Whangamata clothing boutique owner Karan Gregory on why you don’t need a degree to be a great business owner

Boutique owner Karan Gregory has an eye for business based on experience earned, not learned. 

Words: Cheree Morrison 

1990: A gap from Takapuna Grammar

Karan, a keen sportswoman, was happy with a pass during her school years at Takapuna Grammar but her grades weren’t good enough for entry to her hoped-for career as a P.E. teacher. So she took a gap year, nannying, snowboarding and managing a Burger Wisconsin. There was also a high-energy phase as an aerobics instructor and personal trainer.

1994: ABN Amro Bank

“Everyone my age was moving overseas. I moved to London and my flatmate, who was in recruitment, decided I needed to work where the money was — in finance.” Based on a revamped CV (displaying more skills than Karan actually had), she was offered a job as a trades assistant at ABN Amro Bank. Taking the classic Aotearoan “she’ll be right” approach, she learned the ropes while spending her salary and spare time traveling throughout Europe. A new position within ABN Amro brought her closer to home in Sydney, before following her then-partner to foodie heaven, Melbourne.

2003—2005: The business of burgers

Karan had often wondered about starting her own burger business since living above and managing the Mt Albert Burger Wisconsin, and as she grew tired of banking and office life, the dream of owning her own business became increasingly appealing. It took weeks of scouting Melbourne suburbs for ideal premises, preparing a business plan and finalizing costs, only to have her request for a $60,000 loan rejected by 11 banks. Dejected but determined, she took the risk of a loan with a 16 per cent interest rate and set up Urban Burger. “We sold out of everything on the first night. One week later, I was approached with an offer to buy the business. I wasn’t ready, but they kept coming back month after month. After working 14 hours a day, every day for a year, and at the end of my relationship, they offered me a lot of money. I accepted and moved back to New Zealand.”

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2006: Feeding the Soul in Whangamata

Whangamata was a much-loved childhood destination for Karan, and she brought her burger business skills to the beach. Soul Burger opened in 2007. “A lot of people thought we had a gold mine, but the reality was that I was in the same cycle as before — long hours, low margins, no ability to walk out and turn off at night.” Now with two young children, the hours became unrealistic, and Soul Burger went on the market in 2008. After a few years enjoying being “just Mum”, Karan began brainstorming her next venture.

She wasn’t the only local making regular shopping trips to Auckland, so she focused on fashion. When she couldn’t find the right retail space, she took inspiration from the Christchurch rebuild and applied to put two containers on an empty lot. “I had committed to $30,000 of stock, but obtaining council approval was near impossible. They kept saying I didn’t tick all of the boxes, but why couldn’t we create a new box? It took determination and perseverance, and letters to the mayor and lawyers to get consent, but I’m glad I kept pushing as the containers gave the store character and curiosity.”

2012—2018: Contain

In 2016, Karan reopened Contain at 644 Port Road, Whangamata. The store now sells 106 brands (and counting) and stocks approximately $500,000 worth of wares. Husband and former builder Dean works full time on the admin/online side, and three part-time staff help out. As big city streets clog with yet-more traffic, and stratospheric house prices weigh on weary minds, the regions are ever-more flush with commuter expats. Summer is frantic, but no tumbleweeds roll down Whangamata roads in winter and the online aspect of the business is growing. “We still have quiet days, but the website helps to balance it out. Summer is madness, and it’s not unheard of for me to work 20 days straight.”

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Start from scratch.
“New Zealand can be very ‘degree-ist’. People can go through university by cheating or cruising, but as long as they have a piece of paper, they’ll get jobs. “I’m a hard worker. I’ve built my career and I’ve forged my path. I’ve beaten the stigma.”

20/20 vision.
“Fashion is hard to break into — companies are protective of their brands and want to know the particulars of your store — right down to the wall colour. So make sure there is a clear vision before pitching to potential clients. Start by securing one label and gain momentum.”

Step up, not back.
“I disagree with owners who work on or with their business but not in it. I worked on the floor until 2017 (and still do regularly), and that’s how I know my customers, which enables me to buy with specific people in mind. I’ve reached a milestone moment with the business — I’ve done the hard yards and the time has come to delegate and ask for help.”

Contain is one of many local businesses featured in The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand 2019, in stores now and online.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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