On top of the food chain

Spending three consecutive days with self-made retail entrepreneur Katherine Sampson at a conference is a closeness her own children seldom experienced while growing up.

The mother-of-two has worked non-stop, often sleeping in the office or on interstate flights, since opening her second Healthy Habits sandwich shop in Melbourne 11 years ago.

Now with 34 stores nationally, an 80 per cent equity investor in the Dymocks family and her eyes set on overseas expansion, it’s a rare privilege to be able to pick her brain at length.

Her own son found out how hard it still is when he waited four days recently for her help with a school project which was only finished in the middle of the night before the deadline.

Although there was a time when Sampson, 45, read bed time stories and attended school assemblies, ever since divorcing and expanding the franchise business, some of that quality time has given way to real estate meetings, franchisee recruitment interviews and the complexities of managing a rapidly expanding retail operation. Since selling a majority stake to Dymocks, however, she says she’s getting her life back.

Sampson never planned on being a high-powered business woman. In fact, this Melbourne-born Greek girl’s dream was to get married and stay home taking care of her offspring.

Humble beginnings indeed for someone who has three times been a finalist of the Telstra Business Women Awards, a host of other retail and business accolades and is currently part of the global Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network designed to support and inspire others. BRW has listed Healthy Habits numerous times as one of the fastest growing franchising businesses in Australia.

“I’m sometimes envious when I look at other mums who have been able to stay home ... that lasts for five minutes,” she chuckles.

“I wouldn’t change my life for the world. I’ve been incredibly privileged. I’ve travelled, met incredible people, I’m so privileged I have to pinch myself sometimes. If I die tomorrow I feel I’ve succeeded.”

Sampson’s enterprising spirit was awakened when, after her first child, a relative offered her a part-time job at a sandwich shop which she took “to get out of the house”. A few months later the business was put up for sale and with $300,000 borrowed from her father, Sampson bought it, renovated it and rebranded it Healthy Habits. This gave her a chance to work flexible hours and still be there for the family. Then she got divorced.

“I remember my husband saying ‘you’ll be nothing without me, you’ll lose this business, you won’t be able to manage the business and the children’. It was at that point, that I realised I wanted to make a difference to my children’s life,” she says. The inspiration came from her immigrant parents owning a fish and chip shop and being able to give their three children a good start in life.

“This whole journey hasn’t been for me. It was never about being successful and being a career woman. The first store was about giving the children financial security, choices I could make for them.

“The rest is addictive. (Business expansion) is exciting.  You do because you can.”

A self-starter, Sampson has relied on business coaches – having once-a-week sessions for months at a time - to learn the more intricate ropes of the business, including financials, people management and franchising. She advises other entrepreneurs to do the same.

“These people actually listen and adapt the information they give you to your business. I can’t recommend coaches highly enough.”

Success for Sampson is not about money, although with a national brand, a corporate lifestyle and some nice family holidays under her belt, it comes in handy. Franchising is a new introduction to the business, reserved for the independently-run stores she cannot afford to buy.

“Success it’s about making a difference, about something you leave behind when you’re gone. Once my children have their own families, I will still have something I did and made a difference to my employees, my franchisees. I’m pretty passionate.”

Sampson has made a conscious decision to purchase stores only in suburban shopping centres, staying away from high-street locations and CBDs. Her formula has paid off, even when competing against franchise giants like McDonald’s and KFC.  She says Healthy Habits can make 50 percent more profit than an independently run sandwich shop in a similar location.

“We can double the sales of a poorly run independent business when we take it over,” she says.

Having moved to Sydney 14 months ago since partnering with Dymocks, she is now looking to expand the chain into New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the US. She credits Dymocks – which owns other food-related business and macadamia farms - and its appointments of chief executive and chief financial officer  at Healthy Habits with being well supported and able to resume a more balanced lifestyle.

“I absolutely have my life back now, I haven’t slept in the office in Sydney and I cook dinner for my son every night .” (Her 20-year-old daughter has remained in Melbourne where she studying architecture. )

So would she advocate a family succession plan for the business?

“No. I never allowed them to help in the business - I helped them get jobs outside. This is my journey, this is my dream. I want them to do what they are good at, what they want to do. I don’t want them to follow my path.”

For more stories like this visit the Executive Women section.

Lia Timson travelled to Shanghai as a guest of Dell.