“I’ve had some incredibly hard and dark times with this business. Terrible times, when I thought we weren’t going to make it.”
Cassandra (Cass) Spies is frank when it comes to the ups and downs of business. And why wouldn’t she be? Having taken Twisted Healthy Treats from an idea born one day while shopping in a supermarket, to a company that has product stocked in more the 5,000 school canteens, as well as Coles, Woolworths, and now Costco in the US, it has being an exciting and scary journey.
As the name suggests, Twisted Healthy Treats, is aimed at the sweeter end of the food market. Spies specifically went after a customer that wanted an after dinner dessert that not only tasted good but also wasn’t overloaded with calories. Although Spies graduated from UNSW with a degree in food technology, for the first 14 years of her working life she couldn’t have been in an industry more far removed from food processing and manufacturing – corporate finance.
“I moved to London after finishing my degree,” she said. “I thought I would be there for two years – living the dream, working holiday and all that. I ended up working and staying in London for nearly 14 years. That was how I grew my career in project management and banking.
“I looked at jobs in the food industry in the UK and there were none in the centre of London. Also, you would barely be able to survive on the money those types of jobs were offering. However, it was at the time of the dot.com bubble and there were lots of opportunities for young, hungry Aussies that were prepared to go the extra mile. That’s how I landed in financial services and started running some global financial projects.”
Spies said that although the job in the UK was sometimes stressful, she learned a lot of lessons from it. Even today, the skills that she picked up in the finance world help her navigate the day-to-day issues that surround her running Twisted.
Just over 10 years ago, she and her husband Graeme, with their 18-month-old daughter in tow, and another child on the way, decided to come home to Australia, and thus began an almost accidental career in the food industry. It was time to put to use her food technology degree that had been hold for almost a decade and a half.
“When we moved back I thought I was going to be a stay at home mum,” she said. “But what happened was threefold – I was looking for a healthy product to share with my kids and I couldn’t find one. Second, I had always dreamed of having my own business even through I’d spent all those years working in corporate. Then, as a stay at home mum became a lonely occupation. I was desperate to get back and do something.”
It was while she was out food shopping that the idea hit her.
“I was a young mum wanting to give my kids a healthy treat but there didn’t seem to be anything suitable. I had seen at that stage that frozen yoghurt –which is where our roots are and is our most enduring product – was exploding on the west coast of the US.”
Spies’ dream was to become the Janine Allis (who founded Boost Juice) of frozen yoghurt. She liked the idea of having retail outlets, and was keen to franchise the business as soon as possible. It was a 50/50 joint venture, with Spies and her husband having half the business, while her parents’ invested capital made up the other 50 per cent. Soon, they had several stores opened at various Westfield malls. She hired a hungry PR agency from Perth to help spread the word, and soon, like a lot of SMEs starting out, all was rosy – the product was popular so demand was good. However, like a lot of retail outlets, the overheads soon started killing the business.
Five years ago, Spies was close to shutting down. Back then, she was philosophical about having to let it go.
“We were just about to wrap it up, and we said to ourselves ‘We tried, don’t try and feel too bad about it. It’s not a complete failure and we gave it a good go’,” she said. “I had all these retail stores that were losing money. I had this weird split business where I had stores that were losing money and a small wholesale range that was starting to take off. But I wasn’t sure if I could see that far into the future to see if that was the business model that would get us there in the end.”
A lot of hard work goes into setting up a company and making it a success. As Spies’ retail dream was dying, another aspect that can lead to success stepped in – luck.
“Just as we were considering shutting the business down, the lady at my kids’ school’s canteen asked me if I would sell her some frozen yoghurt cups so she could on sell them to the school children,” said Spies. “I dropped off a carton and they sold like hot cakes. I dropped off more the next day and they sold like hotcakes again. She said to me, ‘You need to go out to every school canteen in Australia and sell your product’. Off I went and I got 70 school canteens direct. I went to them and said ‘Hi, I’m Cass, here’s my frozen yoghurt, etc’, and from there we got picked up by distributors. We now supply 5,000 canteens in the country.
“Business author Seth Godin talks about a dip – all businesses and entrepreneurs have a dip, what he calls the darkest hour before the dawn – and that was it. If it wasn’t for school canteens we probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Then there were issues with supply chain, which are always ongoing. Supply chain is something that is part and parcel of having a business, according to Spies, and there are always issues.
“Even today, I had an issue where something hadn’t arrived,” she said. “Supply chain, especially in food, and even more so in manufacturing, is always going to be disrupted. It is just part of business and being flexible in adjusting your sails where needed to find solutions.
“Even this industrial action at the wharf is impacting me massively at the moment [as this issue went to print there is an ongoing pay dispute between Port Botany and the Maritime Union of Australia that had yet to be resolved],” she said. “There are certain ingredients – gums – that I use in my product that come from overseas that I can’t get my hands on. I’ve got all these containers ready to be shipped to the US for Costco and I can’t get them on a boat that is leaving Sydney.”
Part of growing any business is being prepared to hold steady when decisions haven’t resulted in the outcome that are wanted and sometimes mistakes are made. Spies said it is important to surround yourself with a good team and reflective insight is critical to recovering from mistakes. One of the biggest learning curves she experienced was when she used a contract manufacturer.
“Subcontracting was a stressful experience and in hindsight it really was a big leap of faith to give your brand’s equity to a third party to produce a product you would be happy to put in the marketplace,” she said. “It was a very challenging and costly time, ultimately we had to delete the product and pull it off the market. The growth and insight for myself here was never second guess your intuition when choosing any suppliers to collaborate with. Ensure you share same values and have clear communication – all critical ingredients when expanding your business and all great learning curves.”
Spies also has a certain, holistic approach to her business, and those that she deals with who buy her products and who she buys from, have the same attitude. It’s important to her that not only can they help each other grow, but the philosophical side is also something she thinks about before doing business. Take the company that she first sold Twisted Healthy Treats to in bulk.
“My first big sale was to Harris Farms,” she said. “They are a beautiful company. They are also a family-owned business. Their beliefs and values align with the kind of company I am trying to create. They took a chance on us years ago and they still one of our best customers.”
Spies is also very passionate about building a good team around her. She readily admits that her team is the reason for her success. While she and her husband had the vision to start the company, there have been inspired moments throughout the duration of the company’s life.
“Some of the best-selling flavours that we have today came about from the young kids that worked for me in our retail stores,” she said.
“The concept of twisted is twisting two flavours together. The best-selling flavour is our watermelon/mango and that came about from one of the young guys that worked for me for many years as an after-school job.
“I am always open to the person who is on the journey with me. What sort of ideas do they have? I don’t know everything. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today if it hadn’t been for the team effort and I have these amazing people that believe in my mission along the way.”
And it shows in the loyalty of the staff. Both of her main direct reports, general manager Michelle Wright, and logistics, supply chain and production specialist, Kirsty Lewis, have been with her for almost nine years.
“They have grown massively with the business in terms of their roles and responsibilities and in terms of the direction the business has ended up taking,” said Spies.
One thing you learn from talking to Spies is that there is no absolute key to success. There are certain must-haves when putting together a business plan and having your i’s dotted and t’s crossed. But there is a lot of fickleness in the market, especially so in the FMCGs category. Part of the company’s success has been the owners knowing when to change their sails and not being too static in terms of what they want to achieve – in other words, it is important to be malleable.
“You really need to be nimble and receptive to what the market is looking for at the time,” said Spies. “My dream was to have a franchised retail business but that wasn’t what the market was looking for at that point and time. What the market was responding to was taking my product to home and eat it in the comfort of their own home. It is important to be able to pivot as a small business, depending on what that market is looking for.
“It is a very rewarding job. I never had the sense of worth that I had in any of the corporate jobs I had compared to working at Twisted. I’m incredibly proud and passionate about what we’ve managed to create. It is a really exciting time for the business.”