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Alpacas: A great business yarn
After years of crafting unique alpaca clothes and accessories, Lorraine Barnett was at the top of her game. But Candalaraine Alpacas faced a major crisis after the Black Saturday bush fires threatened the growing business.
Thanks partly to the Small Business Mentoring Service, Candalaraine – named after Lorraine, her husband Alan and their daughter Candice - is back on track and winning awards for its beautiful and original products.
Lorraine and Alan started the alpaca business on their picturesque and lush 12 hectare Neerim South farm in 1998 with one breeding female and a companion male. Searching for the perfect animal to help keep the grass down, they chose alpacas after hearing a radio interview about their reintroduction into Australia and growing popularity.
The cute creatures did their job and attracted passing traffic heading to Mt Baw Baw. They also produced high quality wool which Lorraine, a talented designer and knitwear creator of many years, fashioned into colourful garments. “Passers-by would stop their cars … and run across to look at these gorgeous animals,” Lorraine says. “Too many times we heard ‘these are beautiful animals but what do you do with them?”
In 2003 Lorraine and Alan built a miner’s cottage to display their growing range of products. In February, 2009, they were literally putting the finishing touches to a renovation doubling the shop’s size when the Black Saturday bush fires roared towards Neerim South. The property escaped but the road was closed for a month, literally putting a cloud over their business future.
Known for her colour experimentation and “wow” factor, Lorraine’s craftsmanship and business practices were excellent. Candalaraine alpaca garments are lightweight but durable and soft with that rare silkiness that promotes an elegant drape. The business also offers a made to measure service.
While Candalaraine had a website, it relied on passing trade and word-of-mouth visitors entranced by the alpacas and the gorgeous coats, jumpers, scarves hats and other accessories produced from their wool. This was seriously threatened by the post-fire lull. “We didn’t have anyone here for three months, not a person,” Lorraine says. “They stayed away in droves for … a good 12 months.”
Thankfully Lorraine and Alan learned about the SBMS Bushfire Recovery Program through the West Gippsland Gourmet Country Tourism Association, and were matched with Mentor Barry Jacobs. Under the program, mentoring was free for fire affected businesses.
The SBMS is a non-government, non-profit organisation of volunteer expert mentors who give their time and experience to help small business. It is supported by Small Business Victoria, which refers clients to it.
Barry has extensive experience in the building industry. For 13 years, he was General Manager of Boral Plasterboard, which supplied builders via small businesses. He has also worked in sales, marketing, legal and general administration.
Lorraine and Alan have had seven face to face sessions with Barry over two years since the fires, and continue to stay in touch. Barry, who was part of the SBMS Bushfire Recovery Program team of Mentors, helped many other affected businesses so understood the challenges they faced.
Initially Barry provided moral support, praising Candalaraine’s products and business operations. He then helped Lorraine and Alan with general and specific marketing ideas, discussing ways to ensure the business continued to thrive despite the circumstances.
Lorraine and Barry’s ideas included:
- Attending more craft and trade shows to show off Candalaraine’s impressive work
- Erecting a bigger, brighter street sign to better attract passing traffic
- Building a viewing room to watch weavers, including toilet facilities to encourage longer stays
- Investigating whether other local traders were interested in planning suggested tour bus routes including all their businesses
- Not being afraid to try new things.
Barry also helped Lorraine and Alan to “fine tune” the business and provided information and templates on all aspects of running a business, such as book work. While she hopes to retain Candalaraine’s character and unique flavour, which includes quality hand-made products with minimal machine use, Lorraine took it all in and acted on some of the ideas.
She produced bold new signage with cute and classy photos of her alpacas and products, and is investigating the viewing room concept. Lorraine is also attending more craft shows and trade fairs, and her work is found in boutiques in Melbourne’s Collins St and Sydney’s The Rocks. Her display pieces for the 2009 Australian National Alpaca Show in Adelaide all won prizes, including The Supreme Award.
Candalaraine's sales have recovered and are now even better than they were before the fires, which Lorraine says is partly due to Barry giving her the courage to move forward. She really appreciated “someone coming in and saying ‘wow this is serious stuff, keep it going’.” “It just gives you the confidence to try new things,” she says.
Barry says Lorraine and Alan, who already had a sound business, are progressing well, selling interstate and getting the Candalaraine name out there via craft and trade shows. “Clients and sales have increased and expansion of the showroom/shop is being considered,” he says.
Barry adds that Lorraine is a great listener and took everything in, using her own initiative while incorporating his ideas. “She’s been involved in a lot of shows since and opened up the market to Sydney and other places,” he says.
“They’re growing and they’ve got a very good network of people that actually make the products. The quality is superb and I’m not just saying that. It is a class product and she’s done really well with it.”
Lorraine is thrilled with the help and sound business ear Barry has provided. “He’s done a great job,” she says. “We have only just started our journey and are in the process of organising and designing a number of new and exciting products and we look forward to everyone having the opportunity of owning a piece of this magnificent product.”