Winner of the 2012 Telstra Business Woman of the Year Carolyn Cresswell spends most of her weekends at her country home in Bena in South Gippsland.
It is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting than for this country home and for muesli mogul Carolyn Cresswell and her family it provides a welcome opportunity to reconnect with each other and the things they love to do.
Carolyn Cresswell is the founder of Carmen’s Muesli, the internationally recognized company that started with a couple of thousand dollars and fists full of commitment.
Carolyn, still in her mid 30’s, is a mother of four young children and is considered by many to be a veteran in her field. Today the muesli bars are best sellers in the UK and supermarkets across 32 countries stock her brand.
Carolyn is sought after as a public speaker on work life balance, often sent overseas on speaking engagements. For her the Bena house is an opportunity for her to put words into practice.
On most Friday afternoons Carolyn, her husband Peter and four children, travel up from their weekday home in Hawthorn and spend the weekend at Bena. The house sits at the top of the hill concealed from the road, at the end of a long driveway. It was the driveway and the sweeping views Carolyn said that instantly won her over when they first saw the property over four years ago.
But for arborist Peter, the clincher was the towering Oak Trees that are a major part of the garden.
Today the house is a fine example of relaxed country chic, but before the renovation and extension it was a typically small farmhouse.
“It was always a dream to have a place in the country but we never really had the money. Every time we would go somewhere in Victoria we would say, let’s just meander and have a look around. A friend recommended that we come down here (South Gippsland) and we went ‘oh my gosh’, this is just unbelievable and just about an hour and a quarter from Melbourne.”
They looked for property on both sides of the Strzelecki Ranges but settled on the south side so they could have easier access to the beach to use their small boat. “I will never forget the conversation, (with a real estate agent). I was just about to hang up the phone and I asked, ‘Do you think there is anything else that might be coming up? And she told us about the farmhouse at Bena. We got to the bottom of the driveway and we knew this was it. It wasn’t as if the house was anything special but we just knew.”
The basic 1930s house had had nothing done to it in years, and the first task was to remove a large row of cypress trees and water tanks that obscured the view.
Today a swathe of lawn spreads across the two acres around the cottage, and the family recently purchased the adjoining 100 acres with the plan to raise a few cattle. “I just love it. We are here as much as we can and then for six weeks over the summer holidays. The neighbours are so divine, no one cares that we are weekenders. We get invited to everything. Every one has been so welcoming.”
Simple low maintenance plants were chosen for the garden including mass plantings of lavender and white daisies that survive with minimal care. “It is amazing, basically we don’t do anything and it looks good.”
The cottage’s main room, integrating the living, kitchen and meals area was enlarged. Most Saturday nights the family drag back the couches, crank up the stereo and dance for the weekly family disco.
Carolyn’s favourite room is the bathroom where large windows encircle the space and bring in the view across the hedge of white daisies.
While the main living area has a riot of colour, thanks to brightly coloured soft furnishings and artwork. The main bedroom is a peaceful monochromatic haven. A slightly Bohemian collection of Turkish tiles feature in the kitchen, and a locally sourced slab of timber is used for the kitchen island bench.
On the day we visit, a collection of organic produce gathered from the local farmer’s market is strewn across the bench waiting to become the evening’s dinner. On the menu tonight is roast lamb with rosemary cooked on the spit.
Carolyn enjoys cooking for the family and using wholefoods as much as she can- a trend she has found has helped to elevate her business.
“Trends moved toward fat free, wholefoods, a whole movement of slow food and farmer’s markets and people wanting to know more about where their food came from. We rode the wave of people seeking out more wholefoods. I guess I was in the right place at the right time.”
Carmen’s emerged when Carolyn was working part-time in a muesli making business and studying at university. “I was one of those kids where my parents worked hard for my education, but I didn’t get pocket money so I always had lots of part-time jobs. I worked behind the cash register at Coles, Saturday night baby sitting and worked in men’s clothing stores.” “When I finished school and in first year at university, the lady I baby sat for asked if I would be interested in making muesli. So it became one of my jobs and then after about six months the owner planned to sell the business. I was 18 and I had a conversation with one of the other ladies who worked there that maybe we would be bold and take it on. We offered them $1000 each and at first they laughed at us, but six months later they accepted it and that’s how it started.” Two years after that Carolyn bought out her partner’s share and since then the business has grown immeasurably.
“Now I have seen most trends come around, there’s not much I haven’t seen. I feel like a bit of a veteran because I’ve done the same thing for a long time- now I am just smarter and quicker at doing things.”
“My main role is really like being a fire-fighter, because I can solve problems now so quickly. I can think so laterally, when you know every part of it (the business). I was really obsessed with how to run the business well, rather than muesli per se.
My drive is how to run the best business I can. I am very passionate about how good Carmen’s could be. This little Australian business has one of the best selling products in the UK at the moment. That kind of blows me away.” It took the business about five years to make solid returns.
“After then it probably took another five years, before I had Will (the couple’s first child). I really thought I needed to get someone to help me with the business and that really was the turning point. When it was just me I had to work much longer hours, but now the business has got much bigger and I can work four days a week.”
“You can’t do everything yourself and when you realise that, it makes such a difference to your working life.”
Alongside the house is a large vegetable and herb garden, the whole family gets involved with planting, maintaining and harvesting.
“Food needs to be real, and we need to understand where it comes from and we need to celebrate the joy of eating. I am very much about sitting down together and the kids eat what we eat. Nothing makes me happier than the fact that my son’s favourite thing is brussel sprouts. I love that the kids get excited about what they eat and what is in season.”
Nothing remarkable or fast happens on the family farm, the children draw, help to cook, eat and relax. The television is tucked away in a cupboard and the children are ushered outside as much as possible to enjoy the wide-open spaces.
“It is great that you can just open the doors, and say off you go, go and entertain yourself.”
As well as running the business Carolyn is also on the board of Stephanie Alexanders’ Kitchen Garden Foundation and The Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity commission.
“I always get asked to do a million things and my number one tip for others in business is to say no and say it quickly.”
“I believe you can have an interesting career and be a good mother, the two things are not mutually exclusive. If you are driven by how good you could be, success follows.”