“The customer is king. Cover your back. Always do what you say you will do.” These are just a few of the business philosophies that Ina McCorkell goes by, Owner and CEO of EasyChef. For over two decades in the business, Ina imparts her grains of thoughts and nuggets of wisdom on how to overcome the challenges of the entrepreneurial journey.
Both of Ina’s parents were self-employed, so taking the entrepreneurial route seemed a natural progression for her. “When you grow up in an environment where people create their destiny, it encourages you to see it as normal. It's a lot easier if your family are already doing their own thing. Four of my siblings do their own thing,” she professed.
Supplying Australian food to Asian market was something she saw as an opportunity because their family had farms. Ina pointed out, “We grew up knowing that Australia had a natural advantage with food because we have land. It's quite a big country, so we have different seasons. We have variation because Australia is tropical and temperate.”
Before she set up her venture, Ina first worked as a trainee in a supermarket chain in Taiwan. “Working at the coalface of retail in Taiwan, I saw an interest in Western food, as explained by the locals, and an opportunity for good Australian food, in particular,” she cited.
From her love of food and travel, Ina started in 1995 their own food export business, EasyChef, with her husband Maurice, who was a graphic designer from Barcelona. But when Maurice was diagnosed unwell in 2013, Ina took over the reins of running the business by herself. Since their children are in their teens, they also help out, especially the eldest who is working part-time in the business. But Ina says there are still no signs that they are serious about doing this as a profession.
The children have a good business foundation because they grew up with Ina and Maurice already involved in EasyChef. Ina described how it was when they had the children four years after they started their venture. “It was good because when you run your own business, you have a lot of flexibility in your time. For the first ten years, I had an office at home, and the staff were in the rear of the house in a converted garage. The children were in the house, and the office was in the back garden.”
Starting a business was a tough ride, but Ina and Maurice pressed on. Ina recounts the early days, “We started the business and funded it by having part-time jobs in a petrol station. We probably continued juggling work at the petrol station and starting the business for about three to six months. Within a couple of months, we started getting regular repeat orders. I think we employed our first staff member within the first year.”
As they began in the fruit and vegetable export space, they had to contend with long working hours to get the business going. They would start their day by going to the wholesale market at one o’clock in the morning, working till midday, sleeping in the afternoon, then resuming work at night. “It was long hours, but the business moved very quickly. All the businesses we provided were overseas, so we only exported. The value of the consignment we were doing from the beginning was a minimum of five thousand to ten thousand dollars shipments. It was quite a large value for a small business starting out,” Ina proclaimed.
But as much as they put a lot of hard work on the business, there were things beyond their control. The political turmoil overseas, particularly the crisis in Indonesia in 1999, had a huge effect on their enterprise. The currency has devalued rapidly, and some customers were unable to repay their balance. What scared Ina then was not having enough cash flow and getting into debt.
Good thing there was credit insurance to counter the risk of trading overseas. “That was probably our best backup. But that was more for larger debts. For day-to-day cash flow, we structured our suppliers to be paid around our payment receipt days since some of our customers pay us only twice a month. We made sure that the suppliers were paid in batches after the receipts come in from overseas. We also went into diversification so that we are not too reliant on one customer,” Ina disclosed.
During the initial years of the venture, Ina admitted that they lacked direction and accountability, as EasyChef was run more as a lifestyle than on strategy. It was only in the last three years when they implemented budgets and business plans. Also, Ina felt that the business controlled her as they were starting out, unlike now where she feels more in control of it. “I think when you're young, and you first start a business, you feel like you have to please everyone and work with everyone and do whatever is required. When you get older and wiser, you learn to say no, and you put boundaries around who you work with and what you are doing. Now, I completely decide where the business is going, who I want to be our partners, and what type of people I prefer to engage in the business,” explained the food-loving entrepreneur.
Running a business requires constant effort that Ina found it very hard to switch off. She stressed, “I think the other challenging thing is that for me, it never stops. Because I like my business, I tend to think about it all the time. It's quite engulfing even after so many years.”
The great sense of responsibility can be overwhelming for Ina. She expounds this by saying, “The negative also is that the buck stops with you. When there are issues, there's no one else to fix it except yourself. Sometimes you have to do the challenging parts of the business that no one else wants to do, such as chasing the money, firing or disciplining a staff member, or whenever everything gets too hard. That's when the fires are too big. That's when they need the CEO.”
Despite the challenges, the ability to evolve and adapt to the changing landscape is something that she has learned in her journey. “If something challenging happens, you can't sit and continue to do things the way you always did it. I think challenges are the best lessons. When you face challenges, contemplate what you can do better and how you can handle it better. Then put procedures in place for the next events. When you learn your lessons, you can move forward,” Ina counselled.
She has also learned a lot from being part of EO Melbourne, which was introduced to her by her younger brother, Bill. What she found valuable in EO is the camaraderie and the environment of continuous learning and development. “Everyone is trying to do better. We're always learning from each other. Because the cohort is ambitious, it also makes you ambitious. It's fun because most people that run their businesses tend to have a sense of adventure. It can be lonely when you're running a business on your own, that's why EO is good,” Ina said. She added that EO also taught her discipline and provided her with tips for improvement. Likewise, she drew inspiration and drive from the group.
However, the best advice that she remembered was the one that her grandfather gave her, which is to be a person of her word and to pay her debts on time always. It’s the same advice she wants to impart to her children, should they later decide to take the entrepreneurial journey. “The best advice to the children is the one on being a person of your word. Be honest. Be reliable and trustworthy. I also think that you need to be flexible and agile. You need to plan, but you also need to plan to change. So, if things aren't working out the way you want it to work, you need to look for another path.”
There are instances when there are forces that would go against you. But Ina prefers to focus on the positive. “You have to be brave and follow your instinct. People around you can be negative and pull you in a different direction. I think when your instinct is strong, you should follow through with them,” Ina added.
Armed with all these learnings, Ina hopes to bring her company to greater heights. Having served the company for 24 years, she wants to take an advisory position in the company in the future than being involved in the day-to-day dealings. With her vision, goals and hopes for EasyChef, she envisions a better tomorrow for the venture. Ina stated, “I would like to see the business to be much more automated, and the staff to have more ownership over what they're doing. There will be a need for this type of business, but I think the platform in which we do the business will be more automated and faster.”
On the other hand, Ina likes to take time off from work whenever she gets the opportunity. In fact, she looks forward to spending holidays with her family, travelling, and visiting the farm. She’s also involved in helping set up a charity, called Electrosensitivity Australia. For now, she enjoys the business journey, taking to mind the benefits that the entrepreneurship brings to her. “The advantage is ownership and flexibility, especially for a working mum. I think it's good. It’s creating your destiny. It's very creative having a business because you can design where you want the business to go,” Ina quipped.
And for those who plan to enter the entrepreneurial world, Ina has an added food for thought, “First, plan the life that you want to have. Then, build a business around meeting your personal goals.” These are wonderful words from the EasyChef head, which can nourish the business mind, heart and soul.
For more about EasyChef, visit http://easychef.com.au/.