Against the odds

Leanne Preston is a firm believer that some things are meant to happen for a reason. The year was 1996, when Preston hit rock bottom after the break up of her marriage. Facing the prospect of raising her three children alone, it was out of economic necessity that she decided to start her own business.

Her transition from single mother to savvy entrepreneur evolved from an unlikely source. After one of her children contracted head lice, Preston discovered that there were only harsh chemical products used to treat the condition.

The idea had been planted – if there wasn’t a natural, non-toxic remedy, then why couldn’t Preston produce one, and better yet, create a business out of it?

Inspired by the challenge ahead, Preston began researching. “I knew that this had global potential from day one,” Preston recalls, “and that parents all over the world would have felt the same way that I do – that the toxic pesticides that were being used were really not acceptable. So that became my quest.”

After intensive research into botanical oils, she found scientific proof of their effectiveness against head lice. However, the task of producing and marketing a product without a scientific or business background was daunting.

Undeterred by those challenges, Preston devised a prototype – using a mixture of essential and plant oils – of the product that would eventually become known as Quit Nits.

She set up production in a farm-shed on a friend’s premises on the outskirts of the Margaret River in WA, using old beer barrels and farming equipment.

The inspiration for the business’ name transpired after reading a letter to her late grandmother, where Preston had referred to her youngest sister as a ‘wild child’. Hence, Wild Child the business was borne.

While Preston may have been short of corporate career experience, her natural business acumen steered Wild Child on the path to progression. She enlisted the help of industry experts to fulfil important areas of the business.

“I took the unusual step very early on of setting up a board of directors. For me, it was building this global vision, but to do that, I had to have people who had the experience and were skilled in the areas that I wasn’t.”

The first person Preston approached was a pharmaceutical chemist to look after technical and regulatory product development. She then brought onboard an accountant and financial planner as well as some major captains of industry. “I surrounded myself with experts and they’ve been really great mentors and people who have helped guide me.”

It took six months of dealing with bureaucratic government agencies until she got the product off the ground. Preston set up her own distribution team – of mostly working mothers – who were excited about the product and attracted to being able to choose their own hours.

Highs and lows

The gap in the market for a natural head lice treatment, and the personalised sales approach soon began to reap results. Within three weeks of sending out the first batch of Quit Nits in 2000, $100,000 worth had been sold to pharmacies, health food shops and hairdressers around Western Australia. Demand for the product continued to grow, thanks to Preston’s determination and the belief shared in the product by her 20-strong female sales-force.

“You can’t expect anybody else to believe in your idea if you’re not totally committed,” Preston stresses.

The word spread among pharmacists across the country. She was soon approached by the biggest pharmaceutical wholesaler in Australia, who was quick to buy into the vision – literally – purchasing nearly 10,000 bottles upfront.

Preston says the best investment she ever made was in the development of a business plan. “In my first year of development, I had a partly formalised business plan and it wasn’t until I had a crisis that I realised there were many areas of my business that I hadn’t addressed,” she says.

That crisis was the loss of half a million dollars through faulty manufacturing of Quit Nits bottles. Cash reserves had hit rock bottom, and thanks to a loan from a friend, Wild Child was able to recoup its losses and forge on, despite an ensuing three year court battle against the manufacturer. Some business lessons are learned the hard way.

It was through this major set back that Preston brought a company in and spent three months with them, “building a working business model that [we were] able to use as a platform to launch internationally”.

Despite the humble home beginnings, the set backs and the bureaucratic hurdles, Wild Child has gone from strength to strength and launched into the US market in early 2008. 

“We’re in 14 countries, we have the three largest retailers in Europe and our products [are] on sale through the largest pharmaceutical chain in the US, so for us it’s been a huge achievement and now all those retailers are saying ‘What other products can you give us?’”

Beyond the business

Preston had her work cut out, juggling a thriving business and being a single mother to a young family, however she never let go of the global vision.

“I think it’s [possible] to enjoy both – you can become a successful businessperson and you can also still manage to be there for your family. It’s often a struggle, but you can achieve that and it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice one or the other.”

Preston’s business success was recognised by industry leaders, winning the Telstra Australian Businesswoman of the Year in 2007.

She says that winning the award has opened up networking systems, providing access to like-minded female entrepreneurs. “It’s put me in touch with a lot more high profile women who I am able to communicate more freely with.”

While caring for children and the environment is a primary focus, there is an important area outside of the business that she is equally passionate about. Wild Child has an active role in supporting orphanages in Cambodia and Vietnam.

“Being able to be there and seeing that we can actually contribute and make a difference really moves me deeply and as a mother that’s something that we can do really well.”

Tenacity, belief and hard work has driven the business to great heights, and passion continues to fuel the business today.

“I hadn’t realised when I started Wild Child the intensity that it would bring to my life and that you’re constantly pushing yourself and facing new challenges – you wonder what you’re really capable of and what difference can you can make in your time here.”

It’s a remarkable story and one that has no doubt inspired others to fulfil their dreams. 

“I would like to think that we can leave a legacy behind that will continue long after we’re gone.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
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