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Samantha writes on exports, Islamic finance and the business of doing business across borders. Before moving into journalism she worked in executive recruitment and public policy.

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Take your business on a tree change

Published 20 September 2012 03:33, Updated 20 September 2012 04:16

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Take your business on a tree change

Home on the range: Shlomi Bonet works remotely from the NSW town of Breadalbane Andrew Meares

Former Sydneysider Sandra Renowden likes to take her morning break on the veranda of her farmhouse in the NSW Southern Highlands.

“I’ve got the trees in front of me, two dams in the distance, ponies on my left, dogs at my feet and a profusion of daffodils on my right. It’s heaven,” the public relations professional with listed advertising and media company STW Group says.

Renowden, her husband and two children moved to the Southern Highlands in 2010. She contemplated resigning from her public relations role in Sydney at the time, before her boss told her that if she was prepared to work from home, she didn’t have to.

Two years later, she is still happily employed, working remotely and living proof you can have your tree change and keep your income, too.

Renowden is part of a wholesale change in business where mobility allows people to work from dream locations.

A combination of better transport links, improving internet connections, flexible working arrangements and an open mind are helping more business owners and professionals ditch life in the metropolis for the clean air, traffic-free streets and close-knit communities of rural and regional Australia.

It’s hard to find a tree-changer or sea-changer who isn’t evangelical about their decision to flee the city but those of us still slaving away in the city ask ourselves – how do they make it work?

The “think global, act local” adage may be a cliche, but there is ample evidence to show that a business need not be limited in its scope of operation by the location of its head office.

If you can provide a top-quality product or service, and the right IT infrastructure to keep in contact, regional business prospects are bright.

Former policewomen Alex Creed and Kirsty Rix started Visual Expanse framers on the Gold Coast in 2008. Then they moved to Mudgee, a town of 8000 in mid-western NSW in 2010 to be closer to family.

“The only way we could get on with our lives was to take the business with us,” Rix says. Visual Expanse specialises in the framing and mounting of militaria, medals and other nostalgia.

Rix and Creed scoped out the demand in the area by talking to family, friends and other locals. They were heartened to find there was only one other framing service in the area and it couldn’t deliver the same quality.

“There was a need for a good framer and we filled that niche because we were perfectionists,” Rix says. “[Locals] realised we were the better product and we stole a lot of customers. It’s turned out to be the best move we could ever make; [turnover] increased 350 per cent over the three years.”

By any stretch, it was easier to build awareness of the business in the smaller community. Securing a shopfront on one of the two main streets in Mudgee gave the business instant visibility in the new market.

“On the Gold Coast, no one could see our product or the work we did,” Rix says. “We were on a back street and there were just too many framers around.”

Producer Sinclair Black experienced the same swift growth when he set up digital production, photography and camera work business, Coastal Media, in Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW.

“The beauty was that when there’s a new ad on TV, everyone sees it,” he says. “They could see I was doing something different . . . and from the first day the phone didn’t stop ringing.”

Black and his young family left Sydney’s northern beaches for a regional sea change in 2007. He had his own production company for a number of years before the move but it had taken a back seat due to a gig producing and distributing surf films with industry legend Jack McCoy.

He was ambivalent about pursuing the business in Coffs but after taking on a number of freelance cameraman, production and editing jobs for the local TV network, he spotted a market.

“Clients were calling out for good-quality production,” Black says.

Like Rix and Creed, Black says he made inroads in the Coffs market by offering a superior service to what had previously existed in the coastal haven.

It was after he scored a sought-after contract with the local tourism authority that he thought the time was right to tap back into his Sydney network.

“I thought I’d give some of my Sydney friends a call,” he says.

Three years on, his metropolitan clients contribute more than 60 per cent to Coastal Media’s turnover.

Black flies to Sydney twice a month to visit customers. In the interim, he relies on the internet and phone for communication and digital dropboxes to deliver finished products.

But some Sydney-based businesses are wary of the distance.

“I’ve had clients who say ‘[another Sydney-based production house] matched your price and it’s just easier for us to work with them, because they’re around the corner’,” he says. “It comes down to building up trust with your client that distance isn’t an issue.”

Educating clients about the capacity of online dropboxes and other digital file-transferring solutions is critical to Coastal Media’s ability to attract and retain business in Sydney.

“Once the client becomes more technically savvy on downloading things, they’re more than happy to say ‘yeah, send it in a dropbox’ but you have to educate them first,” he says.

“If it wasn’t for the internet, I would’ve left Coffs three years ago.”

Internet connectivity is all fashion designer Hayley Orbell needs to keep Orbell, her line of luxury leather bags, sandals and necklaces operating after her relocation to Dubbo, in western NSW.

She moved back to the country town she grew up in when her fiance, an agricultural economics graduate, decided he wanted to make a go of it on the land.

“It was scary,” Orbell says. “I was worried that I wouldn’t be as inspired and that my creativity would get squashed. I worked in fashion in Sydney and was always seeing what was happening but [in the country] I don’t see so much.”

Getting the right sort of communications set up came with its challenges.

“I got here and my internet connection was ridiculously slow,” Orbell says. “I had to complain a couple of times to get it improved.”

Good connectivity plays a dual role in Orbell’s fledgling business. The net is her portal to stay in touch with international trends that aren’t as easy to spot on the streets now she’s outside the capital city.

It’s also her way to keep in touch with her capital-city stockists now that she is an eight-hour drive away.

“I liked to be personal with stockists and pop in and say hello, and they often tell me ‘I’m low on this’ which is good to know,” she says.

“But if you leave it to email, they can let things slip.”

Dropping in on a regular basis is no longer possible but frequent phone and email contact can help her stay top of mind between her trips to the city every two months or so.

“I don’t think they would have been able to tell that I’d left the city if I hadn’t told them,” she says.

Orbell’s line is manufactured in Bali and shipped to Australia and she visits the manufacturers twice a year.

She had initial fears that changing her delivery address to rural Australia would create problems with shipping but her fears were allayed in late July when she received her first shipment at her new country address. It was on time and intact.

“And it didn’t cost any more to ship to Dubbo than it did to ship to Sydney,” she says. “The only thing that is different is that if my client wanted something quickly, it would probably get to them three days later because it has to come from Dubbo, but that’s not a huge issue.”

As for her sense of inspiration, she says she’s thriving.

Keeping up with rent in Sydney forced Orbell to work two jobs in addition to the running the business but her rental costs have halved in Dubbo, as has her external workload.

She now has more time to devote to her business and the country air is also proving beneficial.

“It’s so easy to go out into the country and escape things if you want to,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to explore; I love going out in the garden and I get to have a dog.”

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