Our top female entrepreneurs

MEET Australia's top female entrepreneurs – they are smart, focused and generate more than $3.6 billion in sales.

In a special feature to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, SmartCompany has compiled a comprehensive list of 48 of Australia's best business women.

The list, which includes Sussan Group chief executive Naomi Milgrom, recruitment industry leader (and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's wife) Therese Rein and Fernwood Women's Health Club founder Diana Williams, highlights a group of diverse and passionate entrepreneurs who have taken very different paths to the top.

But despite their diverse backgrounds, a survey of these entrepreneurs has revealed that the majority believe it has become easier for women to start businesses.

The SmartCompany top female entrepreneurs list is headed by Jan Cameron, the founder of retail chain Kathmandu and the current owner of Retail Adventures, which owns discount retail chains Crazy Clark's, Go-Lo and Sam's Warehouse. The company turns over about $1 billion.

In second place is Naomi Milgrom, owner of the retail empire Sussan Group, which operates the Sussan and Sportsgirl chains and generated revenue of $496 million in 2008-09.

Recruitment industry veteran Julia Ross, chief executive and major shareholder of listed company Ross Human Directions, is next with $393 million in annual turnover.

Perhaps the most famous name on the list is Therese Rein. The wife of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was forced to sell the Australian operations of her recruitment services business Ingeus prior to the 2007 Federal Election. However, the international business, which focuses on the British market, continues to perform strongly. According to estimates the company's revenue is around $120 million.

The list is dominated by entrepreneurs from the services sector, with a particular focus on personal services and the recruitment sectors. Retailers are also prominent, while 14 entrepreneurs have used franchising to grow their empires.

Of the 31 entrepreneurs to complete SmartCompany's special survey, two thirds started the business from home, while just under 80% of the businesses on the list were launched with less than $100,000 in start up capital.

Most of the women on the list said it has become easier for female business people to launch companies, thanks to improved access to resources and assistance and a sharp increase in the number of positive role models.

"Women have made great inroads to earning credibility in the finance and business world, and so make it easier to be taken seriously in these once male-dominated areas," Fernwood's Diana Williams commented.

However, some pointed out that boys' club haven't completely disappeared from Australian business.

"There is a 'glass wall' (rather than a glass ceiling) that you hit during growth, where people expect to be dealing with a man rather than the woman," My Coffee Shop's Carmelina Pascoe says.

"The boys club, while much smaller than it was before, does still exist."

The list

SmartCompany's top female entrepreneur list was compiled using information provided by the entrepreneurs themselves. Where information was not provided, SmartCompany has made an estimate of revenue using publically available information, including data from research firm IBISWorld, and industry sources.

For those women who declined to provide this data, we have made a conservative estimate about the size of their turnover by consulting industry sources, research firms such as IBISWorld, ASIC documents and other publically available information sources. An asterisk (*) denotes where revenue has been estimated.

Here are the top 10:

 1. Jan Cameron

Company: Retail Adventures
Established: 2006
Revenue: $1 billion*

Jan Cameron is best known as the founder of outdoor wear chain Kathmandu, which she sold to a private equity company in 2006 for about $300 million, but her new business Retail Adventures, is an even bigger operation. In April 2009 the company purchased Australian Discount Retail out of administration and has set about rebuilding the business. The company operates the Chickenfeed, Sam's Warehouse, Crazy Clark's, Go-Lo and my place It's Home chains, which have over 330 stores, 8000 employees and annual sales revenue of around $1 billion.

2. Naomi Milgrom

Company: Sussan Group
Established: 1939
Revenue: $496 million*

While Naomi Milgrom's parents Marc and Eva Besen were responsible for much of the development and expansion of Sussan Group, Milgrom is now firmly in control after buying out her parents and siblings in 2003. The company, whose brands include Sussan, Sportsgirl and Suzanne Grae, has over 550 stores and more than 4,000 staff. Milgrom's personal wealth is valued at more than $650 million.

 3. Julia Ross

Company: Ross Human Directions
Established: 1989
Revenue: $392.9 million

Julia Ross' recruitment services business was established in 1989 after she hit the glass ceiling in her previous role and resigned. "I hadn't planned to go out on my own but a number of circumstances, such as the coincident breakdown of my marriage and the shortly-thereafter discovery that I was pregnant, conspired to limit my options. I found there was not a lot of demand for a single, pregnant lady in senior corporate roles in the 1980s! So I went out on my own as I had to earn a living to support myself and my child."

The company listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2000, has expanded rapidly over the last decade and now has operations in countries including New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong and Singapore. Ross remains the managing director and major shareholder of the company, which has a market capitalisation of $32 million. The stock has doubled in price in the last 12 months.

 4. Maxine Horne

Company: Vita Group
Established: 1995
Revenue: $297.8 million

Maxine Horne and her husband David McMahon established mobile phone retail chain Fone Zone on the Gold Coast in 1995 and built it into one of Australia's leading mobile phone resellers. The company listed in November 2005 and changed its name to Vita Group in 2008. In early 2009, the company acquired the Apple computer chain Next Byte. McMahon and Horne are joint chief executives and hold a stake worth about $15 million.

 5. Charlotte Vidor

Company: Toga Group
Established: 1963
Revenue: $285 million*

The Toga of Companies was established in 1963 by Charlotte and Ervin Vidor, and has become one of Australia's largest hospitality groups through its ownership of the Medina, Vibe and Travelodge brands. The company, which also has interests in property development, funds management and aquaculture, now employs 1,800 people and also has interests in Europe. Charlotte and Ervin Vidor are valued at more than $440 million on BRW's Rich 200 list.

6. Iris Lustig-Moar

Company: Lustig & Moar
Established: 1971
Revenue: $154 million*

Iris Lustig's father, Ted Lustig established property development company Lustig & Moar with Melbourne developer Max Moar, who was formerly married to Iris. After Ted's death in 2003, Iris has taken a greater role in the running of the company, which concentrates on apartment and hotel projects in inner Melbourne. Iris is also known as one of the most active art collectors in Australia.

 7. Janine Allis

Company: Boost Juice Bars
Established: 2000
Revenue: $143.7 million*

Few entrepreneurs can take credit for establishing an entire industry, but Boost Juice founder Janine Allis sparked a craze for juice bars in 2000 when she opened her first store in Adelaide. Since then the company has expanded to over 1,850 stores in locations around Australia and in countries including Britain, Ireland, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, Macau and Mexico. Boost also owns the Salsa takeaway food franchise brand.

 8. Therese Rein

Company: Ingeus
Established: 1989
Revenue: $120 million*

Therese Rein was forced to sell the Australian arm of employment services provider Ingeus in 2007 after her husband Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister. The business is now focused on the European market, particularly Britain where the company has a $475 million contract with the British Government. Rein remains managing director of the company and added well-known company director David Gonski to her board last year.

 9. Gina Rinehart

Company: Hancock Prospecting
Established: 1955
Revenue: $100 million*

When Gina Rinehart took over Hancock Prospecting from her late father Lang Hancock in 1992, the company was in a mess, with high debts and cashflow problems threatening its future. Under Rinehart's guidance, the company has become a powerhouse of the West Australian iron ore industry, developing projects with Rio Tinto and on her own. Hancock Prospecting is also developing a coal project in Queensland. Rinehart's personal fortune is valued at more than $3 billion.

 10. Diana Williams

Company: Fernwood Women's Health Clubs
Established: 1989
Revenue: $88.2 million

While woman-only gyms are commonplace now, Fernwood founder Diana Williams is one of the pioneers of the Australian sector. She started the company more than 20 years ago and has built the business into a national operation, with more than 75 health clubs and over 80,000 members.
Williams says the emergence of a number of great role models has made it easier for women to start a business. Her key piece of advice for female entrepreneurs is to focus. "Believe in your own ability, always employ people who you feel are better than you, undertake training if you feel there is a need, and stay focused on reaching that goal you have set."

For the full list visit SmartCompany.com.au.

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