As featured in the 2018 Country Web Annual.
Australian Merino wool has a new advocate—ex-model and media professional Vanessa Bell has launched a new brand ‘Sarah Jane Bond’ targeting the baby segment (newborns to five years), a market in which Merino wool has traditionally been limited. Vanessa produces fine Merino woollen baby blankets with a team of local dedicated knitters. Enjoying a dynamic career in fashion, finance and media, Vanessa gave up her successful media career in 2013 when she moved from Sydney to start a family with her husband and local grazier, Philip Bell. They currently run sheep and cattle from their properties at Breadalbane and Mt. Hope.
Tell me about your current business?
Utilising my media experience and new found love of Merino, I established Sarah Jane Bond, producing hand knitted woollen baby blankets. It has been wonderful to create a brand that aligns with my life on the farm.
The brand appeals to consumers who value quality products with high social and environmental standards and is more than just another baby brand; it values local community knowledge and expertise and is a voice promoting the natural properties and versatility of Merino wool. I am passionate about communicating the incredible attributes of this natural fibre, especially to people from the ‘city’. Merino is a highly efficient insulator, keeping children cool and fresh in hot temperatures and cosy warm in colder weather.
Its thermo-regulating properties help children sleep better, and it’s anti bacterial and fire retardant making it an incredibly wise choice for parents.’ Using the digital space to position Sarah Jane Bond into the domestic and international markets, our brand has certainly gained traction in the market. Since the airing of the ABC Landline program featuring Sarah Jane Bond we have launched new products into the range.
Stepping up to meet the consumer demand for traceability, I purchased our own Merino lambs. While the brand currently uses commercially produced Australian Merino wool, it is my long-term goal to provide consumers with a true ‘paddock to blanket’ product by 2021.
I am really excited by the news of a potential fibre processing facility in the Yass region. The boutique facility is currently in the planning stages however it will be the first of its type in Australia using environmentally sound and sustainable processes based on CSIRO research to manage all water and waste products. This is a game changer for producers such as myself as it will allow me to have complete control and traceability from inception. I believe consumers value pure products, they want to understand the journey and to place their trust in us in providing them with a truly bespoke natural product.
It’s important to me to bring our customers on our journey and for them to know our blankets are produced in a sustainable and ethical way free from harsh chemicals and mulesing. Our long-term strategy will focus on Asia and the USA.
What gave you the motivation/inspiration to follow your dream?
I’ve been very fortunate and had an extraordinary life living and working all over the world. I’ve drawn inspiration from so many people and situations; my motivation to follow my dreams was instilled in me from a young age thanks to a supportive family and a personal drive to learn and work. I think the motivation to follow your dreams comes from a desire to be the best you can be regardless of your education or background.
In terms of ‘Sarah Jane Bond’, I was motivated to create an on-farm business drawing on my professional media skills to leverage our existing farming business into a new business opportunity. I’m not your usual farmer, however I’ve become very passionate about Merino wool and inspired by the outstanding growers in our region.
Our district is very cold; four years ago I’d just had a new baby and was struggling to find a woollen blanket to keep him warm.
In searching for blankets I realised there weren’t any ‘proper’ blankets on the market for the category, just basic light throws or poor quality factory knitted blankets made from wool mix or polyester. My mother came to the rescue handing me a family heirloom, a gorgeous baby blanket knitted by my great-grandmother Sarah Jane Bond back in 1940. Sarah’s blanket was exactly what I was after; sublimely soft it had some weight to it and was the perfect size for a cot. Her beautiful work was the inspiration for me to create gorgeous baby blankets, ideally a special keepsake to be handed down through future generations.
At what point did you realise your dream was possible?
I think the realisation my dream was actually possible was more methodical versus emotional. My background as a Project Director in Media means by nature I’m process driven. In terms of bringing my dream to life, I operated on the basis of extrapolating the core thought of creating hand knitted baby blankets via a strategy map, executing a marketing plan and conducting rigorous market research before deciding to press ahead.
It was critical to analyse the benefits and differentiating features of the product, understanding the positive implications for the customer and by having a positioning statement that would carry the brand as it expanded. I knew the prototypes were absolutely gorgeous, I knew emotionally it would be well received because the brand was not only a quality product but it could be ‘an aspirational brand’ customers could trust and relate to.
In short, I knew I would succeed as long as I stayed true to my strategy. I appreciate it is tempting to share your dream with the world as you’re starting out however I also know from experience it’s crucial to ensure every touch point of the business is tested and ready for market before hitting the ‘go’ button.
As a child, what did you want to ‘be’ when you grew up?
I never had a clear-cut picture of what I wanted to be. I loved language, fashion and animals; I knew I was detail orientated.
I seemed to fall into the fashion business spending 12 years modelling for clients such as Armani, Christian Dior, Comme des Garçons, Valentino and closer to home clients such as Country Road and David Jones. I worked all over the world doing editorial and advertising work for magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; my exposure to high-end designers gave me a solid understanding of fabric quality and craftsmanship. The runways of Tokyo seem a long way from where I’m living now!
How did your childhood influence you in later life?
My childhood influenced me to be a trusting and loyal person, sometimes to my own detriment! I now realise how valuable it is to have the support of family, the importance of integrity and how I rate honesty above all else. My life growing up was very positive and nurturing; Middle Harbour in Sydney saw days of sunshine playing in the bush, fishing, swimming in the pool, riding bikes with a gang of friends and endless summers at Long Reef beach. Classic 70s! I had a really fortunate upbringing—I suspect I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was at the time!
Who are your role models?
My personal role models are inherently family. Family has taught me the importance of communication, taking responsibility for your own actions and for being empathetic even when every fibre of your body is feeling defeated or betrayed. At the end of the day we are here for a good time not a long time.
Professionally my mentor is Simon Rutherford, Australia’s most highly awarded media strategist and CEO/partner of Slingshot Media. My media career stands out as being the most challenging and rewarding working with an excellent team of media and digital professionals. In the remit of this role I was charged with managing a $1m project developing and implementing a school based program to inspire youth to consider a career in disability or community care. I’m immensely proud to say this Government initiative known as projectABLE is still going strong today.
What does success mean to you?
Success to me is a good balance between a happy family and creativity. I’m blessed to have an incredibly kind, loving and hard working husband; we’re a solid team and part of a very big family. It’s not always smooth sailing however it’s amazing what a family can achieve when everyone accepts each other and can look for the positive in situations. I’m especially grateful to have our four-year-old little boy Charlie, he’s a handful but keeps us all on our game!
In terms of Sarah Jane Bond one of the unexpected joys of the business has been the positive impact of bringing women together, tapping into a wealth of experience, the importance of community and providing people with a sense of feeling valued in a society where older people are experiencing loneliness or feeling cast aside. I’m immensely pleased to say part of the success of Sarah Jane Bond is encouraging women to discuss their skills and providing an opportunity to bring them to the forefront.
What has been one of the biggest barriers you have had to face, what happened, and how did you overcome it?
We have different challenges at different points in our life; barriers have been mostly personal however I feel there is greater value in looking at what you learn in the process. Meditation and yoga have always been a part of my journey; I learned the hard way emotion is simply like water, there is nothing wrong in letting it run through you however it should never dictate the outcome.
After a very damaging life event in 2007, I had a stroke and suffered partial blindness. Losing my sight was terrifying, I didn’t know if I’d ever see again. Ironically it made me put everything into context and for the first time, I could see clearly since being a child. It was actually this catastrophic situation which propelled me into realising and celebrating my self worth, from that point I decided to do more for other people and my community and realised the more I gave, the stronger I became. I recovered and was very fortunate my sight returned. Today I’m so grateful for all the beautiful people I have in my life, my husband, children, family and friends.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time? What is your vision for the future?
The vision is pretty simple; enjoying life with my family, expanding my business and continuing to work closely with my husband to provide a safe and happy future for our children. In terms of my business success, my goals are audacious. I’d like to sell limited edition baby blanket packages from specific wool clips into stores such as Neiman Marcus, Takashimaya or Liberty London supported by interactive and engaging content.
What would you like to say to other women who may be just starting out on a daring to dream journey?
‘It’s in our nature to think beyond our reality and to wish for a better future. My view is based on visualisation and action. If you have an idea or a goal (regardless of being big or small), every action you make is a step closer to manifesting your dream. I firmly believe you need to back yourself—if you do things aligning with your heart, your actions transform into something truly incredible. The main advice I would give is to be consistent, set realistic goals and join other business or social groups supporting you in your success.