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31 July 2012
Married with three children, including twin girls, Annalise and Brett Law always knew they’d work together on their own business.
Just what that business would be was where the fun began.
Annalise has ‘entrepreneur’ as a family gene. Her American mother and French father had their own successful business in promotional marketing products.
“My mother is a rocket scientist,” says Annalise. “I’m serious,” she continues with a smile.
“She was unable to land a job in her field when she moved here from America in the 1960s with my father. He’d grown up in Australia.”
(Positions for highly qualified female aeronautical engineers who’d worked in the NASA space program were pretty short on the ground in Australia.)
“My parents decided to begin their own business, which eventually grew into a multinational, multidivisional company,” explains Annalise, who remembers the games she and her siblings played as a child revolved around that family business.
“We called it ‘Amcla’ after my parent’s business. I’d be the secretary and have one of those manual-key accounting machines with the paper that would roll out the top. We’d pack boxes with product for 50c an hour for my parents in the holidays and, because my mum is American, we’d go to the trade shows every year and spend six weeks in the States. We had the best childhood.
“When I finished school, I did a degree in Hotel Management and Business because the school career counsellor said I was a people person with an aptitude for languages,” says Annalise, who quickly learned hospitality was short on pay, long on hours and unsociable.
“I can cook a nine-course degustation menu but I’m shocking at a one-pot family meal – so much for that Cordon Bleu chef training.
“I was looking around for what to do, working in the family business and doing a Masters in International Law and Finance, when I met my husband.
“One of the divisions I ran in the business was promotional products. By the time I left Amcla [the family business], promotional products was something I swore I’d never do again. I felt like I’d spent my whole life doing it.”
As for where Annalise’s husband gets his entrepreneurial streak, she thinks it came from his father: “Brett’s father is in recycling. He designs filtration plants that convert sewerage into fresh drinking water. He was instrumental in the design of Singapore’s recycled water system. He started his own business and always said how much better it was and that he wished he’d done it sooner.”
As to when she and Brett began getting serious about their own entrepreneurial dreams: it was when they were on their honeymoon in South Africa.
“We fell in love with the native Guinea Fowl. The word for it in Swahili is ‘Kanga’,” explains Annalise, when we met recently for Ruby.
“We’d also both read Richard Branson’s books and were dreaming big. Why have one company when we could have a group of companies straddling the globe. Calling the company The Kanga Group made perfect sense – it was a nod to Brett’s South African roots and a reference to my Australian roots, and to our plans for something bigger.”
But the question remained: what would the company do?
“We had 20 ideas at least and we looked into all of them,” says Annalise, who believes her greatest challenge and where she’s learned the most has been having ideas and having them fail.
She’s also a firm believer in ‘backing yourself’, persistence and, when success eventually comes, understanding what your core offering is before branching out.
Annalise was as surprised as anyone when her eventual success came in the form of a promotional products business.
She is in, as she puts it, the “Trinketisation” industry – again: “We are a leader internationally in the promotional marketing industry. We produce branded product for companies: gifts with purchase, employee team building items, marketing promotions, all that sort of stuff.
“We work with premier brands – those at the top of their game – and we offer products that fit with those brands. Our products are not something you’ll find in a catalogue and they ensure our clients get heard above the clutter.”
According to the industry association, Australasian Promotional Products, sales in promotional marketing product in Australia recently topped $2.02 billion – an increase of 45 percent in the past five years; in America the numbers are even more mind-boggling. In a very precise detailed way, The Kanga Group has learned the value of proving increased sales can be linked to targeted, well-designed promotional marketing products.
“What drives me to work is solving the puzzle for my clients and meeting their needs. I want to be a beacon of integrity in an industry where there are some shonky operators and to build credibility for the industry,” says Annalise.
It’s not unheard of, she explains, to find operators declaring bankruptcy one day, leaving clients high and dry, only to get up the next morning and see them working with some other client on a new job… and in the race to win large contracts, profit has sometimes come in ahead of people’s well-being: “There have been product withdrawals due to operators resorting to using, for example, a lead based paint on a promotional food item’s wrapper because it was a cheaper option. Such choices aren’t made to put people in danger intentionally, but in the race for the contract, the industry, the client, the purchaser can suffer.”
In the past four years, The Kanga Group has undergone substantial growth: 100% year on year, according to Annalise. The ‘learnings’ associated with the process have been equally substantial. The most challenging issue for the company was staff, ensuring they were resourced to cope with the next big thing.
“About 3 years ago, we didn’t have the turnover to take on more staff but we had the work that required more resourcing. The question was: did we keep pushing on, pull back or close up shop? It was around that time I made my best financial decision and had my husband join the business as CEO.
“He drove growth. We worked hard and we’ve pulled through to a new level,” says Annalise.
The Kanga Group offers a full-studio design service, a business that deals with the sports industry and sponsorship, and a supply chain expertise arm as well as their core. Annalise finds mentoring, being mentored, speaking with colleagues in other industries as well as the power of networking provide her with practical on-the-job learning and that the communication channel flows both ways: “People ask about the international side of the business. They want to know if it’s a risky step. Look, it took a lot of hard work and I’ve learned along the way, but in the past year we’ve shipped more than 4 million items to 32 countries – it’s just what we do. I have an import export business with incredible customer service.”