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I really like flying. 40,000 feet up, rocketing along in a reasonably comfy seat in a huge metal tube with wings. It’s quite miraculous, really. I also find it’s also the perfect spot to stop. No phone calls, hopefully few interruptions. If it’s long-haul I might catch up on a movie or a guilty TV pleasure. Even the short hop from Sydney to Melbourne offers an opportunity to reset, collect thoughts and breathe.

And it’s often at that altitude that I’m reminded of a great business story – one that has inspired me for years now. All it takes is for the cabin crew to start the in-flight snack service, quickly passing small packets to passengers left and right up the aisle. If I’m lucky, it’ll be a little marvel that brings the story into focus.


I think part of the connection is that this wonderfully successful Australian business started at about the same time as mine. It’s a story with a truly grass-roots beginning, a simple idea, a lot of hard work, a crystal-clear vision, passion and great instincts.

As an 18 year old uni student, Carolyn Cresswell had a part-time job making muesli for a small business supplying a few cafes and delis in Melbourne. One day she was told she was going to lose her job as the business was to be wound up and sold. Most 18 year olds would have walked away. But a voice inside Carolyn’s head said, ‘You can do this! You love the muesli and you make it already!’

With the reassuring endorsement of her parents, she had the confidence she needed to make a go of it. She made an offer of $1000 which was (eventually) accepted and her business – which didn’t even have a name at the time, but was to become Carman’s Fine Foods – was born. In her own words it was a life-changing decision.

As the fledgling business took shape, Carolyn juggled a uni degree, squeezing in production, deliveries and bookkeeping before, between and after classes.

Twenty years on, Carman’s muesli, muesli bars, rounds, oats, porridge, clusters – you name it – are available in all major supermarkets across Australia, as well as being exported to 32 countries around the globe. It’s a multi-million dollar business whose success has been fuelled by the drive of the woman at the centre of it, and the simple mantra at the core of everything the company brings to market – Real food made with real passion.

Carman’s was no overnight success, no easy-ride. There were set-backs and failures, and at one point Carolyn had four kids under the age of eight. I’ve admired Carolyn for a long time. She’s a brilliant businessperson, and I regularly find myself nodding in agreement when reading quotes attributed to her.

> Learn to say ‘no’ to things that aren’t important.
> Trust your instincts.
> Love what you do – Passion, drive and enthusiasm will determine your success.
> Try to jam as much into your day as you can, so you can get away on time.
> Don’t be embarrassed or hide it when you have family commitments.
> Think about your staff and customers, how they would like to be treated, and how you would like to be treated if you were an employee or customer of your business.
> It is not the total hours  you spend at your desk that mean you have done a good job, but the quality of your output.
> Think of the people you work with as another family, delight your customers constantly, and your business will quickly thrive.

These are all beliefs I hold dearly.

Carolyn hasn’t had any formal business education, instead relying on her instincts, networks and mentors. She grew up dreaming of being an air hostess, went up against the established players like Kellogg’s and Sanitarium, and managed to carve out a niche – A big one, even at a time when the supermarket giants were driving private-label brands onto their shelves at the expense of many niche products. The quality of Carman’s products proved to be her biggest marketing advantage.

She has been quoted as saying, ‘I’m not the smartest girl in the room – I’m just a hard worker.’ But as I sit at 40,000 feet, Carman’s treat in my hand, I’m well aware that Carolyn has crunched the numbers and knows that 7% of airline passengers who sample a Carman’s product in-flight, go on to purchase her products on the ground.

One. Smart. Cookie.