It’s been Paula Symons’ choice to keep her business small.
You won’t find her business with a storefront, and you won’t see any ads for it while you’re scrolling through Instagram. A Google search for ‘Paula Symons Catering’ brings up a scattering of recommendations from venues and references on event pages — no website in sight.
But Symons and her catering company are the perfect example of why constant growth and expansion isn’t the only way to run a successful business. Speaking to SmartCompany from her home in Lake Bolac, an hour out of Ballarat in Victoria, Symons says she’s made a comfortable living off the business she started 22 years ago.
But prior to that, Symons was running a bigger catering business in London, having moved over there for a holiday in the 80s and ending up staying for 14 years.
“When I got over there I got mixed up with some Aussie guys who had opened a wine shop specialising in Australian wines, so I started doing food for when they had wine tastings,” she says.
“Then I had two kids, and I didn’t want to bring them up in London so I moved back to my family’s hometown in Lake Bolac.”
The town, populated by just 330 people as of 2016, was not really where Symons was expecting to settle, worried there wouldn’t be much work for a catering business. But with her parents getting old and needing care, she ended up staying put.
However, as kids from country families returned to Lake Bolac and surrounds for lavish country weddings, Symons found business picking up, with buzz about her culinary talents spreading entirely through recommendations and word-of-mouth.
“It’s a competitive industry to operate in, but I haven’t ever advertised bar sponsoring the local footy club. It’s been all through word-of-mouth, which I like because I don’t really want to be flat out, seven days a week,” she says.
Today, the business is a full-time job for Symons, who says she typically takes on a few jobs a week, doing anything from weddings to functions to footy club meetings (though she says the weddings are always the nicest ones).
Symons is the one and only employee, and cooks and prepares all the food herself in her own kitchen, which has meant she hasn’t needed to spend money on premises or expensive equipment. Keeping the business small with her as the only employee has been a conscious choice, though the business owner says she once thought about expanding and hiring additional staff.
“I had the chance where I could have expanded and gotten bigger, gotten a small place and some backup staff. But I’ve preferred to keep control of it, all the preparation and all the organising,” she says.
“I suppose it’s been a choice to keep the business small. It might also have something to do with me being 62 now, I don’t really need to grow it past this stage.”
“You have to be disciplined”
This current season has been “particularly” busy, says Symons, and while winter is typically a quieter month due to fewer weddings, the business still hums along. All things considered, Symons says she’s a few years off retirement and hasn’t got a “date in mind” to shut the business down.
“While I’m still enjoying the work and I’m physically capable of doing it, I’m happy. But I don’t have anything to sell, and neither of my kids are interested in taking over,” she says.
“The business is my name, so it’s a bit hard for someone else to run, and someone else probably won’t do food like I do food. So there’s probably no one around to take it over.”
Considering Symons was initially considering “semi-retiring” when she returned from London, she’s happy her catering business has kept her occupied full time. But she says she’s struggled at times with staying disciplined, noting it as the hardest part of being self-employed.
“You have to be disciplined, especially when you’re busy. Like today is a nice day, so it would be easy to go over to the pool and sit around and do nothing, so the hardest part is maintaining that discipline,” she says.
“At the same time, it’s not a nine-to-five job, so you can work things around to suit yourself, and you can choose which jobs you do and don’t take. I have enjoyed being my own boss.”
Being her own boss has come with downsides, however, as Symons admits she hasn’t got much in the ways of superannuation, saying she’s “not very good at that side of things”.
“It’s a bit hard if you’re not that way orientated to set yourself up for your future,” she says.
“But I have made a comfortable living, when it’s busy and when it’s not. I get to go to a lot of nice weddings, see a lot of nice places, and unlike a cafe or restaurant, I don’t have to wait for customers to walk through my doors.”