My Two Year Business Course – Part 1

The Wool and Ewe Story. – September 16th, 1999 – September 11, 2001

I joined an old South Australian wool growing family in 1985 and soon learnt the wonderful properties and value of this ancient fibre. I learnt to class the family clip and the fine properties that make wool such a versatile fibre.

Historically, Australia is renowned for producing some of the worlds’ finest woolen fabrics supplying European designers, tailors and the international fashion industry at large. Domestically, wool was reserved for practical garments such as hand knitted jumpers, gloves and socks.

In early 1999, we lived in the South East region of SA and I met a local clothing designer from a wool growing family. She was making wonderful jumpers from fine wool, spun in South Australia and selling them locally. She wanted to expand into producing shirts and suiting and take her clothing to the general public at affordable prices.

This made so much sense to me and I found my passion – the need to tell the wool story. We could display Wool in such way that people would feel at home and wear this glorious fibre as it should be worn. A concept store that would make the customer feel that they had come home and would love to learn more about the wool story. I had a vision and needed to bring others along with me.

I decided I needed to research my idea which led me to read the “E-Myth’ By Michael Gerber and many texts about the Australian wool industry. I learned that Australian companies were already making beautiful fine wool underwear, t-shirts and wool blend jeans for women, men and children. There were shirts, jumpers and trousers from all over the country, available to all if only they knew about them.

I wrote a business plan that accounted for everything – the Point of Sale system, signage, procedure manuals, inventory management, ordering systems, how to fold and visually merchandise the clothing, marketing plans, publicity, visions, budgets, brochures, accessories, colour schemes, displays – I took my time and I researched thoroughly.

It took me 6 months to plan the retail outlet and to set up a working agreement with a local interior designer. We included other labels in the store but focused predominantly on clothing made from wool and wool blends. Highlights in our range were wool/denim blend jeans in 12 fabulous colours including traditional blue denim – machine washable and safe to tumble dry. These wool/denim jeans were warmer in winter, cooler in summer and provided years of comfort and wear. We added more products from Australian textiles: linen shirts, wool and silk scarves, wool socks and a beautiful range of moisturisers and cosmetics made from lanolin, the highly prized oil naturally occurring in wool. Our focus became Australian made and natural fibres.

This may prove harder to achieve today as there may not be enough Australian manufacturers making as broad a range of products.

A local designer was contracted to bring my vision to life and I truly loved seeing it evolve. Plum cornices with gold walls, wool carpets, a timber counter, red gum framed farm photos on the walls, large change rooms, bales of wool, chairs to sit on, timber display units to display the jeans and the display racks were covered in cherry timber. It truly was a beautiful vision.

We opened the first ‘Wool & Ewe’ store in September 1999 with champagne and a guest list of local dignitaries. Our first sale actually occurred before we had opened the doors officially; a lady travelling from Adelaide spent $315.00 in one transaction and we were thrilled!

The shop was beautiful. People visiting from all over South Australia, Australia and even internationally would remark on its atmosphere, colour scheme, displays, customer service and even the 7-day trading hours.

We priced according to making a profit on each sale and never discounted. The staff were required to wear our clothing whilst in the shop and could purchase at cost price. To me, they were our best advertising and advocates.

Simultaneously to working in the store 7 days a week, I had 3 children of primary school age and helped my husband to run the family farm.

Expansion was in the plans.

We hired a business coach in 2000 to enable us to grow.

We hired an operations manager to help us to decide on the direction of the business.

We opened a second store in 2000 in a large neighbouring town.

Staff training was imperative and took place each month – customer service, modelling, displays, visual merchandising and operation of the computers were some of the topics. Staff input was encouraged to keep up with fashion and customer input.

Shortly after we started, the Australian government introduced the Goods and Services Tax (GST) that was a difficult set back to us and many other small businesses. Inventory management became harder and we had to install a scanner and automatic Point of Sale system.

We used some of the first computerised inventory management programs, provided our customers with the option of EFTPOS, Lay-By and email campaigns.

In time we launched our own label ‘Wool & Ewe’ and oversaw the contract manufacturing of staple items such as coats, shirts and accessories.

Our marketing included fashion parades which we presented using our own staff, friends and family. We believed that using real models was the best way to demonstrate that wool is for everyone – accessible, affordable, practical and beautiful. We presented our parades wherever our target audience congregated – at fundraisers, football clubs, town halls and even once off the back of a truck! As well as promoting to our immediate region, we had stands and marquees at field days and exhibited at the Royal Adelaide Show where our clothes were included in the professionally choreographed wool fashion parades.

I was regularly asked to be a guest speaker at small business events and made use of the local media, including print, radio and television.

Everything was planned and costed.

I had so much fun and loved every minute of our business, but it was hard work as we all know running your own business is. I believed in ‘Wool & Ewe’ and was prepared for a long slog.

The sleepless nights wondering how I could pay the staff and do a better job seemed worth it at the time.

In part two, I will comment on how this experience taught me so much more than I knew.

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