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MBA Entrepreneurs: Female Founder Shakes Sydney's Bottled Water Industry

Bottle half full for female entrepreneur disrupting $700M drinks sector and enrolled in the UWA Business School MBA.

Tue Jun 30 2015

Suzanne Dodds has been a small business owner for 16 years, and was a senior manager at Appco Direct, a marketing and advertising company under the Cobra Group, known for manufacturing the McLaren GT race cars.

She enrolled in the MBA at Perth based UWA Business School, one of Australia’s finest, this year.

Before that, Suzanne was managing her start-up, Call a Cooler Pty, in Melbourne. Call a Cooler Pty was founded in 2007. It provides water coolers under an environmentally conscious ethos. The venture has sought to shake the Australian bottled water industry, growing to become one of Sydney’s fastest growing water filtration businesses, as the nation’s start-up scene begins to warm.

The bottled water market in Australia is worth $681 million, with approximately 34 businesses operating in the sector, according to figures from IBISWorld, a market research firm.

Prior to launching the venture, Suzanne was a country head for Appco Direct, based in South Korea. Within a year of arriving in Seoul, she had turned over $30 million and had grown the unit from three to 160 employees.

As an entrepreneur/founder of Call a Cooler Pty, why did you decide to enrol in business school?

I felt that I wasn’t learning anything new in my role as director at Call a Cooler. I had spent the last seven years building the business in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne and the business is well established. As a result, I was starting to get bored and needed a new challenge.

My youngest child also started school full-time this year so I knew I would have a lot more time on my hands. I also felt that if and when I decided to transition into a corporate role that, although I had valuable experience, my economics degree was somewhat outdated.

In addition to this, UWA has a fantastic reputation as a place to build your professional network.

What makes UWA a good place for entrepreneurs? 

There is a lot of support at UWA for entrepreneurs. There are networking events happening regularly, such as the Mac Equity events, where potential start-ups can pitch their ideas to private equity investors, or the recent Mustard Seed event hosted at UWA, again where start-ups had the chance of [receiving] up to $800,000 in capital.

The support is phenomenal from professors such as Ray Da Silva Rosa, a finance lecturer who has been extremely helpful in putting me in contact with people in the finance world.

There is massive industry involvement throughout the course. We have access to some of the top business leaders in Perth. I am also fortunate to have Robert Elstone as my mentor, who not only sits on the board at UWA Business School but is now a non-executive director at Westpac Bank. This type of exposure to world class business leaders makes UWA fantastic for not only entrepreneurs but any individual wanting to learn from the very best.

Australia is said to hold a growing start-up scene. How have you found Australia and Perth in particular for growing a business? 

Australia has been a fantastic place for me to both start up and operate a business. I opened my first company in Adelaide at [the] age [of] 24. Having operated businesses both here and abroad, Australia has definitely been the easiest to navigate — the English language helps.

There is a general consensus that funding is generally hard to come by here in Australia for start-ups. However, the market is changing. A combination of low interest rates and new technology is making it easier for fund seekers and providers to connect — contributing to a changing landscape for entrepreneurs.

Now that the mining boom is subsiding, hopefully we may see a bit more entrepreneurial activity.

You don’t need an MBA to launch a company. What do you feel an MBA will add to your business?  

No you definitely don’t need an MBA to launch a company. However, I think many new businesses would do a lot better if their owners had an MBA or some type of business training.

Being entrepreneurial is a mind-set of opportunism, but there is a lot more to understanding the intricacies of accounting, finance, marketing, sales, [and] commercial law.

The MBA is expanding my knowledge of all [of] these key areas and hopefully arming me with both a qualification and the skills to transition into a leadership team of a larger business.

How did the idea come about, and what’s the greatest challenge you’ve had with Call a Cooler Pty?

I launched Call a Cooler back in 2007. My husband and I had returned to Perth after working in Korea for a number of years. Having come from the sales industry, I had been building and growing businesses that carried out large scale customer acquisition programs on behalf of other businesses. The outsourced sales industry is typically cash rich but asset poor.

The recurring income of a rental model looked ideal, where a sales campaign could be carried out and the income from those new customers would continue to come in over the life of a contract.

In building Call a Cooler I have been continually constrained by lack of working capital. Acquiring a new customer drains cash from the business but the ongoing recurring rental income comes in for years thereafter, so to grow as fast as I wanted required more cash than I could get my hands on. This was a constant issue for me, and one of the reasons why I developed the licensee model to facilitate national expansion.

What are you most proud of, of your time at Appco Korea?

I arrived in Seoul with a sales manager and two Korean nationals from my office in Adelaide and, within nine months, I had over 160 people in the office and was turning over US$30 million in my first year.

The whole experience was fantastic. I am particularly proud of the deal that I initiated and signed with LG Telecom, which enabled us to weather the storm of the Tyco scandal that hit in 2002, shortly after I arrived. At that time my major client was ADT, and overnight the landscape changed and the business was suddenly very vulnerable.

With a sales background it was an easy transition for me into business development. I loved the thrill of the negotiations and the eventual partnering with LG Telecom to carry out large scale customer acquisitions for them throughout the Korean peninsula.

What are your future career plans?

I am definitely looking for a change in career after the MBA. I am looking for a role that will facilitate further development but one that will also allow me to use the skills I already have, in terms of leadership, sales and business development.