Alison Shaw Co-Owner of Tambo Teddies career journey has a fascinating amount of twists and turns. She’s worked on a goat dairy, as a wool classer and Jillaroo, a small business entrepreneur and as an Arts and Cultural Officer with Regional Council.
Her Non-Executive Director Board experience includes previous roles as Chairman VAST Arts, Regional Director Arts Link Queensland, and Board Member of the Rural Business Collective. Having dropped out of uni as a young woman to travel around Australia after leaving her native New Zealand, she also decided to resume tertiary studies as a mature age student and in 2016 completed a Marketing degree.
Alison’s current focus is on growing the iconic Tambo Teddies brand, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. Tambo Teddies are handmade in Australia with 100% Aussie Wool and have been gifted worldwide to famous folk including Prince George of England, Prince Christian from Denmark and Princess Sophie of Spain.
What led you from New Zealand to Tambo in Australia, and how did come to be one of the Owners of Tambo Teddies?
I left NZ to come to NSW to work on a goat dairy, in my uni holidays. I wasn’t very committed to study a the time and really didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I didn’t go back. Then I stayed for 6 months in NSW and decided to head to the ‘outback’ where I got a job as a Jillaroo in Tambo. I met my husband in Tambo, so didn’t keep heading around the world as intended.
I trained in Brisbane as a wool classer and spent 21 years classing and always loved wool, however it became harder as I was travelling further and further. With children at boarding school it wasn’t ideal to be away on school holidays. They couldn’t always come with me and got to an age where they didn’t really want to either. So I applied for and got a job on Council as a community facilitator. I found I enjoyed the work which is now Arts & Cultural Officer. My work is extremely varied as I undertake economic development, tourism, grant writing and project management. I found a desire to study and up-skill myself, and studied a Bachelor of Business in Marketing through USQ from 2012-2016.
When Tambo Teddies was put on the market by the previous owner, a friend mentioned she was interested. Then another friend was interested and the three of us formed a partnership and purchased the business on March 19, 2014. We all felt we needed another challenge and Tambo Teddies is a very unique business. It has literally put Tambo on the map, has a great product and we could see an opportunity to grow and expand it.
How has moving from a remote rural shopfront to going online changed your business model?
We still maintain the shop front and will always do so. When we purchased the business we saw the opportunity to expand and grow was to implement a digital strategy that drove customers to our online shop. There was an existing website which was very outdated, and non-functioning. We completely rebuilt it with refreshed branding, great imagery and an e-commerce platform and were very excited to receive our first few online orders.
We’ve continued to grow our online presence and platform and it is now moving into the space where our orders are sustaining our business, and we are not reliant on the seasonal in-store trade. This means we are able to provide more employment, and continue to employ people over the quiet times of November to March. In the first two years, we had to cut employees hours back over this period. As our online sales grow, the in-store sales from April/ May through to September the tourist season in outback Queensland becomes our cream.
The continuity that the online platform has been able to provide for us means that we are able to work to a budget better, which helps our on-going development and planning.
How far and wide do Tambo Teddies travel to meet their new owners, and what are some of the most beloved and famous incarnations of the Tambo Teddy?
Tambo Teddies are sent all over the world. Just in the last fortnight we have sent 2 to different parts of Canada. Because of their uniqueness, quality craftsmanship and being an Australian made product created from Australian sheepskin in the Outback, they are valued as an ideal gift for overseas friends and family. Particularly our really ‘Aussie’ characters the Stockmans, and our Koalas.
Bears who have gone to live with famous people include ‘Baneda Bob’ who was given to Prince George by the people of Queensland. Before George received his, Prince Christian from Denmark and Princess Sophie of Spain were both sent a bear by the Queensland Government. Other famous owners include Suzi Quatro, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, and Ministers Lyneham, Jones and Furner from the Queensland Government.
While these bears have gone to ‘special/famous’ people we consider every bear is special and every teddy bear owner is famous.
Tell us about the innovations you’re introducing at Tambo Teddies to ensure they continue to be proudly Australian Made in the Outback.
We’ve implemented a set of systems and processes at Teddies since we purchased. We continue to refine these all the time to make the process of purchasing a bear smooth and efficient, while remaining customer focused and personalised. Everything we do has a system. Some innovations are pretty simple, such as keeping a tally of the skins used so we can manage the stock and orders, cutting a complete skin in its entirety.
As for the actual sewing of the bears, we haven’t as yet secured any new processes. Apart from filming the process, creating a step-by-step document for new sewers to follow, we have also held sewing training days for interested people. Moving forward we’re investigating other ways to get our bears made so we can have a good bulk supply. It is very important to us to retain our Australian made status, as this is one of our key marketing points of difference from other teddy bears, so we have considered but disregarded having the sewing out-sourced overseas.
Our major innovation has been the development of the website and our online store. We consider that online is our growth space that holds the most opportunities. We’ve created a strong online presence and sales funnel using social media, e-newsletters, videos, and Google AdWords, all designed to drive traffic to our website.
What has been your greatest challenge?
There are 3 main challenges: having a small business that is a both a manufacturing and retailing entity, located in a remote location.
- Staff – Tambo is very small with only about 400 people in the township. This makes it challenging to get staff who meet our standards. We need our customer service people to be able to chat to customers about Tambo, the region, the history and teddy bears. We’ve developed a very detailed customer service manual that provides our staff with scripts they can use based on the GUEST principle of customer service. We have been very lucky and have managed to attract good staff in general but it is always a challenge. We’ve had many people try sewing the bears but not many have continued on. Now we are looking outside our immediate area and have one sewer based in Toowoomba. This is great, but does add a further level of supply logistics.
- Freight/postage remains a huge challenge. Everything we purchase has a large component of freight cost, but the most challenging is the cost of posting our bears to our customers. We only have Australia Post as an option but the service can be variable. It’s difficult to provide any guarantee of delivery time frames with Aus Post as there seems to be no consistency in delivery times, and we regularly receive delivery queries. We get the orders out the door the day they arrive, and fortunately there is a tracking number we can check where they are at. Cost of postage is also very high. We have hexagonal boxes to post the bears so postage is calculated on weight instead of volume (which is more expensive).
- Cost base – we are currently facing the challenge of bringing our cost base down so we can provide a wholesaleable product. Currently our wholesale prices are high and don’t provide the margin most retailers are seeking which limits our expansion plans. We want to get our bears in stores right across the country as this will further market our brand, and enables people to see, feel touch the product which assists when purchasing online or in store.
What are you most proud of?
Winning the inaugural RAI/Google regional online heroes competition, turning the business from loss to profit in our first year, and working with two (now one) great partners.
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
Never stop thinking. Set the bench mark high and then keep working on ways to get there!
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