Lets jump back in time by twenty years or so - to 1999. Australia is in full neo liberal mode, with an Olympics about to take place just down the road in Sydney. The food business is booming - indeed, most businesses are booming. The mining industry is making obscene profits, and the stockmarket has still not yet crashed.
Restaurants and retailers were popping up with large amounts of capital behind them, as investors looked to put their windfalls into effective businesses which would minimise their tax for a good few years. Some of the restaurant fitouts which were occuring in Sydney were eye wateringly expensive - shielded from the day to day reality of actually paying down the cost of the fitouts, because these businesses’ primary reason for existence was simply a tax dodge.
I was still in my thirties at the time, and ignorant as to the actual reason behind the relentless growth occurring in front of me. I believed it was all about our coming of age as a nation, of our increasing sophistry in all things, from food to fashion to finance. We had a Labour government with a Neo Liberal attitude, and this government had been hugely successful in bouying Australia’s self belief. We were hosting an Olympics, had won the America’s Cup, and were looking like punching well above our weight with regard to our athletes at the Olympics - who had been groomed at the Australian Institute of Sport, which had been set up to show the world how we could compete internationally.
I, and possibly many others, believed we were invincible, and that all we touched would turn to gold. In the Olympics in 2000, this turned out to be true, with Australia capturing 16 gold medals, our best ever gold medal tally. We came fourth in the world, which is still considered to be a pretty good effort, based on our population at the time of 23 million people.
My bakery at that time was servicing some 120 businesses in the Sydney area. It also supplied Leura with pretty much all of its sourdough, and a fair bit of its coffee. All the local guest houses took a delivery of breads and pastries each day, and on weekends we ran market stalls all around the state. I had over 50 people working for me, and at our peak we managed to turn 10 tonnes of flour each week into bread and pastries which were sent all over the country. There were very few competitors in the space at that time - some of them, like Sonoma and Brasserie, were still getting themselves started. We sent out our distributor and drivers each day with baked goods in little vans which covered the 500 or so km round trip to Sydney or to the west, while the bakery set to work on the next day’s orders from our manufacturing base in Nth Katoomba.
Up the road, our cafe in Leura pumped out a few hundred coffees and the tourists bought our rustic artisan loaves in large amounts.
Into the mix, Sydney began to become enamoured with growers’ markets. I jumped straight into this space, purchasing larger Mercedes vans and mini retail fitouts which were specially designed to present our wares at as many markets as we could manage on any given week. At its peak, the markets business was handling some 19 markets around NSW, 15 of them in Sydney alone.
The oven at the factory bakery in downtown North Katoomba was cranked up for twelve to eighteen hours, seven days a week. We had a second oven which was used for a few hours as well, just to keep the pastries rolling along while the big oven handled the bread. The morning shift of bakers mixed the dough and prepped the pastries; the day shift processed the breads (bread section) and the Danish pastries (pastry section) in readiness for baking; and the evening shift baked it all off. The delivery shift packed it all up in the wee small hours into vans and took the day’s work away. And soon after they hit the road, the morning shift arrived to do it all again.
Add to this another team to sell at markets on weekends, as well as the cafe team, with baristas and waitresses and chefs; you are beginning to get the idea of the scale of the operation.
In addition, I and an office helper would spend most days above the shop in Leura, sorting out sales, invoicing and orders so that the whole thing ran relatively smoothly. My wife ran the shop amazingly well - it buzzed every day.
We had a nanny to look after our three kids, who filled various support roles for the Quinton troup - which changed according to need.
Popping downstairs from the office for a coffee usually would take quite a while, as I would always get cornered by someone or something in the shop if I showed my face. Leura was still a small town, and being the local cafe / bakery owner meant everybody knew you. If I had to venture out, there was a chance that I could be drawn into various conversations or sagas. It was wiser to wait until the end of the day and venture out when the cafe was closed. Then I could efficiently leave or enter.
I would pop home to help with the evenings run with with the kids, and then return to the bakery on the bigger nights, to run the oven till the wee small hours. As the bakery grew, I was managing to get a few nights each week at home, which with three kids was needed. Nonetheless, my typical working day was often spread out over eighteen or more hours, with a couple of gaps in there for family.
It was a relentless routine, and it had some pretty serious consequences for everyone. I blithely continued, believing that it would all lead to something. I was, for many years, intoxicated by my own success. I believed I was on a mission, and that I would not fail.
This belief allowed me to do lots of things which were not very good for me. It allowed me to work ridiculous amounts of time at crazy hours of the day and night. It allowed me to ‘burn the midnight oil’ as required, to do whatever was needed. I had returned to smoking, on and off, and drank often and well. I indulged in other substances as they crossed my path, which allowed me to set my own path right in their way from time to time. I built my lifestyle based upon my own indispensability. My ‘working lifestyle’ was necessary, I reasoned; for family, for friends, for employees and for the world.
I had a touch of the Atlas Syndrome for many years. At first it felt fantastic. Then it felt hard, but it was important work. Finally, it didn’t feel like anything. I was a walking automatic teller machine, I used to say. I used whatever medication was around and appropriate as a means to an end. I was, I believed, ‘high functioning’, as opposed to ‘functioning high’.
Slowly, though, warning signs that all was not well mounted around me. I could see them, but I felt as though I was unable to solve, or even figure out, the problem. I was on the phone to the bank every morning, as the overdraft was permanently maxxed out. I could always bank cash at the end of each day, but this was a band aid solution when your business needs to find enough cash to pay for ten tonnes of flour each week, or an electricity bill which cost twice as much as a small car. The bills were always getting bigger, while the sales weren’t.
The problem was, it seemed, with my wholesale bread business. The bigger our bakery grew, the bigger the customers we serviced tended to be. When you take on a large customer, they will tend to tell you when they will pay - at least, that’s the way it was back in 1999. My option was either to accept their terms, or have them go elsewhere. I always got the sale, which translated to the ‘account’. This, in turn, translated to ‘debt’, until they paid their bill.
Being an eternal optimist, I believed it would all work out in the end.
I didn’t realise that I had effectively moved us into the banking business - providing an overdraft for our customers for up to 90 days. Often, these customers would move permanently into 90 day arrears. Eventually we’d get paid, but we would still have to pay staff, suppliers and everybody else while we waited. Sometimes the money go round just didn’t go round at all, or almost ground to a halt. Thus, my overdraft lived ‘on the edge’ in a more or less continual state. I didn’t know from day to day whether we were making money, and it was increasingly difficult to obtain this information when we had so many aspects of the business to keep an eye on and then evaluate as to it contribution to the whole.
Then things got a little more ‘edgy’. It was a whole bunch of little (and sometimes not so little) things, over what was possibly a two year period. The edginess grew, bit by bit.
One or two big customers fell over or disappeared, leaving us with numbers on a page, and not much else. Then a few little customers went, spread out over many months. Trying to get paid through the court system is worse than pulling teeth, and I became quite familiar with this particular type of pain.
Then I had a disagreement with a distributor, and was financially and personally devastated by the eventual break up. The result? I was back in the delivery business, while still very much in the bakery business. Covering every aspect of what was a ‘large’ small business was a big challenge.
We had to find finance for vehicles which were up to the task of delivering to these 120 or so customers, most of whom were 120 klms away.
I didn’t realise that I would also need to find whole new levels of personal strength which would enable me to be up to this new task.
Running your own delivery business sometimes meant that I would do the delivery run to Sydney myself at extremely short notice (for example when someone didn’t turn up to drive). Or, that I’d be driving a can of petrol down the highway to a driver in the middle of the night because they forgot to gas up before their shift. On another occasion, one of my delivery drivers was involved in a serious motor accident while on the delivery run. Someone was killed, and the psychological repurcussions of the knowledge this had occurred as a direct result of my business reverberated strongly. I was shaken.
Another time, a baker doing a local delivery drove into a tree because he had a microsleep. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt, but the car was written off.
Stuff just kept happening, and I was somehow getting blown around by it all.
These were the consequences of my lust for growth, my own ‘holy grail’. I was fully invested, heart and soul and family and wallet. I felt I had no alternative than to stay the course. Turned out, the bigger the business grew, the harder it was to solve problems and to change direction. Every new thing seemed to require more money to do, and instead of a surplus I had an overdraft.
In the early days, when baking was still a great adventure, there was always a surplus. This was no longer the case.
The business had grown from a small home kitchen to a multi million dollar enterprise in the space of just six years. I had done it with very little capital - our own house was backing the overdraft, and there was some family money also involved. From the outside, it still looked pretty shiny.
On the inside, things were taking a beating - and when I say ‘things’, I mean to include ‘me’. I was barely getting from one day to the next at times. I had moved from baker to banker to fireman - I spent most of every day putting little fires out all over the place.
At night, or after my shift, I would drink enough to put my mind at ‘rest’. Often my nights would finish at dawn or later as the bake went through the night. It wasn’t pretty, and I felt completely stuck, like there was no way out. I felt like I needed to come up for air at some point, but it never seemed to happen.
The turning point came after a trip to Melbourne to investigate a friends’ bakery. It was the first family holiday we had taken in five years. I spent most of that ‘holiday’ on the phone, putting out fires. Some of them were serious ones too - but I was determined to have a family holiday, so I let them burn. As expected, I returned to a wreckage after a week away - and that is in itself another blog post.
While still in Melbourne, though, I had my mind blown.
I visited my friend’s bakery - Phillipa’s. Phillipa and her partner David had visited my bakery some years earlier, and I figured since I was in town I would pay a return visit to their new setup. They had recently started a bread factory in inner city Melbourne and it sounded really interesting.
Their bakery was created in a way that was planned and logical, and capable of baking large volumes of beautiful bread. They had a brilliant location and amazing, cutting edge baking equipment - an oven from Europe valued at far more than your average suburban house at the time; a type of mixer I had never seen before; all sorts of canvas cloths and wooden boards, and an oven loader.
The oven was a ‘setter’ oven, and I had never seen one of these beautiful bakery machines before. It baked bread directly on the sole. No tins required. No trays either. Brilliant. It lit something in my mind.
They had designed their bakery as a very simple system with almost no bread tins or racks or trays. Dough was laid out on wooden boards with canvas holding it in place. Lots of flour, everywhere! Everything was ‘set’ on the sole of the oven. The bread made mine look pretty ordinary by comparison. I loved what they were doing.
I got back home, walked through the bakery, and saw that all the old equipment I had managed to scrape together over the years was pretty much worn out. I had been running the whole place to capacity for six years now, and it was looking pretty tired. I was pretty tired. I had done ten years straight and there had been little rest.
I could see that I would need to lease a new oven, as well as quite a bit of other equipment which had become essential to our production routine. My system was pretty clunky, and it was dirty; there were lots of machines, and racks, and tins and trays, and it all took up space.
I compared my aging and inefficient bakery with my friends’ brand new beautiful bakery, and I came to the realisation I was doing it all wrong.
When I thought of the effort I would need to put in at this late stage; of borrowing a dozen times as much as I did last time; of how I would have to ‘transition’ through all this again, after spending most of the previous ten years ‘transitioning’, I just gave up.
My inefficiencies could not be solved by buying more equipment, or by letting go staff - I had to reinvent what I was doing from the ground up. I longed to go back to being a one man show, but this was out of reach right now. I could only see the system I had developed wasn’t working. It would never work, and I would be chasing my tail forever trying to make it work. It was a brutal, bleak moment, and I’m not going to say that everything got better once I saw the issue.
What I didn’t see at the time was my bread factory had killed my love of baking.
Over the following weeks and months I explored ways of simplifying my world, while simultaneously trying to keep the ship afloat. I was in trouble. The business was too big and too complex to sell, so while it was well known, it had no value. Wholesale. Retail. Markets. Cafe. Factory. It was sometimes profitable, but when one or two big unforeseen expenses came along, that profitability looked pretty marginal. At best, this business was a complex organism with very little ‘insurance’ if things went wrong.
That’s the inside story. Then there’s the outside one. Life is never simple and clean. There could be another blog post in that story another time.
I spent quite a few nights in my big new Mercedes van after a baking shift parked on the edge of some very big cliffs. I was endlessly thinking through the process of completely reinventing what I was doing. I had to find money to keep it all afloat. I had to find the will to continue. I had to think about the future, my future and my family’s. There were no guarantees that my potential solutions would work, and my own self belief wasn’t in attendance at this point. I was often too tired to think at all.
It seemed it would be far simpler just to put my foot on the accelerator of the brand new Mercedes van and fly into the valley below in a couple of tonnes of metal. I thought about that choice through more than once. Sometimes I thought about something similar while driving home from a long day at the markets. Easy to do, not much thought required.
The more I thought about it, my own depressed nature was exploring double negatives. I resolved there were no guarantees that this option - my driving off a cliff - would end well either. I could end up alive!
I’m not sure the Paul Kelly song ‘Life is Fine’ had been written at that point, but it documents my mental state pretty well. Given that both sides of the coin involved uncertain outcomes, I chose, or fell into, a third option - a slow downhill slide. This would be my certainty. It was no fun at all, turns out. There will be a book, I’m sure. But another day.
Part of the reason these days I’m so passionate about setting up a bakery the right way is I would not wish anyone else to experience what my life was like as a result of, among other things, not thinking things through properly in the first place. I encourage would-be bakery owners to consider where they would like to end up before they start. Some people find this just too challenging, and walk away from that particular dream before they get started. Others take this on board and go for it anyway. I’m happy to say I’ve helped quite a few budding bakers into the business over the years since this story played out, and they are tackling things much better than I did.
I run four day intensives for budding bakery entrepreneurs, and believe me, the lessons learned from this part of my bakery life are well and truly integrated into what I teach. So too are they embedded in my existing bakery operation. Students can see first hand one way of running a bakery which works both for the baker and for the baker’s customers and family. If you’ve read this far, you might be in just the right space to click on the button below.