It’s March 2020. Toilet-paper wars are tearing neighbourhoods apart. Handshakes are a borderline indictable offence.
Doomsday preppers have found a lucrative hole in the black market selling their ancient sourdough starters, and national press conferences are suddenly regarded with as much interest as The Bachelor finale.
However, businesswoman Carolyn Creswell is far away from the warfare in aisle 12.
She’s shacked up at her family farmhouse just south of Melbourne, co-ordinating a virtual taste testing for her team — the first of many, in a year of pivots.
Creswell is the owner and CEO of household muesli brand Carman’s. She’s also an oracle.
While the rest of us were busy enjoying the new year in unadulterated, blissful oblivion, Creswell had her eye on this strange new virus. She watched with growing concern as it trickled across airports and slipped into communities without anyone batting an eye.
Carman’s head of innovation was due to join the tide, booked at an international tradeshow in America, but Creswell pulled the plug, increasingly concerned with the rapid spread of the virus. By lunchtime, the tradeshow was cancelled anyway.
Although coronavirus had not yet hit Australia, Creswell said the situation in other countries was enough of an indicator for her to begin serious preparations.
On the new leadership podcast Curveball, Creswell hints at the gut instinct she’s known for, in deciding to step up, rather than scale back, her food manufacturing empire.
“I remember saying: ‘Look guys, I think this is going to hit Australia, and we need to start buying up because we panic-buy and any one of our factories could be shut down.’ I wanted to make sure we had plenty of packaging and plenty of stock,” she told Curveball host Kellie Riordan.
With the gift of hindsight, this approach seems like a perfectly reasonable business decision.
But at the time, when people were still hugging and clubbing and coronavirus seemed a distant problem with little discernible impact on the production of Australian muesli bars, it was met with a degree of opposition.
As it turns out though, these precautionary steps were the secret ingredient to Carman’s success.
Accurately recognising the point at which a novel, foreign virus becomes an imminent threat to local operations is an incredible balancing act, but Creswell describes herself as the kind of leader who ‘goes with their gut’.
In this case, her gut instinct placed Carman’s in a position where it had both the stock and logistical foresight to support a mammoth 50% increase in sales in a single month.
But it wasn’t without risk and many sleepless nights as staff worked to increase stock levels.
“Just to physically increase a business the size of ours to that level was an enormous amount of work,” she said.
“I remember at points some of our clients were saying: ‘We will buy anything that you can deliver to us, just whatever you can give us.’
“And other times they said to us: ‘Just give us the best-selling lines because we physically can’t unpack every one of your products. We’re just going to make sure we’re just in stock of your best sellers.’
“So it was kind of crazy times.”
It is this sort of intuition that has seen Creswell successfully steer Carman’s into trolleys and lunchboxes across Australia for 30 years.
That’s not to say it was constant smooth sailing.
In 2003, her products were deleted from a major supermarket, which she said was a harrowing moment in her career.
“Obviously, if you’ve got a business that sells food, your big dream is to sell in the two big major supermarkets in Australia,” she said.
But we had our whole range deleted in one phone call. And it was really heartbreaking.”
Yet, as a self-proclaimed ‘chief risk taker’, Creswell finds value in each stumbling block and recognises the important lessons they provide.
“If you are not having any failures, you’re not taking enough risks and you’re not trying hard enough,” she said.
Despite her remarkable career and the fact many companies have been working in a digital environment for years pre-pandemic, it may be surprising to hear that March 2020 was the first time Creswell had ever joined a video conference meeting.
Now, of course, she’s well-versed in Zoom etiquette (decent lighting, with the camera at an appropriate angle to hide any lurking chins) and said that she can’t imagine Carman’s going back to operating the way it did pre-COVID-19.
“It’s been such a massive learning curve, having never done a video conference meeting ever in my career. I think it’s taught me a lot in that moving forward, we will potentially operate in a different way,” she said.
“I can imagine we might have people in our workforce that will maybe occasionally come to the office, but I don’t think we will ever go back to how we were operating before.
It seems that even with the onslaught of setbacks 2020 has hurled at business leaders, Creswell has enough resilience, optimism, and oat-based snack foods to persevere through the trying times and come out stronger on the other side.