motivated, focused and innovative startup, then check out more information at www.runwaygeelong.com.au and apply today!
 
Upstart Challenge Launch
The Upstart Challenge is an entrepreneurial program and business ideas competition for high school students aimed at building an entrepreneurial culture and fostering strong relationships between students, educators, industry and the community. This year’s program launch will be on Thursday 30 March from 5.15pm to 7.30pm at Deakin Waterfront. Our President, Matthew Fletcher will be interviewing some of the Upstart alumni, so book today at www.bit.ly/upstartlaunch or find out more at www.upstartchallenge.com.au.
 
Australia Post Small Business Hive upcoming events
We’re always grateful to our partners at the Hive for providing a great venue for our breakfasts. Pamela and her team are running events regularly so make sure you check out what’s coming up so you don’t miss out. 
 
Look forward to seeing you at our next event and go get your entrepreneur on!

Darren peddles good coffee to find out what his customers need

Darren peddles good coffee to find out what his customers need

 

That some of the world’s keenest competitive cyclists choose to describe their hand-crafted Baum cycles as the “world’s best” starts with a cup of coffee at a modest industrial building in the Geelong suburb of North Shore.

Regardless of whether they are multi-millionaires with private jets or people of more modest means, the first step in the process of building bespoke bikes is for Baum staff to listen to what the client wants over a coffee.

It’s a convention, begun by business founder Darren Baum, and designed to get an answer from each and every client to the question ’why did you come to us?’ 

Equipped with that answer the process can begin of building a bike to exactly meet a customer’s needs.

In one week Darren’s clients might range from a Tour de France winner to a grandmother who needed a bike to address the biomechanical challenges which resulted from knee surgery, some arthritis and living in a hilly suburb.

“We get as much pleasure providing Cadel Evans with a bike as we do helping to change that grandmother’s life,” Darren Baum says.

An A-grade rider by his mid-teens, Darren had an accident which at 17 abruptly stopped his riding career. But the seeds of an idea for a business had been sown when he decided that he couldn’t afford European-made bikes nor did he like the Australian-made products.

Later undertaking an apprenticeship as an aircraft maintenance engineer, his workplace enabled him to experiment and innovate. This with the biomechanical problems he experienced following his accident- which were to give him an insight into both the geometry and handling of bikes- became pointers to the business that would become Baum Cycles.

“These factors ultimately resulted in a naïve decision to have a go at making bikes, something which capitalised on the enjoyment I get through working with my hands,” Mr Baum said. This was despite a concern expressed by his Father about starting a business.

Just as Mr Baum says there is no formal training for what he has done or the paths he has taken to build an internationally-recognised business in his home town, Baum Cycles does not conform to conventional images of a manufacturing business in today’s global marketplace. It is arguable that is why it is succeeding in a market dominated by much larger businesses.  

A basic premise of the business is that hand-crafted or bespoke bikes are the best option for racing bikes, given that an individual’s biomechanical requirements dictate optimum performance of rider and machine.

If a cup of coffee helps start a dialogue to clearly define a customer’s needs, then the customer remains foremost in the corporate mindset of Baum Cycles.

“We look at everything from the customer’s point of view,” Mr Baum said.

In this age of multiple types of communication-from Snap Chat to snail mail- this presents a challenge as regards ongoing dialogue with the customer.

“So we operate with a single point of truth, namely a box in which all customer information is stored. This is critical to bespoke or customised manufacture. 

“The acid test of success for us is if the customer has a smile on their face when they take delivery of their bike.”

The manufacturing process at Baum Cycles is a very manual one in which it is very obvious what people are doing. Unlike other forms of manufacturing, a lean and agile approach proved unsatisfactory at Baum.

Seeking the advice of a mentor as the company grew Baum was told to established cleaner, more defined work practices, advice that has Mr Baum says has paid dividends.

As part of a vibrant corporate culture, each workstation in the process of building a bike treats the next as an internal customer, something which supports an ongoing drive for quality.

Reflecting the company’s flat management structure and that its founder still enjoys being a welder Darren nevertheless plays a major role in training staff. He says the company has a corporate culture that may not appeal to everyone.

Echoing the experience of many successful entrepreneurs there have been failures along the way.

“Failures are the best time to prove yourself by the way in which you manage them,” Mr Baum said.

With the manufacturing process at the Geelong factory turning out about three bikes a week, the lead time for a bike can be between four and five months.  But this is acceptable for people who look to express themselves through their bikes-whether they are former prime ministers, captains of industry or those who value a bike that is widely acknowledged as one of the best in the world.

Would a bigger workforce reduce the lead time? Mr Baum thinks otherwise, given the importance of the staff progressing up the curve that is learning to fit into the corporate culture.

“We also remain competitive by staying lean.”

Certainly diversification into products allied to bikes is a possibility but bikes remain Baum’s true passion

With a third of its production destined for export and Asia being its biggest market, Baum expects to continue steady growth.

Most customers in Australasia and neighbouring regions are direct. Further afield, such as in North America Baum very carefully selects retail outlets with whom it can partner. 

While producing a world class product for a sport that has global appeal and following Darren Baum admits that financial support for a professional cycling team is beyond his small company’s capability. 

Nevertheless the impact of the internet is such that Baum Cycles cannot be seen as small or think small.

“We are being judged by world’s best practice,” Mr Baum said.

Frank looks for quality in fruit, vegetables and people

Frank Costa puts as much store in quality people as he does in quality fruit and vegetables, an attribute which has seen him nurture the businesses in the Costa Group to collectively become the country’s largest growers, packers and marketers of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Speaking of a business career that began in 1950, when he was just 12, the former president of the Geelong Football club shares the philosophies and beliefs of many successful entrepreneurs about the importance of valuing people, especially those you employ.

Frank Costa’s first experience as an entrepreneur was selling newspapers on Geelong’s T&G corner. Wanting a better return than that afforded offered on a single street corner by selling papers to drinkers in the city’s pubs, Frank became an employer. With three other kids selling on his behalf, he covered much more territory.

If selling newspapers fostered Frank’s competitive spirit with his brother Adrian, who sold papers on another city corner, it also lit the spark of ambition for growing businesses.

When the retailer Myer planned to sell fresh fruit and vegetables in Geelong, a city whose fruit and vegetables scene was then dominated by Italian families, Frank saw the signs of a changing industry.

It was a pivotal moment. He reasoned that if he stayed with his not-ambitious Father in a long-established retail business he would not get ahead so, with his brother Adrian they bought out their Father.

With the way paved for an expansion into wholesaling, the brothers were also to demonstrate a flair for seizing new opportunities. Frank saw the potential of harvesting fresh field mushrooms in Victoria’s western district for the Melbourne market, employing staff to peel onions for the food service sector and recycling old fruit crates, thereby differentiating the business from a conventional fruit and vegetable business.

Along the way, the brothers learned to value good people, a theme which occurs regularly in interviews of Costa.

It has become practice within the Costa group of companies to recognise employees for doing something right, however large or small, instead of employees only hearing from management when it thought they had done something wrong. Frank says he also believes in providing incentives to encourage people, as he did when his three younger brothers were invited into the business.

And, in a similar vein, he counsels showing compassion when a situation might call for it, as happened when he discovered one of his buyers in Melbourne had been taking bribes .Knowing the buyer had a young family, Costa chose to fire him, rather than report his behaviour to the police.

If sport helps people achieve a work-life balance, in Frank Costa’s case that sport was Aussie Rules. Despite the fact that being too slow meant he could not pursue a childhood dream of being a footballer, by the mid-1990s his business expertise and success was not unnoticed and he was invited to become president of the city’s Geelong Cats, a position he held until 2011.

In this capacity he oversaw a board with good complimentary skills, which convinced him there is synergy between leadership and entrepreneurship.

“But you must be brutally honest to attract the best people. You must lead by example, and perform yourself. You can’t buy trust, you can only earn it,” Costa says.

These attitudes have become embodied in the recruitment practices of the football club.

“You should hire for character and then train for skills,” he says, describing the exhaustive processes by which those recruiting young footballers check their character before drafting them.

Over time Costa has backed his judgement through having a thorough understanding of the business he was in as well as floating ideas with others. He searched for people who had better skills than he had in various parts of the business.

“But first find an industry that will give you a buzz, enjoy what you do and be the best at you can at it,” he advises aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Being honest earns respect and with it, people will open up to you, even your competitors.”

He has had close brushes with failure, like the decision to incorrectly locate a major distribution centre in Geelong which “put us close to going under,” he said.

But with eight children and 22 grandchildren, Frank Costa is convinced there is no other place in Australia to beat Geelong for family development. He lists affordable housing, as well as access to good health services, educational institutions and sporting amenities as underpinning that conviction.

In the end though, it all comes back to quality people says Frank Costa.

“If all our plant, facilities and resources were suddenly taken away, we could re-start if we had good people.

“Conversely, without good people all the plant and facilities would mean we would quickly go broke.”