Since opening her first outlet in 2000, the Australian entrepreneur now has more than 500 Boost Juice, Cibo Espresso and Salsa’s Fresh Mex stores globally. The executive director of Retail Zoo attributes her business success to looking within.
You’ve said you didn’t grow up with money. What did you learn in your childhood that ultimately became useful in business?
I grew up in a little bubble. It was a rural area with dirt roads and no public transport so you’d walk the six kilometres to school and back. And it was a rough school. There was no Year 12 and university wasn’t discussed – or anything else, really, other than going into hairdressing or becoming a secretary. In some respects, having a relatively limited outlook allowed me to not have preconceived ideas about what work or the real world should be. At 21, I packed my bags and went overseas for six-and-a-half years — a massive learning curve for a seriously naïve girl.
It must have been interesting coming from that background to working as a steward on David Bowie’s yacht.
As far as I was concerned, if you were famous you were superhuman. But what you discover, serving and living with famous people every day for weeks, is that Patrick Stewart is not the captain of the starship Enterprise, you know? The famous, just like the fishermen I’d come across, are human: flawed; nice or not so nice. So when I entered the business world, I never looked at anyone as being more important than someone else.
Have your experiences influenced your parenting?
I’m very conscious of not making my four children entitled brats and ensuring they value the dollar. I appreciated my first car because I worked at Target to get it. I think kids are too soft and I can’t stand it at schools when everybody gets a participation award and everything is so controlled – it’s ridiculous. Sometimes you lose and sometimes you win. Many times, Jeff [Allis’s husband and Retail Zoo executive chairman] and I have travelled at the front of the plane with our kids up the back because we think, “You can’t just get everything. We worked hard to sit at the front of the plane. You need to work to get there, too.”
Do you let them make their own decisions?
Look, I’m a fixer. I want to fix things. When my son, who is now 26 years old, went through the teenage years and had challenges, I kept trying to fix everything. What I discovered was that the best thing I could do for my son was to do nothing for him. And he has blossomed into the man I always dreamed he would be.
When you were considering opening your first Boost Juice store in Adelaide, you had your father-in-law sit outside the site to see who walked by...
I managed cinemas when I returned to Australia but I had never hired anyone. My business experience was as a nanny and a steward. But I did know my numbers. I knew the store’s rent and the products’ costs. So my wonderful father-in-law literally counted how many women, aged 25 to 34, and how many men passed by. The poor man would go, “Oh gosh, how old is she?” It gave us at least an understanding that, yes, this might work.
Was there a moment when you decided to scale the business?
We never wanted one [store]. We didn’t have the capital so we had the fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude of convincing landlords to give us 20 sites and we’d somehow work out a way to fund them all. I didn’t know whether our sales were good, bad or indifferent. My youngest son was seven months old; I had a two-year-old boy running around and another boy at school. I didn’t have time for anything other than getting the job done. But when we opened our first store in a shopping centre [in Marion, South Australia], we saw the capabilities of the concept: a kiosk that could fit into 16 square metres. We went, “See where that palm tree is? We’ll put it there. You see that set of chairs? Let’s put it there.” Because of the small footprint, we had the flexibility to grow quickly. In four years we grew from zero to 100 stores.
What was the biggest challenge early on?
Probably that point where you haven’t got the money to hire enough people of calibre. I used to read a lot of books about McDonald’s, Starbucks, Flight Centre and any business that had been successful in Australia. Without exception, it was a lumpy ride. There are times when you have to think of it as a battle where you attack yourself as much as anyone else to achieve what you need to.
Would you do anything differently?
I’d do nothing differently because of where we got to eventually. But I think I’d tell my young self: “Have more confidence. Don’t just blindly follow so-called expertise, because no-one knows your business like you do.” And you need to understand that if something goes
up like a rocket, you have to prepare for it to go down for a period of time. Sales were declining in 2004/05 and the first thing you do is blame the fact that traffic is down in shopping centres or the political environment or anything else external. It’s only when you look within that you realise, growing that quickly, training, quality and customer service had dropped. There were times when I could have rocked quietly in a corner because of the stress. But only by looking within do you have the ability to fix the business.
Did you experience pangs when you decided to sell most of your stake in Boost Juice?
I never got hooked on the percentage I owned. I got hooked on control. I don’t own the percentage I used to but the percentage I own is a lot more valuable than it has ever been. You come across businesspeople who are so caught up in making sure they have 70 per cent or whatever that they damage the growth of their business. I became an expert in shareholders agreements. You can control a business with five per cent if that’s how it’s written in the shareholders agreement.
What did you notice early on about private equity?
I would say to anyone looking at private equity: success gives you freedom. If you’re successful, the private equity company that buys into your business doesn’t want to touch it because they might break it. There are also some who want to change things because of ego. The best private equity firms go, “We know what we’re good at and we’ll help you in those areas.” For example, we’re always considering acquisitions to bring into the Retail Zoo family so we look to our private equity partners to do the negotiation, the due diligence and the exit. Without these private equity businesses, how do business founders ever have an exit? Jeff and I came from no money, we sold our family home and we put everything on the line to grow this business. Of course there are dividends but at what point can you actually realise some of the hard work in a financial sense?
As a “shark” on Australian television show
Shark Tank, you must feel variously frustrated and inspired by the contestants pitching their businesses to you...
Sometimes you do roll your eyes when a contestant says, “I’ve got no sales, no proof, my friends think it’s a good idea and I want a million dollars.” What planet? I put people in one of two categories: VERB (Victim, Entitled, needs to be Rescued and Blames the world) or SOAR (Solutions, Ownership, Accountability and Responsibility). When you come across someone who says, “These were my problems and this is how we dealt with them,” it’s great because business is about being a fantastic problem-solver.
“There were times when I could have rocked quietly in a corner because of the stress.” JANINE ALLIS