Sandrine Gaymard was a young tourist when she first ventured to Australia from her home country of France with her then boyfriend (now husband) Frederic, for what they thought would be just a little holiday down under.
“When we first came to Australia, it was just a vacation,” says Gaymard.
“I had a passion for Australia for a long time. I’d always thought there was a really fantastic connection between Australia and France, because our way of life is very similar.”
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Gaymard had been working for French designer Cartier in Paris and had become disenchanted by the excess wealth she saw, watching customers splash out tens of thousands of dollars on a dress. She and Frederic, who had been a mountaineer in France, were looking for something new and inspiring.
They found it travelling across the Australian landscape, “It was the land of opportunities,” says Gaymard.
“We thought it was a good place for everything, but particularly for business. This was a blank page for us, we felt like pioneers. We believed there were many opportunities to take and it was going to be an adventure.”
Fast-forward almost two decades and the Gaymards are now literally living that adventure every day, with three eco-tourism tree-top attraction parks in Sydney, Newcastle and the Central Coast.
The latter includes the newly opened 1km Crazy Rider zip line rollercoaster (the longest in the world), which is gaining international notoriety.
While the three TreeTop Adventure Parks turn over more than $2.5million for parent company Ecoline, Gaymard says say she still does it for the passion.
“I always tell my staff if at any stage I’m not passionate about it, if I receive a comment form a customer that isn’t good and I’m not freaking out, then tell me and I’ll get out of the business,” she laughs.
Gaymard sits down with SmartCompany to talk about how she convinced government regulators to back the business, why everything she does is eco-friendly, and the investors clambering at her door to part with big money to take the products overseas.
While Gaymard says she is up at about 6.30am to get her four children ready for school, she admits she is not naturally an early riser.
“My husband is the riser and I am the late worker,” she says. “I wish I didn’t have to, but very often I am working until one or two in the morning.”
She says work-life balance is something she struggles with, but she has gained a greater understanding of her own compulsion to work over time.
“I find no matter how many staff I hire to help me, I always try to do more. I realised that recently. I say, ‘when we are finished with this, I will have a bit of a rest’. But no, that never happens because I think, I want to do something else.”
“I find it’s a different balance from what I was seeking in the first instance when we started the business, but it is a balance.”
Gaymard travels between the three parks and does spend time out on the site, but says about 80% of her day is spent in front of the computer.
“Most of my day is checking operations and checking the business,” she says.
It hasn’t been an easy ride to get the business off the ground. The Gaymards have spent years convincing both banks and the government that their ideas were legitimate business proposals, complied with environment regulations and safe.
“The amount of paperwork we had to provide, it reached the limit of how much paperwork you can do,” laughs Gaymard, who says working on government land has been a particular challenge.
“We’ve been dealing with government for 16 years, so it has almost become an asset we have. We know all the boxes you have to tick, so it doesn’t worry us so much.”
Ecoline even scored a $200,000 Australian Government tourism grant for Crazy Rider, after convincing the government to let them build a twisting and turning roller coaster through the treetops of the Ourimbah State Forest.
She says resilience is an important part of being an entrepreneur. “We love challenges.”
Gaymard likens her business journey to the experience Ecoline provides its customers.
“It’s very much like our new product actually, with all the twists and turns,” she says.
It’s no coincidence the Gaymards are in the treetop adventure business – they are certainly the outdoors type. When they are not at the parks you will find them playing sport, bike riding, bushwalking, swimming, skiing or, of course, tree climbing.
Gaymard says the family are also enormously eco-conscious and she spends significant time teaching children about how to respectfully interact with the environment. When they spend time outdoors, they make sure to pick up any litter they see.
“I can see it worked too because my daughter will say that when she sees someone throw something on the ground at school, it upsets her,” she says.
Since they started the business, Gaymard says there has always been interest in exporting their adventure park concept overseas. But since the release of the Crazy Rider, which took two years of research and development, she says more investors have been knocking at her door.
“We had a video [of Crazy Rider] that went viral, and since then we have had requests from all over the world to become our distributor,” she says.
Gaymard says Ecoline will concentrate its energies on the Chinese, European and US markets in 2015.
And while she says she is excited about the possibilities of global expansion, she believes she gets the most satisfaction from some of the more philanthropic feats Ecoline is pulling off here in Australia, including free open days for the children of Camp Quality.
“Our vision was to provide access to our parks to as many as possible,” she says.
“And we have recently been able to get wheelchairs into the treetops with our new technology.“
“A parent came to me recently [after a day in the park] and said, this is the first time in five years we have been able to enjoy something. Being able to provide that to those people is absolutely amazing.”