A passion redefined
Catherine van der Meulen reflects on a remarkable career in the fast fashion industry and celebrates her new passion for business coaching from her Marlborough base. It was a ‘space coaching’ session following a Women in Focus conference in Australia that sparked a change in course for Catherine van der Meulen. The single mother values […]
Catherine van der Meulen reflects on a remarkable career in the fast fashion industry and celebrates her new passion for business coaching from her Marlborough base.
It was a ‘space coaching’ session following a Women in Focus conference in Australia that sparked a change in course for Catherine van der Meulen. The single mother values both space and time and admits to never having enough of either. And considering her business and marketing background that’s hardly surprising.
That session had been held the same day she was travelling to New Zealand with her two children for a holiday at the family home in Marlborough. The coach had asked Catherine how she wanted to spend her days; what was important to her; what would make her happy; and how she wanted to feel when waking up every day.
It got her thinking – as did reading Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-hour Work Week and Gabby Bernstein’s May Cause Miracles. “It opened my mind to a different realm of possibility about earning an income, working less and living the life that you truly want to.”
Until then her life had largely revolved around the family-owned fashion empire founded by her parents Hans and Helen van der Meulen in Australia in 1984. An empire anchored on the SUPRÉ brand which was acquired by the Cotton On Group in 2013.
The end result of that session was Catherine opening the next chapter of her life in Marlborough in January this year and subsequently launching her business THiNK Business Coaching.
She describes it as “putting lifestyle first and allowing a business to mold around the lifestyle I want”.
“I can run my business from home, continue to connect with businesses all over New Zealand, and build strong partnerships to create meaningful growth in my business that relies less on me trading my time,” she explains. “I made a conscious decision that I needed to be smarter about how I spent my time.”
Catherine had already started business coaching seven years ago to learn new skills; to support other like-minded business people whilst learning from them. She describes her style as “unique” – asking a lot of questions and getting clients to think beyond their perceived limitations. She believes many businesses fail because they lack a holistic view of their growth.
“They focus on financial gain, profitability and wealth creation but forget about the social, community and environmental impact, and the true reason why they’re in business; what fills them with purpose, drive and happiness,” explains Catherine.
Her USP is her diverse range of experience including 15 years with the family business, owning and selling her own small businesses, and working with global organisations and SMEs across various sectors.
For Catherine, the future of business is the combining of the For Profit and Not for Profit sectors into one entity, and the emergence of ‘For Purpose’ businesses where there is still healthy profit but it’s for the greater good of the world.
The future of fashion
While admitting she no longer has the same level of passion for the fast fashion industry as she once had, Catherine has nevertheless increased her industry knowledge in recent years. She believes the industry is not sustainable and “doing more harm than good on so many levels”.
The big trends she has noticed include the ongoing merging and consolidating of major players, and educated customers demanding more transparency and truth from brands they love. Documentaries such as The True Cost have sparked greater awareness of the industry’s human and environmental impact, she says. “Today there must be a focus on creating an industry that ensures everyone wins – not just the shareholders.”
Customers are becoming more conscious about their purchases and shopping behaviours, she adds, and are reconsidering the concept of ‘reuse, recycle, repair’.
For brand and marketing managers, Catherine’s message is to create brands with purpose; build meaningful messages; build brands that empower people to create change and “do more with what we have”. It’s about building deep relationships and creating a three-dimensional context to the brand, as well as leaving a legacy to be proud of, she believes.
If she was to launch a fashion brand now Catherine says its key marketing messages would be based on truth, transparency and social impact – answering questions such as: Where, how, and by who, was the product made? What is its social and environmental impact? And, how is the product serving the world for the greater good?
“Then it’s about bundling all of those things up to educate, inform and empower customers to make more mindful decisions through key marketing messages and campaigns.”
Catherine doesn’t see fast fashion as an industry of the future. Her advice to players is to take a helicopter view of your business to re-evaluate its model and make it sustainable.
Catherine went straight from school to working in the family business. It was simply assumed and expected that she would follow the family’s pathway in the fashion industry.
Now she questions whether it was meant to be her journey.
“When I started I loved what I did,” she recalls.
“I was passionate and driven. We were creating transformational change; leading a new generation business model.
“However, for me, there was always something missing.
“Over the years my father and I certainly had many disagreements about the way things were done and what the future of the business could look like,” she says. “When I look back I now know that ultimately we were misaligned in our values.”
No matter what kind of organisation you’re in, if your values are not aligned then it will be a short-lived experience, Catherine suggests.
She’s referring to underlying values – “the ones you often don’t find out about until you are entrenched in the organisation”.
“My advice here is to trust your intuition. If there are things that don’t feel right, uncover the reason why and ask more questions. A misalignment of values can breed toxicity and unhappiness.”
If you’re in a family business, Catherine recommends that you continuously ask ‘why not?’
An example is an idea her father had back in the SUPRÉ days for a mobile credit card transaction facility that facilitated payments on the shop floor.
“He was ahead of his time in his thinking, but it always made me constantly question the realm of possibility and ask the question – why not?”
Catherine remembers she never took much notice of what was happening outside the world of fashion, teenage girls, music, social life or the daily running of the business. She was ‘living and breathing’ SUPRÉ.
She regrets not broadening her interests beyond the family business. “More often than not the conversation would be all about business and would fuel various personal interests and confrontations. I wish I’d never taken it all so personally and had left the emotion out of it,” she says. “But that becomes even more challenging when you’re working with people you love and whose opinion you value.”
Highlights and regrets
Like any business career, Catherine’s has had its highs and lows. The big highlight was helping transform a business that was in voluntary administration when she started there, into a 160-store business connecting the world of teenage girls with a purpose.
That connection ran deep with the annual Healthy Body, Healthy Mind campaign – “empowering young girls to love the skin they’re in, eat healthy food and have a clean, positive mind built on self-worth.”
Creating music with leading producers and DJs worldwide (“music was at the heart of SUPRÉ”) is another love Catherine particularly misses.
As for regrets? The one Catherine thinks about most often is leaving the family business. She remembers one particular argument with her father over something she was passionate about, but which he didn’t want to invest in.
“I told him he could have his business and make the decisions he wanted for the future, as I would no longer be a part of it – with a few variances on choice of words!
“These ‘conversations’ had brewed for 15 years working together so it wasn’t the first, but I had certainly had enough of not being heard and dad overruling decisions that I’d made in an effort to move the business forward.”
After SUPRÉ was sold Catherine regretted not fighting hard enough to keep it in the family.
“I felt we were giving it away, but I no longer had a voice to contribute to the conversation.
“But nearly six years on, the grief has been processed and the regrets are long gone,” she says.
And in beautiful Marlborough she’s found the perfect location for that new beginning.
ON MOTHERHOOD AND BUSINESS
A meaningful future – that’s what Catherine wishes for her children Scarlett and Samson. She wants to show them what a meaningful business and life means and that business can be harnessed for the greater good of the world.
Life education is as important as school education, she believes, and life is about helping those less fortunate.
“I don’t want them to just be raised by my thinking but explore their own creative minds with what’s possible; who they want to be and how they want to live their lives.
“Not long after I had Scarlett, I left the family business. And not long after I had Samson, I left my husband, as I now felt like I needed to control my future and my happiness without the boundaries of my father’s thinking or ex-husband’s thinking.
“I’ve been on a mission to break the patterns I carried through my childhood and these were two big steps to move that forward.”
Catherine’s advice for mothers juggling family and business commitments is to ask some hard questions about how you are living your life. What’s important? How can you have more quality time with your family? What’s the true meaning of life? Then plan to make all these happen.
“It’s an ongoing mental project to fit in everything you want to do in life, but it all comes down to the truth of your priorities.”