Suzie Johnson’s a woman on a mission – empowering small-town New Zealand one small town at a time. Having opened ten retail outlets in seven years she’s on a roll.
Suzie Johnson didn’t set out to be a retail rock star. She’s a trained nurse whose talent for art and jewellery-making saw her selling her wares at markets. Then, in order to put her husband through an engineering degree at Massey University, she set up shop in Shannon. The next stop was Woodville, then Napier, then across to Taihape and, more recently, New Plymouth.
Suzie Johnson is the entrepreneur behind the Oosh brand. “It’s 80s slang for great and good and fabulous,” she says. “It’s even in the dictionary.”
Behind Suzie is husband Kiwi Johnson, engineer turned business manager, IT specialist, strategist. “If it was just me running this business there’s no way it would be so successful. I’m all over the place. I’m the ideas person.
He’s the rock, my opposite,” says Suzie.
While Johnson’s work was a success at markets, making her first Shannon outlet viable was another story. “Everyone laughed at me. They said everyone’s tried to make this town work. You’re mad. You’ll need an axe under the counter – it was regarded as a bit dodgy back then. It was a mission to change people’s perception and turn it into a destination boutiques town.”
To galvanise Shannon she talked. “I’d bought the shop and we were down to $5 in our bank account and I had to make it work. So I started with the council. I sat down with [mayor] Brendan Duffy and his CEO David Ward and said ‘Right boys, I want to change this town’. But instead of saying ‘You’re not doing this’ and ’You’re not doing that’ I went about it in a really positive way. We started by beautifying Shannon and making it a place where people would want to stop and shop.”
But hanging flower baskets and painting the loos doesn’t guarantee visitors. Johnson kept talking. “I talked at Rotary; I talked at Lions. I joined BNI. I’d talk to anyone who would listen.” Today she can proudly report there’s no retail space available in Shannon where she currently has four outlets; and Woodville, where she now has three, is fast running out.
There’s nothing random in the Johnson’s choice of small towns. Criteria include a main highway location 20 minutes from a large main centre, a petrol station and a Four Square. That 20 minutes is important so it’s an easy drive for families, she says.
Finding staff in small towns is not always easy, nor is attracting people to work in retail. Johnson sells the career path aspect when hiring. “As we grow we’re going to need more people. So we don’t just hire them and say ‘here’s the till, go for it’.
“And it’s ongoing to keep them learning and wanting to stay with us.” Today Johnson has over 40 staff. “My girls are awesome. It’s a team effort.”
The Oosh niche is stylish womenswear designed for the New Zealand figure; understanding that often less-than-svelte shape is important. It’s also the focus of Johnson’s un-PC fundraiser ‘Wot to Wear and Not to Wear’. The show’s about self-esteem. She’s not aiming to be New Zealand’s answer to television’s Trinny and Susannah, she simply wants to empower women to like the skin they’re in.
“Kiwi women are pretty curvy so it’s about understanding that you can dress nicely even if you’re curvy and you’ve got big boobs or bum.”
Many of the centres where Johnson performs do not, yet, have an Oosh outlet but shoppers can order online. She doesn’t see a conflict between bricks and clicks, it’s about moving with the times, she says. “You’ve got to be proactive. You can’t sit back and wait for people to walk in the door.”
The volume of online sales is small but growing, and in doing so will create further job opportunities.
The popularity of the Oosh brand has led to the establishment of a Napier manufacturing operation. Proximity to the port, should exporting become an option, was a factor in the choice of location. “Being made in New Zealand has real advantages. We’re able to get samples into the stores and, if they rock, put them straight back on the line. We sold 40 of one style in three days recently so I knew it was a winner and had it repeating in other colours on the line the next week.” Pricing is competitive and being ‘NZ made’ by New Zealanders is building brand loyalty.
The bricks and mortar the stores occupy are owned by the Johnsons and leased back to the outlets, each of which is expected to be self-funding. “We borrowed against our home for the first one. It was a calculated risk but you’ve got to take risks to get ahead. Growth is organic. For instance, Taihape had no signage or heat-pump for a couple of weeks until we had the money to pay for it.”
Suzie Johnson believes she can do anything – but not everything. Having the right team behind her, plus well drafted policies and procedures is essential. She’s a designer with no formal rag trade training. “I employ people that know what they’re doing. I’ve employed a pattern-maker, a cutter, a supervisor who runs the line and skilled machinists.”
She’s future proofing with a Fashion Tech graduate coming up through the ranks and she and Kiwi are currently planning for Suzie to take a less hands-on role.
Time management is Johnson’s greatest challenge. “We’ve five kids under 12 and need to make sure we have enough time for our family and our lives, not just the business. Business can eat you alive if you let it.”
Understanding cashflow has also tested Johnson. “Cash is king. Kiwi is my handbrake with the money side.”
Johnson is proud of what she and Kiwi have achieved; “creating so many jobs, a staunch following of women who love the brand, making a difference.” The doors that have opened for her have helped her self-esteem, she says. “Like DJ-ing on More FM for three years – that would never have happened without Oosh – and the success of my book.” (Johnson self-published The Book, a light-hearted look at life, in 2011)
It can be hard work, she says. “I didn’t realise what business was like when we started. It was head down, sleeves rolled up and do it. I made sure I had funky things at affordable prices and offered good old-fashioned service. I’ve made mistakes but you learn from those and move on.”
The good thing about small towns is you stick out, says Johnson. “It’s easy to establish a brand.” She’d like to see more women using their skills and doing what she’s done – “starting little businesses and employing people. It doesn’t have to grow into a beast like we’ve got!
“Small town New Zealand needs more people with vision; people not afraid to try something new. If you fail you get up and try something else. It’s just feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”
And she’s an advocate of paying it forward. “Doing things for people without expecting anything back. I think that’s why we’re doing as well as we are.”
Patricia Moore is a freelance business writer. Email [email protected]