If resilience is driven by experiencing an extreme or unexpected event, two businesswomen from the NSW South Coast are pretty sure surviving the Black Summer Bushfires means they’ll be able to handle anything the universe throws at them in future.

After all, there’s nothing like facing the full fiery fury of Mother Nature, to be jolted back to what matters most, or turns your head to an entire new way of thinking.

In the months following January 2020, Kay Saarinen and Jo Lane have watched their businesses, both within the wellness space, experience interesting parallels as the aftermath of the fires force them to stand still and decide exactly where they want to be.

The Entrepreneurs’ Programme has been quick to respond, launching its Strengthening Business service to help rebuild and reboot small to medium businesses in fire-affected regions.

Just days after the South Coast re-opened its roads, experienced business facilitator Monique Donaldson travelled to meet with both Kay and Jo, and help them sort through the avalanche of assistance that tends to follow such a huge event.

So, where do you start to strengthen a business that’s been impacted on so many levels?

For Kay Saarinen, her company Saarinen Organics has been happily building an enviable reputation for sustainable skincare products, using organic ingredients grown on her own farm in Wyndham, one of the worst-impacted fire zones. She readily admits she had always relying on local markets, pop-up shops and a very basic website to service her customers. But when the smoke cleared, quite literally, Kay realised she needed to ramp up the digital side of her business.

“For a few weeks there, we were fighting bushfires and were evacuated on seven separate occasions,” says Kay. “I’d managed to get a tiny amount of space on the Instagram sites Buy from the bush and Spend with them, and when we finally got into Bega to check emails, we had 50 orders waiting! It basically helped save our business.”

Kay still loves the face-to-face element of her work, but there’s definitely a much stronger digital focus now. “I’m still very much stuck on the farm, removing dead trees and fixing fences, but the digital platforms allow me to still make an income. We’re actually looking at our business model in a whole new way.”

Jo Lane runs Sea Health Products, which turns wild-harvested Golden Kelp into nutraceuticals, from shampoo to seasonings. She’s used the enforced downtime to reassess and start planning for her own kelp farm, which she hopes to have operational by late 2020. Jo says the fires and then COVID-19 has sharpened her business vision.

Having the support of the Entrepreneurs’ Programme and the Bega Valley Innovation Hub, as well as talking to other local businesses owners like Kay, you find reassurance and feel more confident, and you really feel like, ‘I can do this’!
— Jo Lane

Growth facilitator Monique Donaldson says it’s taken time and patience to help businesses navigate the right financial support, but many have been just as appreciative of having someone who can see beyond the hardship for new opportunities.

“Kay’s business is now looking to make connections and upscale the production of her Saarinen Organics, including a new factory, while Jo wants to collaborate more with researchers, and we’ve linked her into the CSIRO to help with planning for her new kelp farm”, says Monique.

The Entrepreneurs’ Programme Strengthening Business service has deployed two experienced facilitators into the Eurobodalla and Bega Valley regions, with a third Facilitator on their way for the Shoalhaven. They’re part of a ground-force of 21 facilitators in NSW, SA and VIC, working alongside bush-fire impacted SME’s for the next 2 years.

General Manager of Entrepreneurs’ Programme, Andrew Lewis says this is a free service that will complement the existing recovery effort and establish resilience safeguards.

“Facilitators will guide businesses to government support available to help minimise the impact of COVID-19 on their ability to forge ahead,” Mr Lewis said.

About Strengthening Business

The Strengthening Business initiative is part of the Australian Government’s Bushfire Affected Small Business Rebuild package. The package also includes a $10,000 grant for eligible businesses, distributed through state government business services.

Fire-affected businesses can apply for Strengthening Business services or contact their state hotline to check what support is available.

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