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Sticking together as a family in business

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Sticking together as a family in business

Rachel Klaver is a marketing strategist, specialising in lead generation and content marketing.

OPINION: People seem to fall into two firm camps when it comes to family-run businesses.

There are those who love the idea, and those who think it’s the worst thing you could possibly do. When it comes to me, I love them.

We have one ourselves, and while we’ve experienced a couple of super dysfunctional ones over the years, the vast majority I’ve got to experience have only served to fuel my own love of the idea of mixing family with work.

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In our marketing training agency, I work with my husband Rod, and we also have our two eldest children working with us. They’ve been working with us for four and two years, respectively.

Our youngest also chips in during the holidays. I have loved developing a different type of relationship with my adult children, which feels both very separate from my role as parent and also a natural extension of our already close family dynamic.

My eldest now lives in another city, and our regular meetings and emails are often a blend of talking about clients and checking she’s doing OK.

Fiona Tomlinson from The Damson Collection is now working alongside her son, Rogan Tomlinson-Gillies, in her business.

Vivienne Haldane

Fiona Tomlinson from The Damson Collection is now working alongside her son, Rogan Tomlinson-Gillies, in her business.

As far as I’m concerned, family and business has been a positive blend.

So, when I heard that Fiona Tomlinson from The Damson Collection was now working alongside her son in her business, I really wanted to find out how that dynamic works, and whether it was similar to ours.

Tomlinson was an editorial and commercial photographer for 25 years, along with authoring the book Old Dogs Wisdom.

However, she had to find an alternative income after losing her ability to see with binocular vision. (it’s since been restored and Tomlinson continues to run her photography business.)

After purchasing a macaron business as an alternative income stream, she relocated to Hawkes Bay and operated out of a commercial kitchen there.

The space was also owned and used by orchardists who were creating products from the Damson plums growing on their property. As that business began to take off, the original owners realised a food production business was a little more time-consuming than expected, and put the business up for sale.

Tomlinson was interested. Mainly because she could see a broader use of the Damson plums, and real merit in being able to hero this nostalgic fruit.

“I heard that they were selling it, and I just desperately wanted to buy it. I was pumped, I love Damson plums, and I really wanted to make a Damson gin.” The Damson Collection was hers.

Pre-pandemic, Tomlinson sold directly at markets, where she loved connecting with both the other stall owners, and also the customers.

“It’s an easy product to sell when you get in front of people, and they get to taste it. And people responded really well to the enthusiasm that I or the previous owners had for the product. The great thing about Damsons is that most people have an immediate reaction to it. They taste it and say ‘oh my goodness, my grandmother used to make that’ or ‘my uncle used to make jam’ or ‘was that the plum that was growing in the garden? We used to, you know, climb on that tree’. There’s a really nostalgic taste profile for Damson. For me, it was really quite heartwarming to see those reactions”.

She also had a small group of retailers, and the business grew in popularity after winning several awards for her range.

In a story mirrored in many other small FMCG businesses, both of these avenues were severely impacted by lockdowns.

The Damson Collection fruit liquor was voted the best in the world in 2020.

The Damson Collection/Twitter

The Damson Collection fruit liquor was voted the best in the world in 2020.

Tomlinson needed to move online fast, to ensure the business could keep going and continue to operate.

The world of e-commerce, and the accompanying social media advertising side felt like a huge jump to manage without some help. Thankfully Tomlinson’s son Rogan Tomlinson-Gillies happened to be available to jump in and lend a hand.

Within a few days Tomlinson-Gillies had created and published a website, and created the posts and advertising to get the word out.

He also took over the packing and distribution from Auckland, while Tomlinson ran the rest of the business from her newly relocated headquarters in Central Otago.

“We were lucky that probably in the middle of February before Covid hit, we had actually moved everything to Auckland. So he was in a position to pick and pack for us, as well as doing social media at that time.”

Besides the upheaval we all experienced in 2020, it was a good year for Damson Collection.

Amid all the chaos, its fruit liquor was voted the best in the world, and continues to win awards and accolades.

It was also a popular purchase during lockdowns, along with the other products in the range.

“We were lucky. It was a convergence of it was the timing was perfect, because not only had not only had Covid helped us grow through online sales, which I know sounds like a terrible thing to actually capitalise on, but we also won the world’s best fruit liquor. It was a well-timed win,” Tomlinson explains.

The new family team quickly discovered their methods of working blended well together. Where Tomlinson loves creating ideas, and concepts, and is happiest in the first three-quarters of a project, Tomlinson-Gillies enjoys completing the final quarter. (As an aside, this is the same dynamic we have in our business, and is one that has saved my new idea brain too many times to count!)

They also found their different personalities work well together. Tomlinson shares that “working with Rogan made me think a little bit differently. Sometimes the knockbacks and the setbacks feel personal. Rogan just brushes it off and reminds me it will be OK. He’s always looking to the long-term”.

Tomlinson-Gillies is very much focussed on the big picture. “I often say delayed gratification is the single greatest determinant of success. So if you just keep working away, then you’ll have some success,” he explains.

New product development is often an arduous process and their working styles help see them to fruition.

Tomlinson admits she loves the initial stages best of all. “I get really energised by that. I love bringing different people and seeing all these skill sets. We’re working on a new product, which has been something that I started playing with in Covid. So my kitchen in Hawkes Bay was littered with these experiments. We were working on different flavours and different shelf lives. It’s taken probably two and a half years so far. But those initial stages are what I find energising, and then Rogan will clean it all up and complete the project. While I’m onto the next idea, he’s working on the finish of this one.”

Both of them are fully invested in growing the business, with Tomlinson seeing it as an opportunity to build something that creates enough profit to help her be able to give back to some of the causes close to her heart, and Tomlinson-Gillies invested in growing something that allows him to provide opportunities for his other siblings.

While the business still produces all the range in Hawkes Bay, after running the business together from separate locations, they’ve recently decided to both work from Central Otago, outsourcing the distribution to someone else.

Tomlinson still needs to visit the production space several times a year, and Tomlinson-Gillies has taken over much of selling to retailers, giving Tomlinson an opportunity to focus on a few of the key larger accounts. This is in part because of their different personalities.

It’s also reduced one of the few sticking points in their working relationship – their different working times.

Fiona is an early riser and likes to get started early, whereas Rogan often likes to start later and work into the night.

“When he’s in Auckland, and I’m calling at 9am because I’m ready, and I can’t get hold of him it’s frustrating. We’ve been working on different schedules. But with him down here, I can see how he’s working, and it’s reduced that tension,” she admits.

The team’s dynamic has helped them both be able to work on one of Tomlinson’s long term dreams, and also innovate into a new type of product.

The Damson Gin is hopefully soon to be a reality, along with a brand-new range of “yet to be properly talked about” non-alcoholic drinks.

Like many small manufacturers, growth is more difficult in a post-Covid world. Whereas, it was once possible to buy jars as needed, now it’s necessary to stockpile to protect future supplies.

Tomlinson explainsL “Instead of just buying half-pallets or pallets every so many weeks, I’m buying three or four pallets at a time. And that’s huge for cash flow”.

Holding so much stock for long periods before use means making other choices around where budgets go, and can make growth more difficult.

However, Tomlinson and Tomlinson-Gillies know that their winning combination and ways of working will help them get over the hump, and grow their much loved award-winning family business.

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