Cultivating an idea from her mother’s farm has seen Sarah Sammon GAICD turn rose petals into a global business success. In 1991, Sammon’s family purchased a rural property and her mother, Jan Slater, began selling flowers from the farm to local retailers.
But as with most things in life, it took Sammon a while to get to where she is today. After finishing high school, she spent one year at RMIT University in Melbourne studying tourism. While she enjoyed the course, she was looking for something more challenging. The following year, she transferred to Monash University and undertook a Bachelor of Science, specialising in anatomy and physiology.
Like many young Australians, after finishing university Sammon took off to travel the world. A keen skier from an early age, she funded her time away working as a ski instructor in the US and Europe. In 2003, homesick from her three-year overseas stint, Sammon returned to her mother’s farm and began contemplating the next step in her career.
“I was missing my family and my uncle, who had been a father figure to me, was tragically killed in a plane crash in 2001. My family was devastated,” she says. “A ski instructor’s life is nomadic and I had begun to tire of it. I just wanted to be grounded with my family and I really missed the rural lifestyle.”
She returned to the family farm and faced another challenge: where to find work. “When I came back from overseas, I was having trouble getting a job. There weren’t many career options for a scientist in the small country town of Swan Hill,” she says. “At one time I was doing four different jobs to earn an income and I was getting very frustrated.”
During a discussion with her mother about her job situation, the idea to diversify the farm developed.
“Mum had stopped growing cut flowers when my uncle died,” recalls Sammon. “I asked her what she was going to do with one thousand rose plants, and asked why didn’t we do something with them? It was at this point that we decided to start selling cut rose flowers locally. It proved to be a very limited market.”
Sammon began researching other ways to diversify the business. She found that e-commerce was burgeoning and becoming more accessible. While researching online, she came across a farm in the US that was growing roses just for the rose petals.
“After an unprofitable start to growing cut roses, I suggested to mum that we try growing the roses exclusively for rose petals,” she adds. “Mum’s horticultural expertise became invaluable in trialling hundreds of rose varieties to find those that dried well.”
Within a matter of weeks, the pair had developed a product line, marketing material, and a basic website before going to exhibit at Australia’s largest bridal expo. Their company, Simply Rose Petals, bloomed from that point onwards.
Sammon said brides were captivated by the biodegradable and natural alternative to paper confetti. The following year, she received a Churchill Fellowship to study this potential alternative for the Australian rose petal industry. She travelled to twelve countries and her research is credited with growing an industry that supports more than 30 rose petals suppliers. “The Fellowship uncovered my passion for innovation,” she says. “After my overseas trip we transitioned from air drying to freeze drying. Our freeze-dried petals look so life like that they’re often mistaken for fresh petals. I’m really passionate about creating beautiful, innovative products.”
Her innovation in this area earned her the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award in 2015, which recognises pioneering Australian businesswomen under the age of 40. She was also a state finalist in the Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year Awards and the Telstra Business Women’s Awards for Innovation.
Simply Rose Petals is now the largest supplier of petals in the southern hemisphere. The farm is in the Swan Hill region, four hours north west of Melbourne, Victoria. “It’s an idyllic spot and I can see the Murray River from my office,” said Sammon.
For anyone concerned about starting a business in a regional or rural area, Sammon says it is important to not be limited by your education or the specialism of your degree. “Everyone thought it was amusing that I was growing roses when I had a science degree,” she says. “They thought it was a waste. In fact, I use my science degree every day in my work.”
Sammon says she drew on her science background to operate and service the commercial freeze driers which store the petals. “My degree has given me essential research skills that I use everyday. Out here, there were no refrigeration mechanics who had worked with this sort of equipment.
“Explore anything that excites you,” she adds. “It is a global marketplace; don’t feel hindered just because of your location. Our first sale was an overseas sale. We quickly learned to become exporters and now we export to 15 countries. Even today, I have just finished a webinar meeting with a client in the US.”
In 2015, she joined the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ (AICD) Bendigo regional committee to contribute to the direction of key topics, speakers and events that were to be held in the region. “It was good to have input and a great opportunity to meet very experienced directors in the region,” she says.
Sammon graduated from the Company Director’s Course™ in 2007, when there were very few young rural graduates. She says she often finds herself to be not only the youngest, but also the only female member on boards and committees.
“Coming from an entrepreneurial background and working in innovation on a daily basis, I’m exposed to ideas,” she adds. “I have a lot of insight into the future direction of the technology and agricultural industries. It can be challenging to have your voice heard as both industries are often male dominated and the committee members are older men. It can be very difficult to have your ideas heard or to have other board members be open to pursuing the ideas.”
When asked where she sees her career heading, Sammon says that she often spends time reflecting on her board experience as well as looking for new business opportunities. “I am very passionate about my ideas. Perhaps I need to refine my approach. As young women we do not always broach issues the same way, so we need to learn to work together to be more effective.”
For the moment, she is focusing on a new product line called Blooming Food, which produces edible flowers. Blooming Food has partnered with Foodbank to donate one meal to a person in need for every packet of freeze dried edible flowers sold. Foodbank is Australia’s largest hunger relief organisation.
Sammon says that as the first farm in the world to produce and freeze dry edible flowers, educating people on how to use the product has become paramount.“At the moment we are educating consumers and the food services industry on how to use them and how they are stored,” she says.
“It is exciting to create a new industry with a beautiful and natural product. After launching our rose petal business almost 14 years ago, we are now doing it all over again.”