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From rundown café to e-commerce giant: the rise and rise of SOL Group’s Emily McWaters

Sol Group founder Emily McWaters (centre) with sisters Amy (left) and Libby (right)

Sol Group founder Emily McWaters (centre) with sisters Amy (left) and Libby (right)

How do you take $10,000 and turn it into $10 million turnover? Best ask Emily McWaters, the tenacious law school dropout who got her hands dirty, shrugged off the naysayers and – with a helping hand from her sisters – became one of Australia’s most successful e-commerce professionals.  

In 2003, Emily, then 20-years-old, quit law school, fuelled by the entrepreneurial dream. Straying from such a safe, well-remunerated career path was a certainly a gamble but Emily, originally from regional South Australia, was able to beat the odds.

Today, she is the CEO of SOL Group, Australia’s leading online gifting company with four gifting websites, a multimillion-dollar turnover and big clients including Qantas, AMP, Westpac and American Express.  The company’s turnover grew 100% between 2014 and 2015, and is this year forecast to reach $10-12 million – a 30% increase on 2015.

A lot of little details that added up

Emily’s meteoric rise began in late 2005 when, having scraped together $10,000 in savings, she invested in Oscar’s, then a rundown café in Sydney’s Rose Bay. Within the first year, she had turned the business around and won Wentworth Courier’s ‘Café of the Year, Sydney Eastern Suburbs’.

“Hard work was the key ingredient”, Emily told Dynamic Business. “My sister Libby and I reviewed the presentation and brightened the café up, undertaking a lot of the cleaning and renovations ourselves to save money. We also did simple things like printing colour menus, introducing specials and making sure we knew regulars’ first name. In the end, all these little details added up.”

After selling Oscar’s for a six-figure profit in 2007, Emily – who’s passionate about gourmet food – used the proceeds to found wholesaler Kingston Foods with silent partner David Morgan. Sourcing quality food items from within Australia and abroad (thanks to a favourable exchange rate), Emily and her sister Libby grew the business from a very small niche wholesaler to one that had distribution through Coles, Woolworths, David Jones and Myer. With its focus on gluten-free food, Emily said Kingston Foods grew very rapidly, week on week.

A passion for improvement 

In 2010, Emily leveraged the skills she acquired in wholesale, including experience importing quality foods from the likes of France and Italy, to found The Hamper Emporium. To keep the ecommerce business at the forefront of luxury packaging, presentation and product quality, Emily began travelling abroad to research the latest trends, innovations and technologies.

As The Hamper Emporium continued to grow and thrive, becoming a leading corporate and personal hamper provider in Australia, Emily realised she enjoyed the online business model more than the wholesale model. Consequently, she sold Kingston Foods in 2014.

“Some businesses can outgrow their owners and that is what happened with Kingston Foods,” Emily explained. “During my time with the company, I developed considerably as a business person. I proved I could grow another business significantly and exit to the right buyers. Running Kingston Foods and the Hamper Emporium simultaneously also allowed me to hone numerous skills, including my time and people management skills. We had two workforces, so I had to ensure my people skills were spot on. Time management was also crucial – not only were we operating 24/7 with the ecommerce businesses, we were importing container loads of food with use-by dates. We had to ensure everything ran like clockwork because the alternative was paying lots of money to fix mistakes.”

Within two months of exiting Kingston Foods, Emily had founded SOL Group. Alongside The Hamper Emporium, the company’s portfolio of gifting websites now includes Gifts Australia, Everything But Flowers and Men’s Gift Store – and Emily plans to launch a baby and christening gifts website shortly. Last year, SOL Group dispatched more than 100,000 orders from Emily’s 1100 sqm warehouse in Sydney’s Regents Park.  At Christmas, SOL Group sold a gift every 22 seconds across its websites.  

“As online competition has increased, so have our customers’ expectations,” Emily said. “We’ve been able to keep pace with these expectations by making significant improvements to the website experience, product range, shipping options, dispatch and delivery timeframes, and – on the off occasion that delivery doesn’t go smoothly – problem resolution. I am passionate about constantly improving in everything we do; processes, presentation, products, delivery and customer service standards.”

Sol Sisters

Clockwise from top right: Amy, Emily & Libby.

The multi-talented SOL sisters

SOL Group grew so rapidly in its first year that Emily, seeking to dedicate more of her time to the business’ strategic direction, quickly brought her two sisters into the fold. Amy is the company’s Chief operating Officer while Libby is head of marketing with responsibility for purchasing for the websites.

“My two sisters and I bring vastly different skill sets to the table,” she said. “Consequently, we’re able to offset each other’s weaknesses and we’re constantly learning from one another.

“Libby designs, does basic coding, merchandises the sites, liaises with the suppliers, oversees all copywriting, heads up the launch of new sites and pretty much trouble shoots everything CMS-related. She is self-taught and loves learning how to do everything herself. Meanwhile, Amy is very staff, service and process oriented. Coming from a luxury hotel background, she has exceptionally high standards in terms of customer experience.  She keeps the whole team on track and motivated, and is currently overhauling the shipping options across all four websites.

“Unlike Libby, Amy couldn’t design to save her life.  And unlike Amy, Libby couldn’t deal with a customer complaint to save her life. What they have in common is a high level of motivation for the success and achievements of the business.”

Don’t ask for mum and dad

Perhaps the biggest challenge Emily has faced in her career is not being taken seriously by narrow-minded people.

“In the early days of Kingston Foods, when my sister Libby and I were running the business, we were asked by a delivery driver where our parents were! We drove the forklift, unloaded containers, we answered the phone, we paid the bills, we did everything – Mum and Dad were not involved!

“This is a fairly dramatic example of not being taken seriously but old-school misogyny has reared its ugly head throughout my work life and I’ve had to deal with incorrect assumptions about the ownership of the business. Luckily, I find this more humorous than challenging now!”

One big work family

While women account for 46% of Australia’s employees, Emily is in the unique position of managing an all-female workforce. Moreover, she employs women in traditionally male-dominated roles, such as warehouse and dispatch management

“This wasn’t by design”, she explained. “It was something that happened naturally. Perhaps seeing me work alongside my sisters helped attract other ‘sisters’ to the business! We hire for attitude and leadership skills, and put faith in our staff to deliver results, rather than making any assumptions about ability. This has ensured team cohesion and empowered people to perform beyond even what they thought was possible. By offering flexible hours and good pay we are able to acquire candidates with a lot of talent, motivation and loyalty. The attitude of the team is one of continual improvement with a view to staying ahead of the pack.  Their energy drives me to come up with exciting ideas to grow the business. It does feel like a big family here.”

When Emily isn’t with her ‘work family’, driving the growth of her dream company, she spends time with her own family at their farm on Kangaroo Island.