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Getting to be Your Own Boss

Michelle Robertshaw has proved that looking to her mother for inspiration has paid off in the business world, writes Amy Hamilton Chadwick.

22 March 2023

It’s tough being a single parent, but it’s possible all your hard work can inspire your kids to achieve more than you expected. After all, it was Michelle Robertshaw’s mother, Olga, who inspired her daughter to become a business owner.

“Mum’s family came from the former Yugoslavia, and after spending two years in a refugee camp in Italy they arrived in New Zealand when she was 18, not knowing any English,” says Michelle.

Olga started out working in a department store, then became the first female fabric buyer in New Zealand. Ultimately, she started her own business as a fashion agent, grasping her destiny with both hands.

“Mum had goals she wanted to tick off: own home, nice car and her own business,” Michelle says. “I watched her, and I knew I wanted to be independent. I knew I was never going to be a doctor or a lawyer, so if I was going to make my own way I wanted to own a business.”

Finding the right bones

In the early part of her career Michelle worked in various corporate roles, and it was while working as a business development manager that she met her now-husband, Ian. He shared her passion for business and together they had a long-term plan to run a company. The couple supported each other in their careers and Ian studied for his MBA.

For some time Michelle thought she might take over her mother’s business and run a fashion agency, but as online shopping and fast fashion took off the company wasn’t profitable enough to support their growing family.

Instead, Michelle and Ian scoped out businesses to buy, starting with industries they already knew something about and had a bit of experience in. But soon they realised they were limiting themselves.

“We stopped and decided, ‘Any business is good if it has the right bones’. Once we opened our minds to that there were a lot more businesses to consider. There are a lot of average businesses for sale, or ones that seem fun, and you get to be your own boss, but it’s more about the dream and the romance of it than actually a sustainable business.”

When Stylehouse Kitchens came up for sale in 2018, Ian and Michelle met the owners and immediately felt they’d found an ideal investment. The business had an excellent reputation, built up over 20 years, and it was profitable. Plus, they felt it had massive potential for growth.

A rough diamond

The Robertshaws used a combination of savings, equity from their home, and family support to buy the business. It was a substantial investment, with the potential to go badly, but the couple were confident they could grow the business into something even more valuable.

“Investing in a business was risky, but it was an educated risk. I know that some people couldn’t get their heads around why we’d buy a business in an industry we weren’t working in. But it was a rough diamond. The owners made it clear that Stylehouse didn’t need another cabinet maker, it needed a business head.”

Ian is the general manager while Michelle takes care of finance, HR and marketing. When they bought the business there were three incumbent full-time employees. Now, four years later, the rebranded Stylehouse Design team has grown to 24. It’s no longer a basic kitchen cabinetry business: now they do high-end kitchens, wardrobes, vanities and laundries.

Lockdown meant a temporary pause, followed by a period of massive expansion.

“We did have to restructure thanks to Covid, but the post-lockdown period was very kind to our business in terms of growth. We didn’t have much choice but to grow fast. We don’t advertise either, it’s all just word of mouth.”

Uncalled returns

Michelle and Ian could have put their money into a rental property or into some other alternative investment, but a business has quite a different risk-reward matrix.

According to Stats NZ, small and medium businesses don’t have great survival rates. Latest data finds that around 45 per cent of enterprises last five years, and the survival rate keeps dropping as the years go on. If that happens you might not just lose the money you’ve invested, but owe money that you used to fund a company that no longer exists.

As with any investment, a big risk can mean a big payoff, and the returns on owning a business are effectively uncapped. And if you manage your cash flow effectively, you won’t need to keep putting your hand in your pocket to fund the company.

A vital factor in the success of Stylehouse Design was the way Michelle carefully set up their terms of payment. It meant that, with jobs flowing through from the previous owner, they haven’t had to dip into their revolving credit since three weeks after they bought the business. Michelle also credits team work as essential: support from her accountant Manisha Kesha (at SME Financial) and lawyer Tracey Edmonds has been invaluable.

“People just don’t understand how much you can leverage off a business – you can’t do that with any other investment. It’s exponential. If you have the balls to buy a good business and set it up right, it’s the best.”

Work ethic the key

Does that mean business ownership could be the perfect investment for you? As a nation of small business owners, plenty of people like the idea of saying goodbye to their boss and grabbing their own future, but it’s risky and requires a huge amount of work.

“Since Covid I’ve heard about a lot more people who are looking to buy businesses,” Michelle says. “They can be a bit clueless. They think, ‘I’m going to live the dream and be my own boss, it will all be sweet’. But you need to go in with your eyes wide open … you’ll never work as hard. Owning something that’s yours can feel like a noose around your neck. I’m responsible for all these people putting food on their tables each week.

“But I would never go back to a job again. I’m in charge of my own destiny and I love helping people and seeing them grow. It gives me a lot of enjoyment to see all the new people growing in their roles, especially how many more women we have employed in roles right across the business. Hearing how much they love their jobs gives me a lot of enjoyment.”

Building a business takes all your time and energy in the early days. Michelle and Ian still need to be able to take holidays, and eventually claw back their own time. That’s when the investment in Stylehouse will start to pay off in financial and lifestyle terms.

Recently, Michelle and Ian took a five-day holiday in Fiji, which was the first time since 2018 they had taken a break from running the business. It will be several years before they can really sit back and relax, but when that day comes Michelle says she won’t feel guilty about enjoying her hard-earned freedom.

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