When 27-year-old entrepreneur Mary Gouganovski was growing up, she struggled with eczema so severe it could be triggered by the vast majority of skincare products - even those marketed for sensitive skin.
Dairy, milk, sugar and stress could also set it off, leading her and her family’s business, Endless Candles, to build and sell a product targeted at Mary’s skin.
But when Endless Candles was hit by disaster, Gouganovski had to rethink the entire business strategy, she told Yahoo Finance.
The family was working across both the factory and the shop, which sold skincare, candles and homewares at the same time. When the 2016 floods hit her NSW business, Gouganovski estimates they lost around $500,000.
“It was a total loss. The water inside reached 1.62 metres and I’m 1.59 metres tall. We’d been fighting the water all day and within half an hour it was all gone,” she said.
“We lost the car and then we ended up getting stranded there for four and a half hours before we could get out. I got caught in the back of the shop and the fire brigade had to come in and cut me out.
“It was pretty much one of the worst days of my life.”
Gouganovski and her family had to decide what to do next. They landed on a complete rebrand focusing on Gouganovski’s skincare products. And in 2018, the new business Mary Grace was born, with Gouganovski the director.
Since relaunching, the business has grown 3,000 per cent with revenue in 2019 surpassing $1 million.
Gouganovski said the challenge with Endless Candles was that while it worked as a store and as a contract manufacturer, it wasn’t strong as a brand. Selling skincare products from a brand that seemed to be solely about candles was just too big a challenge.
“Two years ago we changed the name and honestly, it was the best thing we ever did,” she said.
“It’s a combination of everything I’ve ever learnt in my 20 years working in the industry and everything I’ve ever loved - it’s put into the brand that you see now.”
The skincare and homewares brand has collaborated with The Langham, Valley Girl & TEMT and Nectar & Stone, with sustainability and social good also a major factor in the business.
Mary Grace partners with i=Change, which means that for every sale made, Mary Grace donates $1 to one of its three charities.
And giving back has never been more important to Gouganovski.
While the family business survived the flooding - albeit with a radical haircut - in the last year it’s been hit by bushfires, a death in the family and now the coronavirus pandemic.
Gouganovski noted that Australians have become more likely to shop local since the bushfires ravaged regional economies. Shoppers have also had more time and more of a desire to spend money on the small things that can make them feel better, like a scented candle or skincare.
But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
During the bushfires, they lost a month’s worth of production as their factory staff needed to leave as they were in the danger zone.
“It took us a long time to recover,” Gouganovski said.
Then when the pandemic hit, they lost all of their contracts.
“We had a team of 14 and I had to ask them, ‘Will you be willing to go home?’” she said.
They didn’t want to make staff redundant, but they just didn’t have any inflows.
“We were bawling our eyes out but they all basically said, ‘No, we’re here to support you,’ and they all went home.”
She and her three family members were wondering again, where to go next? They were facing months of uncertainty - no one in their staff or family was going to get paid.
“It was the second time around that we were going to lose our business.”
Within two days, they’d latched onto a solution and had pivoted to hand sanitiser. They partnered with two other suppliers which had also been hit by the bushfires, so Mary Grace bottled the sanitiser while the other two businesses made it.
“We all partnered together and did a collaboration for the sanitiser and it ended up being really successful because for us it wasn’t just for us about ‘making money off of a pandemic’, it was about working together to keep our doors open.”
And the name of the collaboration reflected that.
“We were able to all bring our staff back and we ended up naming it Vintage 66. It was named after the 66 employees across the three businesses who were able to keep their jobs because of the sanitiser. That really helped us get through the absolute worst of it.”
They didn’t make a lot of money out of it, but they made enough to pay their staff and that was the goal.
Following that major challenge, Gouganovski believes the Covid-19 pandemic has in some ways helped the business as it has opened up shoppers’ eyes to local alternatives.
“We’re probably stronger than ever, but it took a pandemic to get there.”
After facing floods, fires and now a global pandemic, Gouganovski’s advice is simple: keep going.
“Just don’t stop. Just keep pushing and keep moving. You can’t stay static, you need to keep moving and keep going and eventually you will get to the other side.”