Natural entrepreneur takes a gong

Natural healthcare products have been a money-spinner for Leanne Preston, this year’s Telstra Businesswoman of the Year. Preston beat Terri Irwin, director of Australia Zoo and wife of the late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin for the coveted prize.

Preston is the founder of Wild Child, which develops and markets 20 product lines internationally. The products, including hair care products and sunscreens, are designed for babies, children and families, and contain natural ingredients. She is believed to have turned over more than $30 million in 2006-07.

The West Australian single mother of three started off small, researching and making her products out of her home in 1997 with $30,000. Preston developed her first product after discovering her youngest daughter had head lice.

She couldn’t find a chemical-free treatment anywhere, so started developing her own using plant oils. The result – Quit Nits – filled a niche in the market for natural alternatives for the treatment of head lice and nits.

Preston now works with scientists to develop new formulations, but didn’t initially call in expert help. “My first product was created using a lot of literature out there by doctors and professors. I researched natural medicines in the library, studied toxicology literature and worked with existing scientific data. I knew essential oils could be toxic by themselves, so it was really critical I undertook the research.”

Preston’s overseas operations started in Denmark, after a Danish woman heard about Wild Child and decided to take the product back and trial it. Her export plan has become more sophisticated and Wild Child now retails in more than 14 countries around the world, as well as more than 5000 Australian pharmacies.

Preston recently won a contract with the largest drug store in the US, CBS, to stock her products in 48 US states. “We currently sell around $150 million in the US and expect to get 20% of market share (next) year,” she says.

Preston says she overcame a significant setback in the start-up years, when her manufacturing facility burnt to the ground. “I lost half a million worth of stock. It was a very stressful time, but it made me sit down and review my business model. I took a contractor in to work with me for the next three months to help develop the business.”

Wild Child now has manufacturing plants in Perth, Melbourne, the United States and eastern Europe.

The one-person dynamo, who released an autobiography earlier this year, has several tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. “You have to believe in yourself. Learn to embrace change and be prepared for reversals. Do your homework – know your market, know who your competitors are. Work hard and surround yourself with people who can help you.”


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