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Shades of success

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What follows is one of the most surprising stories ever dug out of the S Files. The S Files? The small business files, of course!

Apart from being quite an exceptional tale, it can teach an important lesson. But more on that later.

The largest privately owned, coolest eyewear company in Australia is run and owned by a woman who is close to 70 years old. And the business was created 33 years ago while salesmen queued up to see her in bed.

Who is this person?

Betty Lasse is the pocket dynamo behind Sunshades Eyewear, which is the largest privately owned sunglass and optical company in Australia. The company is the biggest supplier to Myer with leading Australian brands including Oroton, Morrissey, Mooks, Marcs, Fiorelli, Maxum and Voodoo Dolls.

The company had 46 employees in its Sydney firm. But all of this is a long way from a bed in Bondi in 1969.

A good bedside manner

Betty Lasse had a small pharmacy on Australia’s most famous beach strip but luck was temporarily against her.

“My doctor told me that I would have to be confined to bed if I wanted to have my baby,” she recalls. “So, I set up my bedroom as an office and travellers would come to my bed and we would do business.”

One lucky caller was a cousin who told her of an international company that had dabbled in importing sunglasses and wanted to offload a large quantity at a good price.

“I only sold 100 or a 150 a year in my shop but I did buy a large quantity, deciding to target other pharmacies as my customers,” Betty says. “The big players at the time did not see me as a threat, in fact, they helped me by selling me their last year ranges.”

A script for success

In the early days, Betty and a girlfriend operated out of a flat in Bondi assembling generic sunglasses, creating brands and ranges by mixing up the varied supplies they could access.

After five years, Betty’s accountant noted that her sunglasses business was becoming more important than her pharmacy, and recommended she register the operation. Sunshades Eyewear was born.

“From the beginning I would have my accountant come to my business every Friday,” Betty explains. “I was very confident about merchandising but not so about the accounting aspects of business. I have the same attitude today but we have an in-house accountant.”

The lucky break occurs

By the late 1970s, the local sunglass companies would not play ball, so Betty had to look overseas.

And while it was seat of the pants stuff the end-result was a very lucky break.

“I went to Taiwan, booked into a hotel and looked in the Yellow Pages and found five sunglasses manufacturers and three came to see me,” she says. “Only one did not want to show me his factory and I only found out later the reason was he did not have one.”

The evasive man in question went on to become the biggest sunglasses manufacturer in the world, based in China and remains a key supplier to Sunshades Eyewear today.

“Though he fibbed about his business at the time, so did I,” Betty admits. “I told him I was the biggest importer of sunglasses to Australia.”

Cool in the shade

Betty believes her understanding of the sunglasses industry coupled with the desire of chic retailers like Peter Morrissey for brand extensions has helped her growth.

Also the concerns about the damaging aspects of the sun have not only created a greater mature market but the development of a children’s demand for sunglasses.

“We were also helped by the Australian Standards which are the toughest in the world,” she says.

The lessons

It’s a great tale, so let’s look at the critical decisions that created this success story. What did Betty do to make a difference?

Lesson 1:

First, she had advisors such as her accountant whose advice she took to formally set up the business.

Lesson 2:

Second, she worked hard to create relationships with suppliers and vendors. She even flew off to Asia to connect up with key suppliers to pocket a cost advantage but she did more than that — she also linked up with a guy who went on to become the biggest sunglasses supplier in the world.

Lesson 3:

She took calculated risks. This is a classic case of someone investing and taking risks and walking away with a big prize.

Lesson 4:

She constantly developed relationships. Building relationships as a conscious policy can give these kinds of pay offs.

Lesson 5:

Fifth, Betty was smart enough to be not too dependent on one big customer. This leaves many small operators terribly exposed and can kill off a business if the big supplier whimsically changes its approach to a market. A new manager can also be a big threat to a business.

Lesson 6:

Finally, she did her homework. There is no substitute to knowing your industry and doing lots of research.

Published on: Thursday, June 18, 2009

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