It’s rare to meet the chief executive of a company who still does design on the artwork of their product, but for Emily McWaters, attention to detail is everything.
McWaters, who founded the SOL Group in 2004, employs both her sisters in selling premium gift hampers to the public as well as high-profile corporate clients.
“I still do all the design of packaging. We do a lot of our own packaging to get our own look. The days of wicker baskets and shrink wrap, that’s not enough any more, it’s gotta look incredible.
“I’m able to see the presentation to the customer as a whole, so there has to be a certain level of luxury.”
Remarkably, McWaters never studied design. In fact, she was studying law in 2003 when she decided to drop out and invest her life savings of $10,000 in to revamping a rundown Rose Bay cafe.
She sold the cafe to begin a gourmet foods wholesale business, Kingston Foods, with a silent partner and then later The Hamper Emporium in 2010.
Two years ago, McWaters took the success of The Hamper Emporium to found The SOL Group.
“The two pillars of our success has been the presentation and attention to detail in that regard as well as the fact we can keep costs down because we are buying at wholesale prices.”
Libby, left, Emily and Amy are three sisters who front the SOL Group.
This calendar year, SOL Group is set to turn over $10 million and it will move more than 65,000 individual hampers.
McWaters is pleased with a recent expansion that allows small to medium businesses to use her online gifting platform but brand it with their own company logos.
“They can go to a URL that’s dedicated to them and they can choose a gift. The fact is that most corporate gifts are a bit drab, so that’s an area we’ve been able to be successful in.”
McWaters is keenly aware that the most important thing is slick customer experiences.
“I definitely think these days the more streamlined the better because customers want convenience. It used to be that people were buying online once or twice a month but now it’s weekly or daily so it has to be as easy as possible,” she said.
But getting the website developers to realise her dream has been a challenge.
“Finding the right developers and being able to get people who understand what you’re trying to achieve and help you get there has been our biggest challenge. We’ve only just found the right team late last year and its taken us this long.”
The gifting boss also reflected that freight continues to pose difficulties.
“We have partnered with who we think are the best company but every now and again something will go wrong and it’s difficult for us even though it’s not our mistake,” she said.
Part-time city slicker
Despite managing a team of 17, McWaters splits her time between a farm on Kangaroo Island and Sydney.
She is one of a growing number of women – currently 34 per cent of SMEs – who own businesses in Australia.
“It works perfectly for me. There are no disadvantages to me being here for the majority of the year. I find it a lot easier to work in Kangaroo Island, being removed from the day-to-day operations, I’m really able to focus on the business rather than working in it.”
The biggest bonus? Peace and quiet to think and relax.
“I seem to have my best ideas out there,” she said. “Everyone operates on Kangaroo Island time, so even if I get off the phone from a heavy or stressful meting or phone call, I’m back in a relaxed environment.”
Distance has also helped McWaters realise she doesn’t need hype to succeed.
“The biggest mistake I made was thinking we needed a venture capital investment. I was approached and we got swept up in it, losing about six months in going back and forth,” she said.
At the 11th hour McWaters pulled out, but claims she has been able to achieve all the same goals without the investment.
“It really taught me to back myself and my own judgment. I know I can achieve what I want to.”
Keep up with Commercial Real Estate news.