An accidental entrepreneur. That is how Co-founder of retail company Blue Illusion, Donna Guest, describes herself. It was not something that she envisioned when she married her late husband and then business partner, Danny Guest. Moreover, becoming a CEO of a company was not something she contemplated when they started the business 20 years ago. She came into the position when Danny passed away suddenly last year.
Losing a business partner is one thing. The demise of a spouse is another matter. It was like a double tragedy for Donna. Someone who’s been a huge part of her life has departed. Business-wise, the difficulty was that she was more responsible for the creative side of the venture. Negotiating contracts, overseeing leases, and transacting with banks were Danny’s responsibilities. With the turn of events, Donna has to be comfortable with various aspects of the business.
This uneventful circumstance left Donna to rely on her executive team. This strong team quickly picked up the pieces and helped her run the company. Donna found it fortunate that her People and Culture manager that is handling HR is also a personal friend for the last 30 years. “She was mourning as well because she was very close to Danny. But she could nurture the rest of the team because I couldn't. So, it was an interesting time. I look back now, nearly eleven months, we're just starting to get out our pace and energy back, and celebrating the wins again,” Donna quipped.
The Guests started their business 30 years ago and grew it into a brand that has a presence in Australia, New Zealand and the US. Donna and Danny were already husband and wife when they started Blue Illusion, which marks its 20th year as a retail business. However, they were ten years into wholesaling before they shifted to retail. “My husband had a little business with his mom. Then she wanted to retire. I was pregnant with our second child. I came into the business, and we just we just hit it off. We knew what we wanted,” she narrated.
The independence and lifestyle of running a fashion business drew Donna on the entrepreneurial journey. But more than that, the obligation to provide for the family also brought her and her husband towards this career. “We wanted to send our children to private schools, and the only way we knew how was to work hard and be successful. It was our driver. But it was more of that we just loved what we did. Then we learned more about running a business as the years went along. We did every course I think known to man. We just had that spirit that there were no limits. We'd set our goals every year, and we'd achieved them. Then we would set another larger goal. It just grew and grew and grew. Before we knew it, we had 120 stores and a lot of employees,” shared Donna.
Donna and Danny were not born into wealth. Their humble beginnings and similarities in their upbringing bonded them together. They both had a huge drive. “We worked from very young, both of us. We were working from the age of 14 or younger, whether it was newspaper rounds or working at the supermarket or Danny working for his mom sewing. In our day, it was either you were educated and became a lawyer, or you left school young and followed your passion,” she stated.
That passion blurred any boundary there was when it comes to chasing their dreams. The possibilities became unlimited. “When you're passionate about something and super focused on it, it gains momentum,” Donna pronounced. That same passion kept them driven towards achieving their goals, regardless of the challenges and stumbling blocks.
The early stages were tough as they had to do everything. They also lacked organisation and focus on the things they were doing. “When we first started the business, my husband and I used to crossover roles. When we got bored of an area, we would swap. One minute he was the salesman or the sales manager, the next minute I was the sales manager. One minute he was doing designs, the next minute I was doing the design. It was until someone sat us down and told us to focus on our respective strengths,” she recalled. Donna then oversaw product and marketing, while Danny supervised the sales and all other aspects of the company, such as finance and operations.
Having this single-minded focus was one of the key learnings for Donna throughout her business experience. “Find something that you're seriously great at, and just focus on that,” Donna imparted. Thus, in aspects of the business which are not her strength, she employs people who are good in those areas.
As in most startups, difficulties were always present. Insufficient funds were among their major considerations. Also, there were so many things that they wanted to do straight away. Being new in the business at that time, they haven’t protected their business enough. One of the heartbreaks that Donna remembered they went through was having well-trusted employees stealing their intellectual property. “You put in all this work to learn and grow the ideas. I think it’s heartbreaking when that happens. It’s very disappointing, and it shakes your world a little bit,” she expressed. To address this concern, they had to put in systems and agreements in place.
Through the years, they had contractors who have helped them grow and develop their business. One of their role models, who is also their mentor, is Craig Kimberley, Just Jeans founder. “Craig Kimberley was the chairman of my advisory board. He was a great role model, a success story with the Just group. He was in our lives for a good ten years, mentoring us,” Donna said.
“Being part of EO Melbourne also enabled us to learn how to organise and lead our team efficiently. We recently did a learning activity with my executive team after attending the Verne Harnish’s strategy for the year. That was great because it pulled the team together, and we had great ideas. The executive team constantly communicates and congratulates their people when they achieve something and provides them with opportunities to grow,” she stated. However, Donna realised that while they were able to encourage the team, motivating a team through disaster was a lot tougher.
Continuous learning is one of the tools that Donna has found helpful throughout their entrepreneurial journey. She finds the EO international events and universities fantastic. “You’ve always got to look at what’s going on and learn,” Donna commented. She admits that she wasn’t good at networking, while her husband was a natural networker. He would communicate with various people to get ideas and stay on top of what’s happening in the marketplace. “I think that’s something that I’ve had to go outside my comfort zone to do. I'm quite happy with the fact that it's so worthwhile. It’s always great to hear other people’s experiences. So, networking is always a good thing, as well as studying and going to courses.”
With the company’s three pillars of fashion, lifestyle and community, Donna and her team are heavily involved with charities. They support six charities and hold day events for them. Similarly, their managers and staff also fundraise for charities that are of importance to them. “Normally, a lot of our ladies don't have the opportunity or the finances to donate a lot. But when they want to hold an event in store and raise money for charity, it's something special to them. They get a lot of joy from it,” Donna revealed.
Now that Donna is suddenly thrust to the helm, she rallies her people behind her. “We launched the vision of the company back in September because we felt that everyone wanted to understand where I would take the business.” She may have big shoes to fill, but she is stepping up to the challenge.
Her advice to business owners on facing unexpected predicaments like hers is this, “In my experience, for anyone in business, especially if they are a partnership, they should talk the ‘what ifs’ and work out what they would do in case a sudden crisis happens. I think if Danny and I had discussed this earlier when we were healthy and thought of a plan if there was some emergency or crisis, it would have been helpful.”
Their husband-and-wife business partnership worked perfectly well for them. Donna credits her other half for the success they have both achieved. “I know that there's a lot of entrepreneurial women out there that started their businesses and had huge success. But I can't say that I did all these on my own. I relied on my husband to support me and encourage me to take on the role that was not my natural ability. And now, in memory of him, he's challenging me to do it, and I'm learning to enjoy it.”
For Donna, her story is not complete without Danny. His legacy still lives in the heart of Donna, their family and the many people he touched. By sharing their entrepreneurial journey, Donna hopes to honour Danny and give him the acclaim of being such a wonderful entrepreneur.