Carolyn Cresswell: how I made a million from muesli

At the age of 18, Carolyn Cresswell and a friend spent AU$2,000 on a neighbourhood muesli-making business. Now her company, Carman's Fine Foods, turns over AU$15m a year.

Want to improve your time-management skills? Try having three children under the age of five, says Carolyn Cresswell, the 35-year-old founder of A$15m-a-year muesli maker Carman's Fine Foods. "It makes you more efficient. I need to walk out the door at 5.30pm every day and know everything is done."

Cresswell comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, including caravan makers, dye wholesalers and the owner of a school canteen. She started out selling lemonade in her Melbourne neighbourhood. But it was a Saturday night babysitting job that led to her big break. The family she was childminding for ran a small business making muesli and Cresswell helped them out part-time. But in 1991, after less than a year, they decided to sell up. Not wishing to lose her main source of income before she went off to university, the 18-year-old and a friend put in an offer. "It was only A$2,000. It wasn't like I was buying a sheep station."

That bought them a list of 80 customers mostly small cafes around Melbourne and a recipe for muesli. Cresswell hired out a small bakery in a supermarket at $8 an hour. She'd take orders on a Monday then make the muesli on a Tuesday, "the same way we do today". Oats and chopped nuts were added to sunflower and sesame seeds, before heated honey and oil were mixed in. This was put in an oven and roasted, packed up, then delivered on a Wednesday in her Daewoo hatchback. The business was profitable, but "local shops would only get you so far. I needed to get into the supermarkets."

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After finishing her politics degree, Cresswell bought her partner out. In 1997 she persuaded Australian supermarket Coles to trial the muesli in 20 of its Melbourne stores. Delivering her cargo of boxes in a small van, alongside trailers unloading 20 pallets at a time, she knew she'd made it. Turnover hit $250,000, rising to $1m after a year. Woolworths (the equivalent of Tesco in the UK) took her muesli two years later.

But then disaster struck. One of the supermarket chains (she won't say which) stopped stocking her products. "We had trucks all over the country delivering stuff that was then returned. It was horrendous." Two to three hundred pallets of goods, about half the business, was destroyed overnight, "and the supermarket sold the rest at bargain basement prices". Angry customers rang Carman's, asking why they couldn't buy the product anymore. "So we asked them to harass the supermarket." They did. Her customers called and wrote to the offending supermarket's shareholders, driving them "absolutely crazy. It made them realise how strong our customer base was." Within a year, Carman's was reinstated and back on the shelves.

Cresswell has now branched out into the UK, after Carman's was chosen by the Australian government as one of five Australian products (selected from 300) to be stocked in Sainsbury's stores across Britain. "The fact that Australia is a place people come to on holidays, and has an image for being clean and green, helps. But I've always tried to make the product stand on its own two legs. At the end of the day, it's got to be better than everything else on the shelves."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and was a senior writer for MoneyWeek. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example digging into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.