Business founders often lie awake at night worrying about whether anyone will want what they have to sell. They don’t often consider the possibility that their product may be too successful.
Cheesemaker Graeme Paynter has learned that sudden popularity can be a threat to business survival.
“We are going through the growing pains of a business that has been far more successful that we’d set it up to be,” says the 59-year-old from his property at West Woombye, on the Queensland Sunshine Coast.
Paynter had imagined himself winding down from his big, international corporate job to become a relaxed artisan cheesemaker, but found he has launched a serious – and seriously demanding – business. “The original plan was we were going to make cheese two or three days a week, go to the local farmers’ markets on the weekends, sell cheese, buy a couple of bottles of wine on the way home and have a nice, easy life,” he says.
After only 17 months in operation, Woombye Cheese Company is expected to achieve $110,000 in sales in December – $80,000 more than it did for the whole of the first three months of the year.
For a big-city sales and marketing executive, Paynter has turned out to be a surprisingly good cheesemaker. “I never, ever considered that we would do this,” he says.
Paynter and his wife, Karen, a corporate lawyer, had spent four years living in Singapore, where he was running software companies in an Asia Pacific role.
He had survived the restructuring of the IT industry, and rounds of mergers and acquisitions. He’d also been laid off twice.
“It was getting to a point where it was going to happen again: it ruins the drive a little bit,” he says. But he had no alternative plans and Karen was thriving in a new job.
Then one morning, everything changed.
“It was like waking up one day and the switch had been turned off. I just didn’t have the drive to do it any more,” he says.
A few days later, he was sitting on the couch watching a TV program about cheesemaking in Ireland. “I said to Karen: ‘I could do that’. Her response was ‘Whatever’ and that was kind of it.”
Paynter says his change of career came as a surprise to him.
“I always thought I would stay in corporate life until I realised it was time to get out . . . and then maybe I would do some consulting for a couple of years and then drift away to golf courses and fade away. I think part of it was being burned out. The other part for me was the higher you go in corporate life, the more dispensable you are. I kind of had a hard time with that, to be honest.”
Paynter started researching cheesemaking on the internet. He put a business case together and set to work designing what he thought a cheese factory would look like.
He moved quickly. Within weeks, he had flown to Australia and spent $1 million on a four-hectare property near the Big Pineapple near Nambour on the Sunshine Coast.
Karen arranged to keep working remotely for her employer and, six months after seeing cheesemaking for the first time on the TV, their lives had taken a radical turn.
Budget quickly revealed inadequate
Paynter’s budget was quickly revealed as inadequate. Building the factory (a 15-by-9-metre shed) and fitting it out cost four times more than he expected – $250,000 – despite him sourcing as much second-hand equipment as he could.
Paynter engaged a consultant cheesemaker from Melbourne to help with recipes and processes. Some old friends from New Zealand, Peter Norman and Keryn Rennie, volunteered to help get the business going. And Paynter went on a five-day course to learn his new trade.
From his first batch of camembert, he was hooked: “The day we unwrapped our first batch of cheese, I just cried my eyes out,” he says. They made six batches before they even started thinking about how to sell it – then took a batch to the Maleny Real Food Festival, where the locals took to it with gusto.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked. For two days, we had people standing five deep waiting to taste samples and buy some of our cheese. It blew me away,” says Paynter.
Three months after starting production, they were approached by a fine food wholesaler and distributor who had heard about their success at the Maleny festival. “All of a sudden, our cheeses are in delicatessens in Brisbane, and IGAs and restaurants.”
Paynter is still scratching his head over his success, but thinks it may have something to do with the quality of the Jersey milk he uses, that all processes are hand-done, and that there is a real appreciation of locally made products.
It almost goes without saying that his cheeses (he makes eight kinds now) are very good.
The demand has been wonderful but overwhelming, he says. “We’d never set up the processes and we didn’t have the equipment to be that serious.”
If they were going to ramp up production from a couple of batches a week to 10 to 12 runs, they had to find ways to manage that growth. “By the end of 2013 [eight months in], it was becoming obvious that we had a good product and this was seriously becoming bigger than Ben Hur,” he says.
The new factory was now too small, but Paynter had already sunk his available cash into the property and equipment. Fortunately, his milk supplier had a disused cheese factory at Cooloola, near Gympie, he could use as a second site.
By then, Paynter had seven staff, including full-time cheesemaker Stefan Wilson. But what seemed like a good idea at the time turned out to be a nightmare. Having two sites (a 45-minute drive from each other) meant duplicating costs, processes and staff. “The added cost has just been astronomical. I hadn’t looked at it closely enough,” he says.
Paynter is now consolidating the sites by expanding his original factory, with the help of a $100,000 loan. He expects to start paying himself a salary in 2015, and his workload to stabilise soon after.
“I look forward to the day when everything starts to normalise, when production goes well, we can pay ourselves a salary and we can afford to walk off the property to have a game of golf,” he says, “The pressure that comes with this kind of growth and success is enormous. I’m just lucky I have such a supportive wife and a good team of people.”
Get a second opinion “You still need people you trust to bounce ideas around. These are the checks and balances inherent in the corporate system,” says Graeme Paynter.
Borrow more Paynter wanted to fund the company himself because he thought it would be less hassle than dealing with banks, but he now says borrowing would have given him more room to move.
Be adaptable “Every now and then I pull out the business plan I put together in Singapore and have a good laugh. It is the best fiction you have ever read,” he says.
Give it time “This was always going to be a semi-retirement thing,” he says. But the higher than expected cost of building the factory means the company needs a reasonable return to recoup that investment.
Put in the effort “I’ve never worked so hard in all my life,” says Paynter. “When I was in the corporate sector, I worked seven days a week, every week. I think I had it easy compared to this.”