Mike and Chris Millar gave up their corporate jobs to take on a small Dunedin food manufacturing business. After relocating it to Auckland they’ve never looked back.
It seems everyone’s a foodie these days – when we aren’t ordering fresh meal kits to the door or Marie Kondo-ing our kitchen cupboards we are sourcing delicious, healthy, sustainable and locally produced products for our pantries.
And it is this market of health-conscious, on-trend foodies that Mike and Chris Millar are targeting with the premium muesli and roasted seed topper products they manufacture under the brand name Something to Crow About. They focus on gluten-free, low-sugar, paleo-friendly muesli blends with options for vegans and those looking to avoid preservatives.
The couple both formerly held corporate roles, with Mike working as a business development manager and Chris working in marketing communications, and were looking for better balance in their lives.
“So, in 2014 Mike decided to hop off the corporate ladder and work closer to home,” says Chris. “We were interested in buying a business so we could take over something that was up and running and use our combined sales, marketing and operations skills to really add value and take it to the next level.”
As to why a food business, they had noticed the health and wellness sector was undergoing huge growth – particularly gluten-free foods.
“Although we had no food manufacturing experience we were keen to explore this area. We started looking at small food businesses around the country and came across Something to Crow About. The owner was running it on his own but had managed to grow his product range of seed toppers and mueslis and get some listed with Foodstuffs South Island. We saw the potential immediately.”
The couple bought the business in 2014, relocated it from Dunedin to near their home on Auckland’s Whangaparaoa Peninsula and are now working hard to ensure their range of healthy top-end products are available directly to consumers and through the major grocery chains.
For FMCG newbies they are racking up some impressive successes. The fact some products were already listed in Foodstuffs South Island was helpful in getting into more South Island New World stores.
“This was a great starting point for us to launch into Foodstuffs North Island in 2015. The premium muesli sector really started taking off in 2014, with new players joining the market at the time we bought STCA,” says Chris. “We took time to do some market and competitor analysis which led to us adjusting our pricing and redesigning our packaging.
“With this sorted we presented our new look to Foodstuffs North Island and a little later Progressive (Countdown).”
Their roasted seed toppers are perfect over salads and understanding this led them to reassess that product’s position in grocery.
“We approached the produce team at Countdown with the goal of getting them [seed toppers] placed beside ready-packed salads. This has resulted in this product range being sold in 144 Countdown supermarkets.”
Their muesli range started off in a very small way with Countdown.
“This was a learning curve for us as we assumed being in Countdown meant supplying a large number of stores, which was a little scary at the time. However, working with the buyer we launched into one store; and then over a year a couple of our best-selling mueslis were rolled out to approximately 40 stores.”
The couple say it is about knowing your market and making a good case for your product to be in store.
“Have a reason to meet with the buyers regularly to build relationships and discuss new product development, data and market information or marketing activity, for example. Getting shelf space is key and having a unique product that stands out from your competition is crucial.”
Buyers like products that are on trend and meet consumer demand.
Adjusting to a different world
Moving from a corporate environment to owning a small business hasn’t been without its challenges. The couple went from working in a vibrant office of 50 staff to a very small team; from having clear job descriptions and objectives to being involved in every aspect of the business and juggling multiple issues and projects.
There’s also the matter of having smaller budgets to work with.
However, on the plus side they say it’s much easier to innovate, change direction and adapt quickly.
Along with learning all aspects of food manufacturing, moving the business to Auckland meant finding new suppliers, establishing business processes, and finding staff. They have also adjusted to working with each other and try not to bring ‘work talk’ home.
One of the hardest things has been not always knowing which direction to take and ensuring they have enough resources. They now employ seven staff – both full time and part time.
Other challenges have included managing rapid growth – which has meant making decisions around the timing of hiring new kitchen staff, managing physical space in the factory and timing the purchase of new processing equipment (previously they hand-filled and weighed every bag of muesli).
“In 2016 our factory was bursting at the seams. We forced ourselves to imagine our business being four times bigger and then found a facility large enough to grow with us. We also took advice from other food manufacturers. Eddie Grooten from Dad’s Pies gave us some great ideas around set-up and managing space.”
As to whether they can pay themselves a good income, they say rapid growth and the move to the new premises means they invested heavily in fitting out the facility for food manufacturing.
“More recently we have been able to draw a regular salary,” says Chris. “Although the occasional month does require this to be forgone for things like new ovens and equipment. We understand that this is all part of building a successful business.”
And what is the best part of being business owners?
“We love the fact that more than 20,000 people choose to buy Something to Crow About products every month. It shows we’re making delicious products that people keep coming back for, which keeps us super motivated.”
They also get to work on the parts of the business each is interested in. Mike is head of operations and sales, with Chris in charge of marketing, food safety and new product development.
Working close to home means they can also be around for their
As to what advice they would give to others thinking of going into business, they say find a fantastic product you can relate to.
“For us breakfast, in particular muesli, was something we were really into. We ate homemade muesli for years, as we struggled to find something delicious, but not full of sugar,” says Chris.
They also say prospective business owners should have enough funds to cover the first 12 to 24 months, as most of what you make will be re-invested in this growth period.
“Set audacious goals and then work towards them. For example, we aimed to double our growth year-on-year for three years running, and we achieved this.”