Want to check out our Top Female Entrepreneurs list for 2018? Read more here.
By Emma Koehn, Dominic Powell and Dinushi Dias
Some of Australia’s most successful businesses have started as 3:00am flashes of inspiration, a conversation with a friend, or a single shop front.
Australia’s top female entrepreneurs have been able to build empires from those simple beginnings.
Each year SmartCompany publishes its list of top female entrepreneurs to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8.
This year’s list is dominated by entrepreneurs in the beauty and consumer goods sector, with a quarter of the cohort building multimillion-dollar businesses in this space. New entry to this year’s list, Sue Ismiel of Sue and Daughters, fits this category, having built hair removal company Nad’s into a $42 million family-run empire.
SmartCompany‘s annual list of 30 is ranked according to the revenue of the entrepreneurs’ businesses.
The combined revenue of the businesses on this year’s list is just over $11.7 billion, up $1.03 billion on last year. This growth was powered by Vicky Teoh-founded TPG, which posted an 88% increase in revenue last year.
Where possible, the most recent revenue figures have been confirmed by the entrepreneurs and businesses.
Where that has not been possible, SmartCompany has relied on a variety of sources, including publicly available sources, industry contacts and internal estimates. An asterisk shows where revenue has been estimated.
Here are SmartCompany’s top female entrepreneurs for 2017:
1. Katie Page
Company: Harvey Norman
Revenue $3.03 billion (with Gerry Harvey)
Since 1999, Katie Page has been chief executive of electronics retailer Harvey Norman Holdings, which includes the stores and franchises of Harvey Norman as well as furniture brands Domayne and Joyce Mayne. Her 17-year reign managing the company’s 200-store network makes her one of the country’s longest serving chief executives, and husband Gerry Harvey has previously referred to Page as “the mastermind behind it all”.
Harvey Norman booked $3.03 billion of revenue in the 2016 financial year, which is made up of $1.80 billion in company store revenue and $1.23 billion in other revenue and income items.
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Page has held a number of leadership and board positions, including her current role as a director of The Retail Council. She has also previously served as on the board of the National Rugby League and was the first woman to be elected to that position.
In a 2016 interview with Vogue Australia, she reflected on the strength of Harvey Norman as a lifestyle company.
“Our store teams are an integral part of their local community and we are always listening to what will work for them. However, when you walk into a Harvey Norman store … you know you will experience how to live a connected life,” she said.
2. Vicky Teoh
Revenue: $2.38 billion (with David Teoh)
An opportunistic acquisition of competing Internet provider iiNet in late 2015 has seen TPG’s revenue skyrocket, with an increase of 88% and iiNet’s contributing to $248.9 million in TPG’s EBITDA.
This means good news for husband and wife duo David and Vicky Teoh, who collectively own more than a third of the telecommunications company’s shares, at a total of 291 million shares.
The two founded TPG in 1986 as Total Peripherals Group, a computer hardware retail business. The company later pivoted to begin providing internet and mobile telephone services.
With the iiNet acquisition, TPG’s National Broadband Network marketshare is around 24%, and the company is hoping for more growth as it continues to integrate iiNet into its services.
While still a majority shareholder in TPG, Fairfax reports Teoh is also involved in a number of startups and smaller companies, including eyeglasses retailer Oscar Wylee and startup incubator PS1875.
3. Gina Rinehart
Company: Hancock Prospecting
Revenue: $1.72 billion
Mining magnate Gina Rinehart slips to third place on SmartCompany’s list in 2017, having been ranked second in 2016 and holding first place between 2012 and 2015.
Weaker iron ore prices continue to have an impact on the entire mining sector, and revenue for Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting has fallen from $2.04 billion in 2015 to $1.72 billion in 2016, The Australian reported.
Rinehart remains Australia’s richest woman according to the annual BRW’s Rich List. In 2016 she ranked fourth overall, with an estimated net worth of $6.06 billion, behind former Westfield chairman Frank Lowy, businessman Anthony Pratt and family and property developer Harry Triguboff.
4. Maxine Horne
Company: Vita Group
Revenue: $645.1 million
It’s been another year of strong growth for Maxine Horne’s Vita Group, with a 19% increase in revenue to $645.1 million in the 2015-16 financial year. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation increased 31% to $66.1 million in the same period.
Horne started one of Australia’s first mobile phone stores Fone Zone in 1995, which over two decades later is now known as the Vita Group.
Horne began her entrepreneurial journey after pointing out Australians couldn’t buy mobile phones in shopping centres, so a friend said, “why don’t you do something about it?”
Vita now employs over 1700 employees, and boasts 1.2 million sales transactions over the 2015-16 financial year.
In the company’s 2015-16 annual report, Horne outlined Vita Group’s “winning formula”, which involves three key “levers” for success.
“Our first and most important lever is our people, and we will continue to build productivity through our unwavering focus on the Vita team,” Horne said.
“We will also further optimise the physical portfolio as well as maximise the product pipeline.
“These are exciting times for Vita Group – the sky really is the limit for this company.”
5. Lesley Gillespie
Company: Bakers Delight
Revenue: $595 million* (with Roger Gillespie)
The Bakers Delight business has come a long way since Gillespie set up a bakery with her husband Roger on Melbourne’s Glenferrie Road in 1980. It’s now a global network of more than 700 stores across Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada, generating an estimated $595 million annually, according to Fairfax in 2016.
The business has been involved in a number of community initiatives over the past 37 years, including a 15-year partnership with Breast Cancer Network Australia. In 2013, Gillespie told SmartCompany about the importance of ensuring a business engages with the needs of a community.
“Gaining a real connection with your customers and being able to give back on a daily business is the most satisfying part of operating a business,” she said.
Lesley Gillespie has been awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the community and support of charitable organisations
6. Naomi Milgrom
Company: The Sussan Group / ARJ Holdings
Revenue: $490 million*
Naomi Milgrom is chief executive of the Sussan Group, which operates long-running Australian retailers Sussan, Sportsgirl and Suzanne Grae.
The Sussan Group is Australia’s largest privately-held speciality fashion retailer. Its three companies have long-held and distinct brand identities; earlier this year, Sportsgirl’s head of marketing said the retailer’s strategy had not changed for 70 years.
Milgrom is involved in a number of philanthropic projects and started the Naomi Milgrom Foundation, a not-for-profit with a focus on facilitating public art projects such as Melbourne’s MPavillion event hub. She also sits on the board of Ormond College’s Centre for Ethical Leadership.
7. Janine Allis
Company: Retail Zoo (Boost Juice)
Revenue: Over $350 million*
This month marks Boost Juice’s sweet 16. Over the past 16 years Janine Allis and her team has managed to grow one juice bar in Adelaide into a network of 350 stores across the globe, generating hundreds of millions in revenue each year.
Boost Juice’s parent company, Retail Zoo, also owns the franchises Salsa’s Fresh Mex Grill, Hatch and Cibo Espresso.
As well as continuing to play an active role in growing the Retail Zoo brands, Allis has been putting her entrepreneurial expertise to good use over the past two years as an investor on Channel Ten’s Shark Tank. In 2016’s season, Allis invested in such projects as dress rental business Your Closet and took a 25% stake in shoewear business Two Shoe, which makes thongs that convert to closed-toe shoes.
Allis has previously spoken to StartupSmart about the importance of leadership, especially during tough times.
“What people look for in life, in war, in business, in everything, is a leader,” she said.
8. Yenda Lee
Company: Bing Lee
Revenue: $320.6 million*
Yenda Lee and her son Lionel Lee are at the helm of Australian electronics retail giant Bing Lee, which was founded in 1957 by her late husband Ken Lee, and his father Bing Lee. The business celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
Fairfax reports Bing Lee’s revenue decreased in 2015-16, coming in at $320.6 million. Additionally, Appliance Retailer reported last year the company landed its first major sports sponsorship since 2010 with Netball NSW.
Despite having over 40 stores nationwide, Lee and her son continue to run the business like the family business it began as, according to statement from Lee on the company website.
“Along with my son Lionel and a wonderful team of dedicated people, we continue to run Bing Lee as a family business,” she says.
“The principles with which we established the business all those years ago remain as important today as they did back then.”
9. Charlotte Vidor
Company: Toga Group
Revenue: $285 million* (with Ervin Vidor)
Charlotte Vidor and her husband Ervin founded their Toga Group hotel business in 1963 after migrating from Poland, and the business has diversified in the times since, developing apartments along with operating a number of prominent hotel chains.
Adina Hotels, Medina Hotels, Rendevous and Travelodge are all managed by The Toga Group as part of a joint venture with Australiasian hotel operators Far East Hospitality.
Vidor currently sits on the New South Wales Tourism Board, and her husband Ervin is a member of the Order of Australia.
10. Sue Hollis
Revenue: $250 million*
Sue Hollis worked for British Airways and Qantas before striking out on her own to co-found Australia’s largest privately-owned corporate management provider, TravelEdge.
The business now books corporate travel, with a particular focus on SMEs, for clients across Australia and New Zealand.
In 2014, Hollis told SmartCompany the business model was built on ensuring honesty in the sales process.
“For us, running a sales team is very much about integrity, it’s about the integrity of the proposition, the integrity of our people and the integrity of our fulfilment,’ she said.
According to the TravelEdge website, Hollis is a qualified Canadian ski instructor and wants to be a professional motorbike racer when she “grows up”.
11. Lorna Jane Clarkson
Company: Lorna Jane
Revenue: $189 million* (with Bill Clarkson)
The Lorna Jane activewear brand, launched by Lorna Jane Clarkson and her husband Bill Clarkson close to 27 years ago, has a presence of more than 200 stores across 14 countries.
Both the Lorna Jane business and Clarkson herself have built immense social media followings and the brand is renown for its social media presence. Lorna Jane Activewear has 1.1 million Facebook fans, while “eternal optimist” Clarkson has a 190,000 strong following on Instagram, where she regularly posts inspirational quotes.
The business faced controversy in 2016 when Clarkson said there were no plans to introduce plus-size clothing into Lorna Jane stores because they wouldn’t sell.
After facing backlash, however, the brand opened up a “share your thoughts” space and introduced a new Instagram campaign focused on a variety of body shapes.
“I am constantly searching for ways I can do better and feel it’s my responsibility to ensure Lorna Jane lives up to your expectations,” Clarkson wrote to Lorna Jane shoppers on the company’s website, calling for feedback on the sizes the company stocks.
12. Iris Lustig-Moar
Company: Lustig and Moar
Revenue: $171 million*
Property develop Lustig and Moar was founded by Iris Lustig-Moar’s late father Ted Lustig and her husband, Max Moar.
Iris Lustig-Moar and Max Moar remain directors of the business, which has recently developed the ORR apartment development in Melbourne’s Caulfield North.
The company has also developed luxury apartments in St Kilda Road’s Lucient tower complex and the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
13. Gillian Franklin
Company: The Heat Group
Revenue: $130 million
Gillian Franklin founded cosmetics distributor The Heat Group in 2000 after holding managerial roles for a number of cosmetics companies such as Revlon and Australis. Having originally hailed from South Africa, Franklin was inspired to start her own wholesale business after developing a program to encourage young women to be financially independent.
She secured her first client — consumer products giant Procter & Gamble — in just three weeks.
Since then, the Heat Group has gone from strength to strength, pulling in upwards of $130 million revenue each year, and selling 20 units of product every minute.
In November, Franklin’s business acquired personal care distributor Doward International for an undisclosed sum. Doward International had been in operation for 96 years, and boasted over $40 million in annual wholesale revenue, which means the acquisition could give The Heat Group’s revenue a significant boost this year.
At the time of the acquisition, Franklin told SmartCompany growing through acquisitions can have immediate benefits.
“You get growth immediately. Most often, you get incremental profit growth as well because of the synergies behind the scenes,” Franklin said.
14. Sarina Russo
Company: Sarina Russo Group
Revenue: $122 million
From a typing school with just nine students, Sarina Russo has grown her business to one of Australia’s largest provider of employment and apprenticeship services.
The company operates over 200 sites in Australia, the United Kingdom, India, Vietnam and China, and in its 38 years of business has educated more than 110,000 students.
Russo’s business has also secured a number of contracts with state and federal governments through both the Jobactive program and the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, although these contracts were the subject of controversy earlier this year after it emerged former federal Health Minister Sussan Ley made expenses claims for travel associated with attending functions hosted by Russo.
Russo’ advice for entrepreneurs is that success can only happen when you first conquer your fear.
“You then discover your true capacity and potential — What you perceive, you can achieve,” Russo previously told SmartCompany.
“The key to a better future is you.”
15. Diana Williams
Company: Fernwood Fitness
Revenue: $106 million*
Since opening one gym in Bendigo in 1989, Diana Williams has grown her women-only gym business into 70 centres, employing more than 2,200 staff with an estimated turnover of more than $100 million.
In 2016, Williams spoke to Bloomberg about the value of integrating technology, like body scanners, into Fernwood gyms to motivate the company’s clients to work towards their goals.
“A measurement is just a number. But a visual image of what they look like, rather than their imagination, is much more motivating,” Williams said of the technologies.
Williams is a member of the Franchising Council of Australia’s Hall of Fame.
16. Jo Horgan
Company: Mecca Brands
Revenue: over $100 million*
Mecca Brands started out as one cosmetics store in South Yarra in the 1990s, but has since grown into a network of 75 stores in Australia and New Zealand, across four different “concepts”.
Jo Horgan’s business now covers the Mecca Maxima and Mecca Cosmetica imprints, as well as an online store and concessions in department store Myer.
“I wanted it to be empowering and fun,” Horgan told Fairfax last year when asked about her initial idea for the Mecca business
17. Barb de Corti
Revenue: over $100 million*
Twenty-three years on from launching her business, Barb de Corti’s environmentally-friendly ENJO cleaning products continue to be distributed by thousands of consultants, known as ENJOpreneurs.
The retail space has changed significantly since ENJO began in the 1990s, and the business has been building up its online presence since 2013.
ENJO also produces a makeup removal product called Sante, for which former Home and Away star Isabel Lucas is an ambassador. In a letter explaining the impetus for the products, the company speaks of its goal to “inspire families to embrace a safe and simple skincare routine centred around the natural benefits of water”.
18. Carolyn Creswell
Company: Carman’s Fine Foods
Revenue: $100 million
While muesli might not jump to mind as the most lucrative of retail markets, Carman’s Fine Foods founder Carolyn Creswell has carved out a unique position in the Australian breakfast cereal market over the past 15 years. Creswell first bought the business for $1000 in 1992.
Her success has not gone unnoticed either, with Creswell winning the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year Award in 2012, and making SmartCompany’s Top Female Entrepreneurs list three years running.
Consumers can buy Carman’s in over 3000 locations nationwide, and the business currently exports to 32 different countries. The brand’s packaging has become so iconic, others have been accused of copying it.
In the business’ early days, Creswell’s mother’s marketing tactic involved loudly exclaiming “this is the most amazing muesli” to anyone in earshot at the supermarket. Today the business gets things done a bit more efficiently, but on its website Creswell says she still can’t believe how far she’s come.
“I was an 18 year old Uni student, personally hand making and packing each and every single packet of Carman’s muesli. I used to make deliveries next to Linfox semi-trailers out the back of my little Daewoo hatchback,” she says.
19. Cyan Ta’eed
Revenue: $94 million* (with Collis Ta’eed)
Cyan Ta’eed and husband Collis Ta’eed debuted on the BRW Young Rich List last year with an estimated net worth of $184 million, having rapidly expanded digital marketplace Envato over the past decade to more than six million members.
Envato’s community of users have earned close to $US500 million through the platform, and in 2015 the company turned over $US73 million ($94 million at June 30, 2015).
Ta’eed is also founder of New Day Box, a project to create boxes of treats and essentials to deliver to women in crisis. New Day Box is facilitated by 10 colleagues that work together at Envato, and was launched after Ta’eed read about a similar project in Canada and was inspired by the simplicity of the idea.
20. Penny Spencer
Company: Spencer Group
Revenue: $65 million
Penny Spencer is the managing director of successful travel booking business Spencer Travel, which she founded in 1998. She had been in the industry since she was 18, and previously told SmartCompany she started out volunteering as a travel agent just to get her foot in the door.
Like all business owners, Spencer knows what it’s like to wear many hats, especially when it comes to managing the company’s 50 plus staff.
“Back then I did it all. I did the sales, the client relationship, consulting, the hiring, the firing, the accounts. But as you grow, there’s so many more complications. You’ve got 40 odd staff, and you’ve got direct reports, and the clients are a lot more demanding,” Spencer told SmartCompany.
However, the hard work appears to have paid off, with Spencer boasting a high rate of staff retention at her business, with 60% of her staff only ever having one employer. Perhaps the fact Spencer likes to reward long-time employees with a one-carat diamond has something to do with it.
21. Kristina Karlsson
Company: kikki k
Revenue: $60.9 million*
Kristina Karlsson’s Swedish-inspired stationery juggernaut was sparked by a brainstorm session after she’d woken at 3:00am one morning, stressed about her career path and future options.
Karlsson says she was driven to start the business because she wanted a job that would allow her “to be excited driving to work on a Monday morning”.
She has since grown the kikki k business to more than 80 boutique boutiques in New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, Hong Kong and Australia, with Fairfax reporting company revenue exceeded $60 million in 2015. The company has captured passionate stationery fans in worldwide and now ships to more than 140 locations. It’s known for offering in-store classes on organisation and successful diary use.
At the start of 2016, kikki k appointed former David Jones head Iain Nairn to assist with the international expansion of the business, and in September 2016, the company revealed it had sold a 20% stake to TDM Asset Management with the aim of accelerating its growth.
22. Naomi Simson
Revenue: $60 million
Naomi Simson founded experience and rewards company RedBalloon in 2001, and in the time since has become one of the most recognisable Australian entrepreneurs.
RedBalloon isn’t Simson’s only love these days, with the entrepreneur having founded employee reward business Redii and invested in multiple businesses on Shark Tank including the KISA phone and a spiritual guidance website. Simson is a regular motivational speaker, and was one of SmartCompany’s first contributors 10 years ago. She also an entrepreneur-in-residence at Gravity Coworking.
Simson has no shortage of helpful advice for entrepreneurs and business owners, regularly sharing her thoughts via her blog and LinkedIn page. Recently, Simson revealed the one thing she wished she had told her 22-year-old self.
“I wish I had told my younger self that it is okay to take your time and do a job properly,” Simson said in a LinkedIn video.
“I’d also say to keep learning. I always thought I knew everything, and now as I get older I realise how little I know.”
23. Michelle Bridges
Company: Michelle Bridges
Established: 2010 (12 Week Body Transformation)
Revenue: $60 million*
Michelle Bridges has built a multimillion-dollar empire on the core values of fitness, health and perseverance.
After kick-starting her career with a television spot she secured by hounding down Channel Nine presenter Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Bridges has gone on to star in Channel Ten’s The Biggest Loser, launched the 12 Week Body Transformation subscription business, and written 13 best-selling fitness books. Her brands turned over around $60 million in 2014, according to BRW.
In 2016 Bridges sat down for an in-depth interview at a Business Chicks event, where she spoke of the importance of not taking no for an answer when pitching ideas.
“There have been plenty of times where I’ve felt like, ‘no, no, this is going to happen, you just aren’t with me on this yet, let me spell it out’,” she said.
24. Lilly Haikin
Company: Max Brenner Australia Franchise
Revenue: $50 million* (with Tom Haikin)
It’s been close to 17 years since Lilly and Tom Haikin brought the Israeli-founded Max Brenner chocolate bars to Australia, and there are now more than 30 of the brand’s outlets across the country, as well as an online store for chocoholics.
The business made the move to Western Australia in 2015 and after opening a venue in Rundle Mall in Adeladie at the end of 2016, the business now has a presence in every Australian state except Tasmania.
When the business expanded to WA, Haikin reflected that “Australia is full of chocoholics”, according to Perth Now.
The company has been able to leverage the nation’s passion for chocolate into a 200,000 strong Facebook following. Shoppers regularly engage with short videos in which Max Brenner staff create chocolate-themed sundaes and other recipes using the store’s products.
25. Nicole Eckels
Company: Glasshouse Candles
Revenue: $50 million*
Many entrepreneurs find the inspiration for their business ventures from a problem they encounter in their own lives, and it was no different for Nicole Eckels.
Eckels moved from New York to Australia in 2005 and founded her candle business Glasshouse Fragrances a year later after she was unable to find a high-quality fragrant candle on a shopping trip to David Jones.
“I knew there was something missing in this market and if I didn’t do it, somebody else was going to do it,” she said at an event in 2015.
Glasshouse Fragrances is one part of Eckels’ Sapphire Group, a company that employs more than 100 people and turns over around $50 million annually. The group also includes sister candle brand, Circa Home.
Glasshouse’s range of products, which now include diffusers as well as hand creams and washes, are stocked by sleepwear chain Peter Alexander and independent retailers across the country, as well as in the stores that inspired Eckels venture back in 2006 – David Jones.
26. Sue Ismiel
Company: Sue Ismiel and Daughters (Nad’s)
Revenue: $42 million
After launching in 1991 with $5000 and her company’s first hair removal gel, Sue Ismiel has spent the past two decades turning Nad’s into a household name.
Ismiel began her journey with “no idea how to sell anything”, a feat that meant many a door was slammed in her face when she first began trying to move her product through door-to-door sales. But Nad’s is now a global company turning over $42 million, and which has even considered undertaking an initial public offering.
Ismiel and her partner remain the sole owners of the company, with their three daughters running frontline in the company’s succession plan.
27. Tammy Barton
Revenue: $38 million
Tammy Barton began her entrepreneurial career at the age of 22 when she left a comfy job at an Adelaide law firm to launch a new budgeting service.
Despite early scepticism from all those around her, Barton has grown MyBudget into a company with more the 250 employees and $38 million in annual revenue. MyBudget now serves more than 65,000 people around Australia after growing 50% year-on-year during its first decade.
In 2015, Barton was named Female Entrepreneur of the Year at the inaugural Female Entrepreneur Awards. At the time, she spoke about the difficulties she faced when first starting out.
“I was a 22-year-old girl trying to break into the financial services sector, which is still dominated by men today,” she said.
“On top of that I was going through the process of creating a brand new service category, there were no other businesses like MyBudget and there still isn’t.”
28. Jo Burston
Company: Job Capital
Revenue: $37 million
Before embarking on a mission to build a global community of 1 million entrepreneurial women by 2020, Rare Birds founder and chief executive Jo Burston founded Job Capital, a successful recruitment agency that is turning over $37 million a year.
Burston is a renown advocate for inspiring young and girls and women to pursue entrepreneurship and has launched a range of initiatives to drive this effort, including Rare Birds’ digital funding platform.
In 2016 Burston launched an online program with innovation expert Dr Richard Seymour to teach young children the values of entrepreneurship, telling StartupSmart it’s important that young people across the world get the chance to build the skills and knowledge needed to pursue things they cared about.
“If you’ve got a mobile phone and access to the internet, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Bangladesh, Perth or Chicago, you should be able to learn entrepreneurship,” she said at the time.
29. Grace Chu
Company: Performics Australia (First Click Consulting)
Revenue: $33 million
Search marketing agency First Click Consulting was acquired by Publicis Groupe in 2015 and is now known as Performics Australia.
Founder Grace Chu remains chief executive of the company she originally founded in 2005, and whose clients include Amaysim, the Co-op Bookshop and Medibank. The company turns over an estimated $33 million each year.
Chu has previously told SmartCompany her approach to growing the business involved being selective about which clients the team took on.
“We resisted the temptation to take on everyone. You need to be able to turn away people who aren’t going to be worthwhile,” she said of the days after the global financial crisis, which First Click Consulting survived.
As Performics Australia, Chu’s business now fits into a global network of performance marketing businesses across the US, Europe and the Asia Pacific
30. Carla Zampatti
Company: Carla Zampatti
Revenue: $30 million*
Italian-born businesswoman Carla Zampatti established her influential fashion business in 1965 and more than 50 years later, Zampatti continues to put her stamp on Australians’ formal and workwear wardrobes.
In 2016, she designed a completely revised corporate uniform for Westpac, with a range of designs to cater for the broad range of locations and climates in which the bank’s staff work.
At the time, Zampatti told news.com.au the inspiration for the designs came from speaking to staff on the ground.
“Working closely with over 200 staff allowed me to immerse myself in the brand as well as understand the functionality required for various parts of the business,” she said of the creative process.