Unsung Business Heroes: Series Two
The three P’s to success, according to Susan Farquhar are Poverty, Pottery, Property.
“As a child there were days when we didn’t eat,” recalls Susan as she reflects on a childhood scarred by the stigma of a broken family. “I even remember going to a friend’s birthday party in my school uniform, because that was all I had to wear.”
To earn some pocket money, Susan collected seed pods and bark from the parks around Brisbane, and created little animals “with goggly eyes and funny faces” and would sell them at church fetes and markets.
“That was my first business, I was 10 years old, and would make about $20, selling them at 20c each.”
In essence, “we didn’t have a TV, we didn’t have a phone, we didn’t have a car so I had a lot of time on my hands. But I did have Child Craft, that was the World Book Encyclopaedia for kids, and they had one whole volume on arts and crafts and I think I pretty much made everything in that book!”
Graduating from stick figures to ceramics was a natural progression for a young girl with a passion to mould shapes with her bare hands. Turning it into a business was never the goal until a light bulb moment at university.
The ceramics activity centre in the Fine Arts department at Melbourne University was losing money and destined to be closed down, but they had enough enrolments for one more semester.
“That was when I realised I had a head for business.”
Susan, who would spend hours of her spare time in the centre, was asked to teach first year ceramics. Initially she said no!
At that time, Susan was doing a Bachelor of Arts in international relations. By the age of 22 she was pretty fluent in five languages, and was headed towards a career in international relations, such as the United Nations or in that sort of space.
Susan’s response at the time was “I’ve only just started my own degree. They said it paid $35 an hour, and this is 1992/93 when I was earning $6 an hour as a waitress in this awful place, so I said OK, I’ll see what I can do.”
She was expected to run a 10-week course with no budget, limited materials and no experience in teaching. A borrowed book from the library gave her enough information to formulate a course plan, but there was still the issue of supplies. They weren’t going to magically appear out of a book, no matter how much creative talent she possessed.
Susan’s approach was to “ring ceramics suppliers around Melbourne, in fact all around Australia, and ask them to send me some samples, explaining it was for a course at Melbourne Uni. I told them I was a new lecturer and wasn’t really sure what to expect.
“I thought I’d be lucky if I got couple of bags of clay and maybe some glazes, but they sent pallets of stuff. So I ended up having enough materials to run the courses with no budget for about two years.”
The business woman was born.
Susan’s entrepreneurial spirit flourished; she not only taught that course, but created three or four short courses during the week for students and the wider community.
There were 26,000 students at the University then, and many of them were interested in doing other things.
Susan recalls, “the ceramics centre became the most profitable of any of the Fine Arts department. So I was able to turn it around from something that was going to close, to being something that was incredibly popular.”
As in many success stories, there was an element of luck. Susan’s came in the form of a movie.
“The movie Ghost had just come out so everyone wanted to do pottery and funnily enough a lot of young guys were keen on doing pottery. I had to add a disclaimer at the beginning of the course ‘Finding your soulmate is not guaranteed’.”
By the time Susan had left university, her education was arguably far more encompassing than most graduating students. Not only did she have all the theory, she had developed a key understanding for business and an insight into what it takes to be successful.
“They look for funding and all kinds of stuff and then spend it on fancy office spaces and office furniture and really you don’t need any of that. Just start!”
And that’s exactly what she did after finishing university. Susan set up her own ceramics business and within a short space of time was supplying 60 stores around Australia and exporting to four countries.
“I was making tableware that had really interesting shapes and very minimalist in design. This was when the only option you had for buying ceramics was pretty much going to Coles and getting those chunky mugs that every family had. Remember them, they came in brown, green and blue.”
Susan’s products were showcased in several magazines like Vogue Living; “it was a new thing and the attention helped me get that distribution started and it grew from that.”
It grew rapidly – almost too quickly – and keeping up with demand was placing immense pressure on her. Susan was making functional pieces and art galleries would display her work, but she wanted people to use them.
Susan had moved to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney and set up a shop. The workload, however, was taking its toll on her hands. “RSI was a problem” and given the amount of hours she was working, she began questioning the return for effort.
On reflection, “just from the hard financials – the amount of hours involved and the return – I would have been better off working at McDonalds.”
Even adding a cosmetics line to her business base wasn’t going to solve the problem.
Susan realised that, “I had to stop doing business that required my physical effort, me doing all the work and especially related to me using my hands to create the products. I needed to start using my head.”
So when Susan talks about not really having much of a plan, one of the things she noticed with her shop was that she had a good number of regulars. “How could I talk to them in a way that was meaningful for them but also created something for me as a business?” Susan wondered.
She wanted to make it more personal.
“So I asked people if they wanted to be on our mailing list for when we have specials, or to try new products and everyone was interested. We’d have these wine and cheese members only nights for new products, or pre-Christmas, free gift wrapping and delivery, building in that service and having a really solid brand.”
“That made me realise what a difference it made to the business so I started applying those principles to other businesses which also didn’t know they had other options. Susan began to assist other business owners who commented “you’re doing really well, can you help me”?
There wasn’t a game plan to go from poverty to pottery, it was merely a case of Susan Farquhar seizing opportunities. Once she realised there was an opportunity, she didn’t go into intense detail about how to make it work, she ‘just got started’.
Basically, “I would have a mud map of what I wanted the business to look like, but I don’t believe in writing extensive business plans. I understand the purpose of it if you are looking for funding, but if it’s just for you, it doesn’t matter how much you analyse market share or the need for your product or service, you’re actually not going to know that until you get started.”
So that’s how the transition began from pottery to property and the eventual establishment of Calla Property.
Just prior to shutting down her shop, Susan had also set up a small team of telemarketers who were appointment-setting and lead-generating from rented databases.
As an indication of Susan’s approach, “we were doing work for a company that was releasing a self-managed super fund product and as the finance industry is heavily legislated, I put all my people, including myself, through an online financial planning course.
“I was worried that even an innocuous question like ‘what do you think?’ could be construed as financial advice.”
Then there was also a mini-skip business she owned in Queensland, and now that she was doing well financially, Susan had started building a property portfolio.
Having had her daughter at 30, Susan was a single mother fairly soon after that, and “even though I was running three businesses, because of the property portfolio I was able to take three years off.”
She then realised: “I’d made a disastrous decision with one of the properties and that nearly killed me. I bought the wrong kind of property in the wrong place at the wrong time. I did everything wrong. It took me a really long time to recover. It threatened to completely unravel everything I’d created over the previous 10 years.”
Paying $25,000 per year in interest on a property she didn’t want, forced Susan to re-think her strategy. She moved from the Blue Mountains to Sydney, still doing some marketing projects and eventually sold that unwanted property. She was then a lot wiser.
Susan realised property was the right vehicle for her, but to avoid making the same mistake, she started seriously researching what makes a good investment, and most importantly, one that fits her risk profile.
In brief, “I just wanted something I could set and forget, that would be compounding in terms of growth over time.”
That was the beginning of the research methodology she now uses at Calla Property.
Today, the research uses “120 checkboxes based on macro (state), micro (suburb), design and due diligence criteria, and unless a property matches all those, it won’t make it into our master portfolio.”
“That’s the methodology I’ve been perfecting over the last 10-15 years, and I’m very happy with it.”
In the last three years of business Susan’s seen that proven every time. Not most of the time, but every single time.
“Every client of mine has made money through that and made money at the beginning, which is what’s most important because it insulates your investment.”
The success of Calla Property primarily hinges on its extensive research programme. That comes not only from having a full-time researcher on staff but also through the relationships Susan has developed with property managers around the country and surprisingly even with some of her competitors.
The bulk of Susan’s competitors realise most of her clients come from referrals, and so do theirs.
“They realise we have different referral bases, different referral relationships, and that’s such a nice thing, to be able to talk to managing directors of companies which do similar things to mine.”
Susan notes that, in fact, “there are only a few that have the same ethical and research base we do.”
The ethical base is another key component to the success of Calla Property. Ethics around the principles of family and family values learned during those tough times growing up.
“Mum would’ve done anything for my brother and I, and we knew that.”
From the name of the company – “Calla is an acronym for all of my family and the people I support with this business” – to the relationships with clients, Susan Farquhar is all about people.
Susan proudly cites, “the relationship I have with my clients becomes very close.
It’s not just about understanding their investment strategy, it’s about managing the entire end-to-end process for them.
“I just want them to be able to set and forget, and I’ll do the whole thing for them. As much or as little as they want.”
While the love of her mother was a given, the legacy for which she is most grateful is her mother’s passion for education.
Her parents separated at a time when broken families weren’t common. It was a time when parents tended to stay together for the sake of the children.
Looking back, Susan comments, “my parents split up in the late ’70’s and my brother and I were the only children in our school whose parents were divorced.
“I often think what it must’ve been like for my mother in 1978 as a single mother of two kids in Brisbane, which wasn’t the most progressive place at the time. I’m sure divorce was probably more common in other areas, but it definitely wasn’t where I grew up; an affluent area in the suburbs.”
Reflecting on how desperate things were at times, “we really struggled and that wasn’t due to the lack of my Dad’s contribution, it was more about Mum’s inability to manage what she had; she didn’t really understand what to do with it. So giving women choices and education is something I’m really passionate about.”
The opportunity to harness that passion came while helping her daughter cook sausages at a girl guides fundraiser on the steps of Bunnings.
Susan met Linda and Graham, who had started a charity called Children’s Education Foundation, a charity based in Vietnam which helps the poorest but brightest kids continue their education. “It’s the only proven way to break the cycle of poverty. That was true for me, in modern Australia.”
The most important thing about the Foundation for Susan is that it focuses on girls, helping the most impoverished.
Within that culture, “boys in these areas tend to get the family farm, while girls fall through the cracks. They’re at most risk of being involved in sex trafficking and that’s something that just horrifies me. I cannot imagine what it would be like to voluntarily give up your daughter because there is no other option.”
Susan’s thesis for her International Relations degree was on Australian aid agencies and ethics, so when she came across CEF she really knew what to look for, “and the more I looked the more I was impressed.”
When she was advised that it costs about $250 a year to put a child through primary school. She has been involved ever since.
Susan also loves educating Australian children about money, and subjects such as compound interest, and she regularly talks at schools.
These presentations are often not only for children. “Many over 40 have little understanding of money, especially as they approach retirement, so I often do ‘lunch box’ talks for corporations, arranged by their respective HR units.”
The main piece of advice Susan offers to anyone starting out in business is “don’t get bogged down in the planning.”
She encourages doing some research and getting an understanding of the factors applicable directly to your business, but implores them to ‘just get started’.
Susan’s recommendation would be “put a bit of money behind a good business idea – not a lot – and just get started. Even if that means testing it at markets or within various referral groups or even family and friends.”
She notes that “I’m on various online groups where people talk about business, especially women in business, and I see people paralysed, paralysis by analysis, and it’s just really hard to watch.”
Another key factor, a lesson learned the hard way, is to ensure you have control of everything that’s important to your business. Susan fears it’s too easy in this technology-dominated world to put some aspects of the business in the too-hard basket.
Susan’s advice is to “make sure you control your business name, your login details. If you outsource an IT expert to set it up for you, make sure once that’s done you change those passwords.”
It’s important to“get control of all your intellectual property, because if you end up selling your business it will be expected that you can hand over all the login details for all of your accounts.”
Harking back to her more simple beginnings, Susan reflects that “part of me wishes we were back in the dim dark ages, before the internet, when I had accounting books, coloured pens and a ruler. Then I knew where every cent went.”
- “That was when I realised I had a head for business.”
- “One of the most frustrating things I see in business is when people have these great ideas and they plan it to the ‘nth degree’. They look for funding and all kinds of stuff and then spend it on fancy office spaces and office furniture and really you don’t need any of that. Just start!”
- “I would have a mud map of what I wanted the business to look like, but I don’t believe in writing extensive business plans.”
- “How could I talk to them in a way that was meaningful for them but also created something for me as a business?”
- “They realise we have different referral bases, different referral relationships and that’s such a nice thing to be able to talk to managing directors of companies which do similar things to mine.”
- “Get control of all your intellectual property, because if you end up selling your business it will be expected that you can hand over all the login details for all of your accounts.”
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