I met Caroline McCulloch for the first time on the day of our interview. I was however, very familiar with her work! Frankie4 Footwear have been growing in popularity and so many people I speak to are joining the 'sole revolution' - myself included.
I was also lucky enough to present an award to the Frankie4 team at the Lord Mayor's Business Awards in October. It was my 3rd year as MC and Caroline took out the 'Channel 7 Business Person of the Year Award'. Due to work commitments she was overseas, so she sent a video message instead. Hearing a bit more about her journey made me certain that Caroline was perfect for 'My 30 Minutes'.
Nothing could prepare me for her passion, wisdom and joy! Meeting Caroline may have actually changed my life. I hope her story inspires you too!
Tell me about Caroline – who is she?
I’m a 38 year old mother of two. I have a 4 year old and a 6 year old. Happily married to a podiatrist. I’m a podiatrists and a physiotherapist myself, turned footwear designer. So I do still take a small case load of patients, but my focus and my passion is on footwear and developing footwear that women feel comfortable and confident in.
After 8 years of treating patients with footwear under our roof, so we stock other brands like ECCO, NAOT, Birkenstock and then all the sports shoe brands. We’ve always incorporated footwear into our businesses. We’re actually the first podiatry clinic to stock retail footwear in our business and lots of podiatrists have done that since because it’s a fantastic model – if I do say so myself. You can’t separate podiatry treatment from good footwear.
So after years of treating women with footwear and hearing time after time, women complaining about the look of the shoes.. I decided that we had to do something! Patients couldn’t deny that footwear helps their pain, or reduces the symptoms but they weren’t happy with the range we could offer.
So after stocking all these different brands I was able to think about what different things didn’t need to be in a shoe. What made them look chunky, clunky and that women didn’t like the look of, but I was able to learn what features of a shoe really worked and helped reduce pain.
We called a footwear supplier in Sydney and I was able to speak to them about ideas I had and I made this dodgy prototype, which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s embarrassing when I think of it. I was like stapling leather together and using the grinders in the lab to make soles. So I flew down there and starting working with this Sydney manufacturer on a range. We had just two styles and we sold them just within our podiatry clinics to our patients, that way I could get direct feedback and see what our customers thought about the look and the feel of the shoes. If there’s anyone who is not going to lie about your product – it's your patient with sore feet and they will tell you if it doesn’t work.
Lots of tweaking later – the range was selling really well and we had great feedback. But we did find it quite hard to make in Sydney. A lot of the ideas I had they weren’t really on board with and because I was just a podiatrist and physio, and not a trained footwear designer, they did question a lot of my ideas and tried to push me towards just the standard footwear making – what other brands do, that they were making for. There was some frustration there, so my husband Al who used to work for Adidas has some connections in the footwear industry and they said ‘go to this supplier in China, they make for a lot of Australian brands. They do quality footwear and they make responsibly’. So after having our shoes on the market for a year and having good feedback we headed over there. I was six months pregnant – terrible morning sickness, throwing up left right and centre. Even just throwing up on the streets of China, not even in a toilet, it was horrible.
We walked into this meeting with our supplier. We’d sent them our two styles that we had on the market, so they could quote and tell us if they could make them. We’ve gone in and they said ‘of course we can make these shoes’. And I was like ‘oh ok and can you do this?’ I talked to them about these ideas that I had and they were like ‘of course, yes, yes!’
My jaw dropped, and they wanted to know why I looked so shocked, and I said ‘I thought it would be something hard to do because my previous supplier told me it was hard and that I didn’t know what I was doing.’ Even when we had ordered from our original supplier - they’d made changes to the footwear and I was devastated. They changed the density of the foot bed, they changed the density of the soles, so it was a push that we needed to move somewhere else.
When we were in China they showed us around this factory and it was amazing! It was beautiful, it was clean, and methodical. And they said ‘we will have samples to you in six days.’ Incredible!
Then they did the pricing on the shoes and their pricing meant that we could wholesale. We already had podiatrists ringing us up to ask if they could stock Frankie4 but because of the price of what our shoes were in Sydney - and I hate to say it - we actually couldn’t wholesale. I was paying as much for our shoes as we did stocking other brands, so I couldn’t wholesale the label. But moving to these guys meant we could.
They did some samples and it was beautiful, beautifully finished and we’ve been with the same supplier since. Due to some labour problems in China, (there’s a lot of things happening in China) a lot of the bigger, more reputable footwear makers moved to Vietnam and our supplier moved over there, and we moved with them. So all of our shoes are actually made in Vietnam, but I develop the range in China.
Tell me about the timeline – you’re 38 now, a qualified podiatrist and physio, when did you start making shoes?
I finished podiatry in 2003. Al and I started All Podiatry and The Shoe Co. and straight up we started stocking shoes, so my first year practicing as a podiatrist - we had footwear!
We also had our orthotic lab, so I started modifying shoes to hold the foot in a better biomechanical position, so putting heel raises in them, orthotics in them, modifying the soles, even the uppers. So we were playing around with shoes from the beginning.
My first year of podiatry I was also studying physiotherapy full time – that was for 4 years. I didn’t have children then.
In 2011 – the year my son was born – we found the Chinese manufacturer. So things have grown rapidly since finding them. When we saw them they said to us ‘for us to make for you, you need to turn over 1,000,000 US dollars per year with us’. I did the math in my head and I had sweat coming down to my waist, I was really stressed out because I knew we couldn’t do that. Alan is just so positive he’s like ‘yeah we can do that, that’s fine.’ I’m looking at him and my eyebrow was twitching. But I really wanted to be with this factory, with this supplier. So our first year passed, and we did not even come close. We only did that turn over two years ago. But because we developed such a good rapport with our supplier and we paid our bills on time – we just said to them ‘every order we place, we promise it will be bigger than the previous order’. So they were happy to work with us. But we were by far their smallest account and it was embarrassing. We were so embarrassing small. He used to say to me ‘you’re by far my smallest account’, so I was like ‘fine, who’s your next smallest account?’ He told me it was Mimco and told me the numbers they were doing, and I thought as long as I can make more than Mimco, it means we’re not the smallest.
Finally I knew we’d bunny hopped over Mimco, so I turned up to work in China – I deliberately did a high ponytail so I could swing it around. I was like ‘Henry I’ll have you know – we are no longer your smallest account’. He burst out laughing and he said ‘well actually we no longer make for Mimco.. you're still our smallest account!' I was so angry, but we have such a good rapport with our supplier. I’m over there three, possibly four times a year and it’s good. I enjoy it, I don’t dread it, it’s easy, it’s OK to be away from the kids because I just Skype them everyday. I hook in, I get so much work done over there, I really enjoy working with them, so we are clinging onto them.
Tell me about the name Frankie4?
We used to have a dog called Frank. He was a little Tenterfield Terrier and he passed away about four months ago - so devastating! But we started the business before we had children and so Frank was my child. ‘Frank’ and ‘Frankie’ were all trademarked names already, so we changed it to Frankie4.
The 4 is to represent our brand ethos and what we stand for and that’s – functional, fashionable, innovative, and giving back.
The giving back - I developed a sock range and it's purely to raise money for Brainchild Foundation. This year our goal was to raise $10,000 for Brainchild, but we're going to do about $12,000. So next year we will raise more - my goal is $25,000.
Why is it so important to you to give back but also to make responsibly?
My parents used to have a cotton property outside Goondiwindi, and I know sometimes my mum will make comments and she’ll have regrets about her life, like her working life. Certain things she has regrets about.
I just don’t want to be in that position where I look back and have regrets. I want to look back and think that was awesome, we did great things! We made a great product, we made lots of people happy.
'Because deep down I’m a podiatrist and a physio, so this is my way of treating lots of women.'
So making a great product and knowing we did good things! And I’m really proud of that! Proud of the team we’ve built, how we operated, so really for myself that I’ll be able to look back and think ‘that was awesome’ and be proud of what I did!
When it comes to the shoes, on top of functionality - they're fashion! Was that something that always interested you?
I’ve always loved fashion. I’ve actually always been quite a creative person. I wanted to do art at school but my mum was like ‘you’ll be doing physics, biology, chemistry, maths B and maths C’. So she really pushed me down that path.
But the creativeness in me – I loved treating patients and there were those years where all I did was treat patients - but I really craved doing something creative.
Being able to design footwear just satisfies all those needs that I have. Going to work every day - it doesn’t feel like work, I love it, I truly, truly love what I do! Then having a small case load of patients also ticks those boxes for me.
It’s beautiful sitting here and looking around at what you’ve built – it’s a beautiful space, there’s pets here (someone gets to bring their dog to work each day), all of your staff seem genuinely happy. How important is the team and the people that surround you?
Before we had children Al and I used to work really long hours. We worked Saturdays as well, so we worked six day weeks – long days, long hours.
Then I had our son Max and for the first six months it was really difficult, because I thought that he would just slot into work and he didn’t. It was really hard. He didn’t sleep well. The wheels began to come undone for me, where I thought ‘oh my gosh, I wasn’t meant to have children’. I just really wasn’t coping. But I really loved Max so I thought ‘no I am meant to have children because I know how much I love you’. That’s when I realised - the only way I was going to make this work, is if I have a good team.
Piece by piece or team member by team member, as long as I’ve got the right team behind me I can do this! As soon as we don’t have the right team – it’s hard, it’s really hard. But with the right team it’s good, it’s viable for me. The team is more important than anything else because without them I can’t do this.
I have to meet up with our accountant every six months and when he looks at our figures he tells me we need a general manager, or someone to come in and oversee everything because he’s so afraid I’m going to burn out. But I have never been less stressed – as long as I have the right team, we’re right.
We have some rules around our staff - if staff don’t want to be here, we don’t want them here. When we’re recruiting - and I actually read this in one of Richard Branson’s books so I won’t take credit for it - but he said ‘hire for attitude, not for skill’. When I spoke to Hilary who does all my recruiting I said to her ‘when you’re looking at resumes, get some people in because of what’s on their resume, but then also get some people in because their resume feels like they’ve got a bit of sass. Or when you’re talking to them on the phone - they feel good, they feel warm and fuzzy.’ So when we hire people, it’s those who want to be here, rather than people who have a long skill set, but they don’t fit.
My team is incredibly important for me. That’s also why I make sure our premises are really beautiful and they’re proud to come here. If that’s what helps keep them happy, then I’m happy to do whatever it takes, because they’re helping me keep happy and balanced!
Your children are 6 and 4 years old. What is it like juggling work and kids now?
I am not ashamed to admit that I have so much help! I don’t juggle work and the kids by myself. Alan is the most incredible husband and father. If I’m in China he does less hours at work. Max is at prep five days a week. Rosie is in day care five days a week. Al does drop offs in the morning. I start work at 7 in the morning, so I do an early start. I’ll come in here, have meetings with the staff and then I leave and I go home. I can smash through a heap of work. At 2:30pm I leave home and I pick up the kids. So I actually finish work at 2:30pm. The only reason I can finish work at 2:30pm is because of all the people under this roof.
Sometimes I actually feel like a tennis ball machine – I throw the jobs out and the girls just catch it and run with it. So that’s all I do.
I’m really strict with my time. If I find myself doing anything that is someone else’s job, I slap myself on the wrist.
'If I’m doing someone else’s job, I’m eating into Max or Rose’s time. So I’m really disciplined in that way.'
I’m under committal when it comes to saying yes to things. Always say no, and then if at the time you feel you can, pleasantly surprise. I know that I work best and more efficiently if I don’t feel that I’m working over capacity. So my goal is to work at capacity or slightly below. I actually sat with all the staff and told them ‘none of you are any good to me if you’re over stressed. We’re either capacity or slightly under capacity.. just not too low capacity..’
If I just under commit and I feel balanced with the time I spend with my children, the time I spend with my husband, the time I spend by myself - because I’m someone who really needs time by myself - and then the time I spend with my girlfriends, then I just have to maintain my balance. Because it can come undone really quickly for me. I’m someone who.. if it’s not all good, it can go down really quickly.
What do you think success is?
Success is looking back when you’re 65 and saying ‘we did good things’ definitely.
You’re not 65, you’re not even close.. do you ever take a deep breath and look around and feel like you’ve achieved success? There will always be something new on the list and that will evolve and change but do you ever think.. I’ve found success?
People will always say to me ‘you’re never happy, you’re never content’. I always feel like there’s more we can do. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but I always feel like the range isn’t good enough. Even when I walk through the retail space every morning I think ‘the next season is so much better’.
Because I work 12 months ahead with each season, I’m already over this season when it hits the market.
If there’s one time I’ve actually stopped and gone ‘oh my gosh we are doing really well’ it was the Lord Mayor’s Business Awards. I will say.. the girls sent me through the video of you announcing it and I had a silent cry, in China in my own little room. I did just stop and go.. 'wow we have done really really well'.
I do feel really proud, but I don’t think we stop and celebrate milestones as much as we should. That is one thing that I do want to do for 2018 – is actually try and do something everything 3 months, because we have breakfasts and I want to talk about a milestone we’ve reached. The girls want to put in a bell to ring.
I feel like things are happening so quickly with us that by the time we realise we've hit a milestone and didn't celebrate.. we’ve already doubled it.
I’m also like that with the range. We’ve got a new style coming out in March and it’s a really cool sneaker, but I’ve already tweaked the sneaker, so it’s got a cool icon on it now, I’ve lengthened the tongue, there’s different things I’ve done to it. My supplier is like ‘Caroline these ones haven’t even hit the market yet and you’re already over them and improved them for the next season'. I was like ‘I know, do we even have to make these ones?’ She’s like ‘they’ve been stitched – yes!’
When I asked about success you related it to work and I doubt there’s many mothers who feel like they’re really nailing it.. but do you ever feel achievement in your personal life in that way of success?
I think that Max and Rose are really good kids. They’re really polite, they’re happy, they’re always laughing and they’re also secure.
The first time I had to leave Max was when he was six weeks old and I had to go to China and it was the same with Rosie. That was really hard, getting on that plane I was in tears.
I had always questioned myself whether that was the right thing to do, but now Max and Rose are very independent and they feel so secure with us. If we’re at a party they’ll happily play with other people, if we have babysitters come they’re happy, they know that we’re always going to come back and that we’re there, and we will only ever leave them with people we trust.
And then at the beginning of 2016 I really quit the guilt. I’ve gone ‘hold on, Al spends a good amount of time with the kids and it’s quality time - so phones are off. And I do too, and I’m happy.’ And I started to really enjoy work at the beginning of 2016, where as before that it felt hard, and because it took us a long time to even make a profit, we were running at a loss for a long time, it was horrible! I was really questioning why are we doing this when we have these two successful podiatry clinics? But I really listened to our patients and our customers and they were happy, but it was very expensive to do what we were doing.
As soon as we started to be profitable and also at the beginning at 2016 when the team started to feel solid, it was easier and more enjoyable.. I quit the guilt. I said ‘I’m happier and calmer, so what I’m doing must be right’.
If I wasn’t doing this I don’t think I’d be as happy as I am now.
For both of the kids – but particularly for Rose - what sort of world do you hope she’ll grow up in and things she’ll watch from you, to take on her herself?
We have a lot of people asking us ‘what’s the end goal with Frankie4, is it to sell?’ And at this stage we are enjoying this journey so much that the thought of selling isn’t an option.
We do think about Max and Rose and we do think – we don’t know what it will be like when it is time for them to make an income for themselves. If we can teach Max and Rose skills with managing staff and liaising with Chinese or Taiwanese people, or other overseas manufacturers. If we can give them as many skills as possible, then if we’re still running this business and this is something they’re interested in then, perhaps they might want to be a part of Frankie4, but if not, that’s fine.
We can use this business to give them the skills they need to help them, because god knows what type of world it will be like in 15 years time. And I know that I learnt a lot of my skills from my parents as well, owning their own cotton property. So hopefully we can do the same for our kids.
*N.B. - This was not a paid interview. Caroline donated her time for 'My 30 Minutes'.