Kim Towner is a bit of a trailblazer in her business ventures. She takes a unique approach, and it is something that is catching on. She started the Jetty Markets and The Happy Frog and runs them in a way that is environmentally conscious, employs a diverse group of people, and promotes fair trade with local suppliers. Not only that, but she’s created these wonderful spaces where the community can come together and enjoy themselves and what the Coffs Coast has to offer.
Hi Kim. How did you first come to be a business owner here on the Coffs Coast?
This era of my life probably started about 15 years ago. I left a job that I had at Bonville Golf Resort and bought a business that was a little bit under-done, I guess you could say. It did have juices and wraps, but we sort of changed it up a bit and called it Tangelo’s. That was my first foray into that world; I think it was like an amalgamation of stuff that I’d done in my earlier life, which was the dirty barefoot hippy, right through to the corporate thing. I had done all that and then came out into the world interested in running businesses.
Can you tell us a bit more about that journey leading up to taking on your own business?
I got to a point in my life where I decided to go do a welfare course. It was just an introductory welfare course, and in the end, I realised I didn’t want to go down that road, but I did my major assignment on the correlation between long-term unemployment and low self-esteem. And, I kept thinking of all these people and how we just need to find them a job. That’s something that stayed with me and influenced how I chose to employ people in my future ventures.
I had a job at the time at the Yellow Shed in Bellingen, and the lady who owned it at the time had a bad car accident; she was out of action for about six months, and during that six months I started thinking about how the business worked. I got to meet this lovely accountant, who came from Bowraville with a little cane basket and a calculator; he came every two weeks, and I’d chat to him. I asked him what he did because he seemed to know everything! So, I thought I might as well go and do an Accounting Diploma. I didn’t love accounting, but I realised that the person who knew accounting knew how the whole business worked.
I actually went into hospitality, and I worked at Boambee Bay Resort and had my own business doing bookkeeping and payroll for cafés and restaurants. Then I worked at Bonville International, and it’s just about that time where I think people who were doing the accounts actually started to do HR because they were doing payroll, and I realised that I loved that.
There were times when I thought, “Let’s employ this poor person who hasn’t had a job in ages”, and sometimes it all backfired! So, I learnt how not to do things a little bit; I learnt a lot from those years.
When I finally decided I was going to have my own business, I felt like I used everything from my earlier life. I loved the community and local staff and everything, and this little dabble into business with Tangelo’s was right next to the Thursday growers’ markets, so I started to buy stuff from those guys and realised how great that was! This was going back 15 years or so; it wasn’t so much of a thing buying local back then.
I started to think this is really cool because I like these people. And then the price of bananas went through the roof because there was a big cyclone in Queensland, but because we had a good relationship with the guys we bought bananas off, they didn’t really put the price up (they put it up a little bit, but not a lot). And when the price went down, I wouldn’t pay them less. That was one of my first lessons – we’ve got a good relationship; he won’t charge me too much. I won’t pay him too little. It’s about fairness.
You started the Jetty Markets; how did that all come about?
After having Tangelo’s for a couple of years and being around that growers’ market, I started to think it’s such a cool thing having a local growers’ market, but it’s only on a Thursday; maybe we should have a Sunday one.
So, I was down at the beach one day; I’d been swimming and was thinking of how much I’d love a cup of coffee right then. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a market here that sold coffee, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a band playing over there at the same time, wouldn’t it be cool if you could get a massage as well and what about if there was all this handmade stuff and art?”… and this idea sort of hatched out of that. Then I looked into all the Council stuff. They had just done a community consult about the area; I looked it up, and it said you could use it for a commercial enterprise – as long as it was for the benefit of the community.
I hatched this plan and took it to the Council. I remember the guy I first approached at the council – it was not Councillor, but someone who worked there – he just had a quick look and said that it wouldn’t work! But, I insisted that I thought it would and just to give me a go! There was no risk to the Council; I made a model that was no risk to them. I said I would pay them 25% of everything I took, and that money went into the Coffs Coast State Park Trust, which manages the land, so it was a win-win for everybody.
And what about the Happy Frog; tell us about the idea for that.
After doing the markets for a couple of years, I thought maybe people might want this stuff all the time. This was right at the time of the global financial crisis, meat was expensive, and fuel prices were rising, so I decided I was going to make a user-friendly vegetarian shop, with all local stuff – that was the vision. Now with Happy Frog, we have a lot of local suppliers; that’s one of my passions. It was such a leap of faith because it was 2008/2009, and it was different then; the idea was quite different.
We did things like giving you 50c off your coffee if you brought your own cup, same with your salad container; 10 years ago, people thought that was quite unusual. There was nothing like that around.
I feel very blessed that those funny ideas came into my head and that it worked out, but after two years of having the three businesses, it was way too much! We sold Tangelo’s and just kept the two that we had started from scratch.
If I ever write about it one day, I will make a book called Gentle Profit, because out of everything, the thing that I feel most proud about is that it’s making a profit – maybe not huge, but it’s making a profit without being harsh. You don’t have to make this harsh compromise; you can do business in a gentle way.
I look around at big businesses, and I think we’re punching above our weight in terms of employing a diverse workplace, people with disabilities, and many different nationalities, and employing a lot of people per square metre. You know, we’re fair about it.
And then, to be able to pay fair prices for stuff, going back to the lovely banana farmer, when they say, “How much will you give me?” And I’ll say, “What do you mean? What’s fair and what do you need? Let’s do it like that”. It’s got to be viable of course, so let’s find a place that’s good for everybody!
We’re always trying to improve, and now our focus is really on being a zero-waste business. We do things that are made without plastic, we do pottery and baskets, things like that.
What have you learned from your experiences of owning and running your three businesses? What advice would you pass on to others?
If you want to go into business – imagine it first. Don’t just imagine how it looks, that’s part of it, but imagine more particularly how it feels – what does it feel like to walk into the space of your business? What does it feel like for your customers when they’re there? I didn’t realise I was doing it in the beginning, but I was; I had this thing that I never want anyone to feel uncomfortable there – to have it like a little oasis, so it would feel nice to everyone, and they would feel like they belong there. I think this was all actually unconscious. You know, I pinch myself now, I was so lucky how it turned out.