Born to the business
Necessity was the mother of invention for Christine Kininmonth when she developed the Belly Belt to turn her regular clothes into maternity outfits.
Christine Kininmonth just wanted to sell her beloved VW Golf.
A prospective buyer rejected her car but opted to invest in her "very crude" invention, the curiously named Belly Belt. Less than a decade later, Kininmonth and her "business angel" Peter Hooker have taken their fledgling company, Fertile Mind, into international markets and earned the plaudits of pregnant women around the world. An innovative maternity wear company that employs six people, Fertile Mind now sells products such as maternity tank tops, dresses and the Belly Bra to support pregnant stomachs - and, of course, the Belly Belt.
In 1988, Kininmonth became Australia's youngest metropolitan prime-time newsreader at the age of 22 while working at Capital Television in Canberra. Now a panelist on ABC TV's New Inventors program, she also reads for Sky News and works in media training. It is for maternity products, however, that Kininmonth seems destined to be best known.
Made to order
Pregnant with her first child in 1996, Kininmonth was battling a perennial problem for soon-to-be mothers - getting her clothes to fit. In frustration, she fashioned a piece of elastic into a belt that allowed her to convert regular clothes into maternity wear and keep adjusting them as the baby grew.
"Like most pregnant women, I was using rubber bands and pieces of string initially to keep up my trousers while I was hiding my pregnancy from work colleagues ... so I made the Belly Belt for myself," Kininmonth recalls.
"A lot of people did comment on my wonderful 'maternity-wear' and I would show them the Belly Belt in action. There were so many cries of 'I wish I'd thought of that!' and 'What a clever idea' that I thought there may be a little business in selling it. However, I read that women often think small in business, whereas men think big. I decided then and there that I would think big."
Thinking big still left Kininmonth with a problem. She had conducted extensive research into her invention and its possible markets. She had addressed packaging and manufacturing issues, and she had spent plenty of time on her living room floor gluing photocopied mock-ups of the packaging artwork on to samples.
However, she was $12,000 in debt, most of it owed to a packaging design company. Exit her VW Golf and enter Peter Hooker. Would-be car owner Hooker, an equities analyst who had resigned the day before he met Kininmonth, came on board in 1998. He bought half the business before a single Belly Belt was sold.
More importantly, Kininmonth admits, he brought "much-needed business nous" to the table.
Initially embarrassed to reveal to Hooker "the chaotic inside running" of the business, she quickly appreciated the chance to hand him the financial reins so she could focus on home life, a part-time newsreading career and marketing the Belly Belt.
"The best thing I ever did was to give up half the company early on and watch it grow far more quickly with two people at the helm," she says.
A baby booming market
That Fertile Mind is today thriving on the back of a touch of ingenuity should come as no great surprise.
Born and raised on a sheep grazing property in Gippsland in Victoria, Kininmonth's great-great uncle H.V. McKay invented the Sunshine Harvester after tiring of working the wheat thresher on his family's farm.
An inventive streak is in the blood. And while birth rates in the Western world are in decline, Fertile Mind has a ready market that Kininmonth claims is "quite recession-proof".
Competitors lurk, however, and to ensure steady sales throughout the year Kininmonth and Hooker make exports a priority.
Stung initially by an enthusiast in Britain who was keen to sell the Belly Belt but who was unable to secure any major distribution, they have since taken advantage of the federal government trade body Austrade to source reputable distributors in offshore markets. The business now sells more than 90,000 units a year, with exports making up about two-thirds of sales.
"(Austrade's assistance) has saved us a lot of grief and money," Kininmonth says. "We now export to 30 countries. The US is our best performer, as the chain stores there are so huge. We are in more than 3000 stores in the US, which represents only three store chains."
The goal is to establish Fertile Mind as a household name with women. In the meantime, the emphasis is on ensuring that the business evolves.
Kininmonth, who was inducted into the Australian Businesswomen's Hall of Fame in 2000, says regular celebrations and fresh ideas keep the business ticking over.
"Little wins are written up on our 'champagne moments' board and keep me smiling. We realised early on that big wins don't happen often, so we ensure we acknowledge all the little wins."
Now a mother of three and with another on the way, Kininmonth still enjoys the corporate life and contact with her staff. "Dressing up in a suit and feeling professional is a great deviation from cleaning out the guinea pig cage."
The three Fs
Business goals for Kininmonth and Hooker are deceptively straightforward: they aim to run a company that gives them financial rewards, flexibility and a friendly atmosphere.
Staff are crucial. Hiring and employee management philosophies reflect a determination to run a company that genuinely cares.
"We keep open books so everyone knows how the company is performing," says Kininmonth, who adds that the maternity-based company practises what it preaches.
"One staff member was employed while she was pregnant and we have set up a work station at her home while her baby is young. She's now begging us to let her come back to work - which we'll welcome."
Kininmonth concedes that at one point Fertile Mind's workplace was not fun. "At times you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife", because of the pressure to increase sales and profitability. She now realises that a great atmosphere and culture inside a business is as important as profit and cash flow.
Mistakes have been made along the way, many of which Kininmonth attributes to a huge learning curve.
"However, I do regret not thanking people adequately in the start-up phase. I was so busy and focused on my needs. I am sure I took for granted the enormous help I was given by so many people."
There are other tips for aspiring business owners:
• Swallow your pride and admit you need help.
• Remember you will need more money than you think.
• Aim to offer 100 per cent mark-up for stockists, and more for larger chains.
• Define your core business and "stick to your knitting".
While Fertile Mind is doing quite well, Kininmonth's dream reflects her down-to-earth style:
"Perfecting my compost heap and starting my veggie patch is probably about as over-the-horizon as I get!"
• You will need more money than you think
• Stick to your core business
• Workplace culture is as important as profits.
Published on: Thursday, June 18, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus