How this Gold Coast millennial uses Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba to sell coconut oil to the world
The 25-year-old has watched her family’s business grow from a tiny operation in her Gold Coast garage, to a multi-million-dollar operation that’s made her an international coconut oil mogul.
Banaban Virgin Coconut Oil products are stocked on the shelves of department stores, health food shops and supermarkets in Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Malta, Hungary, Taiwan and even Mongolia — all thanks to Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Started by entrepreneur Jack Ma in 1999, Alibaba is now the world’s largest retailer, and is about to ramp up its presence in Australia with a Melbourne office set to open later this year.
The company, whose 2014 debut on the New York Stock Exchange became the biggest IPO in history, is made up of e-commerce, cloud computing, payments, marketing, media and entertainment companies worth a collective $257 billion
Ms King and her family were quick to embrace Alibaba’s business-to-business selling platform, and are now turning over almost $6 million a year selling to far-flying regions of the world.
“For us from the Gold Coast, I don’t know how we could have ended up selling into a place like Mongolia,” she said.
“How the hell has someone from Mongolia found us? It’s just the power of Alibaba.”
Banaban now produces more than 90 coconut food and body care products, and overseas markets account for about 30 per cent of its sales.
After launching a mini website on Alibaba.com three months ago, allowing potential distributors to easily find their products, it recently secured a deal to supply a major Spanish supermarket chain.
“That is a big milestone in our business,” Ms King said. “We are pinching ourselves.”
South Korea was up next, she said, with China and the United States on the horizon.
‘EVERYTHING ON THE LINE’
Banaban started out as an eBay store in 2004, when Ms King was just 12 years old — well before coconut oil became the sought-after product it is today.
“It was just lucky my mum was really tech savvy,” she said.
“She knew Alibaba and she said, ‘We could sell wholesale to the world.’ We just put the listings up and said, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ It’s paid off.”
But success was not assured, and family friends were astonished when Ms King’s parents announced they were going into the coconut business.
“My parents mortgaged their house and sacrificed everything, kind of on a whim,” Ms King said.
Mum Stacey King quit her corporate job to set up the business with her husband Ken Sigrah, a Banaban islander from Fiji.
“Everyone told my mum, ‘You’re crazy, no one knows what coconut oil is.’ But they put everything on the line. Then one day it exploded and became so popular our business changed overnight.”
It was when a reporter held up a bottle of Banaban coconut oil on A Current Affair in 2011 that sales went off the charts.
“We went from doing five orders a day to 200 — it was crazy,” Ms King said.
The company now has 30 employees, including seven Banaban islanders at the coconut plantation in Fiji.
Ms King is herself a descendant of the phosphate miners who worked on Banaba Island in the early 1900s, when it was part of the British Empire.
Her family started its coconut oil business with the aim of drawing attention to the plight of the Banaban islanders, who were evicted from their home by colonial authorities and resettled in Fiji.
“We’re not just another coconut oil,” Ms King said.
FROM AUSTRALIA TO THE WORLD
Banaban is one of more than a thousand Australian small-to-medium businesses harnessing Alibaba to access global markets.
Chemist Warehouse was the first merchant on Tmall Global to reach RMB10 million (roughly $AU2 million) in sales only 46 minutes after the sales launched after midnight on November 11.
“It blew away our wildest expectations,” said chief operating officer Mario Tascone.
Alibaba is ramping up its local operations, with a Melbourne office set to open at the end of this year headed up by Maggie Zhou, employee number 48 in the company that now has more than 36,000 staff members across the globe.
Australian shoppers will be most familiar with Aliexpress, an English language eBay rival that sells everything from fast fashion to smartphone accessories, kids’ toys and camping gear.
But it’s the business-to-business side of e-commerce where mum-and-dad entrepreneurs stand to gain.
Ms Zhou’s vision is for Australia to climb the rankings on Tmall Global, where it is currently the fifth biggest seller country in the world with 1300 brands represented. It is already number two on Taobao Global, which taps into the network of Chinese resellers known as daigou.
The most popular Australian product in China were baby goods, skincare, fresh food, healthcare supplements, cereals, beef, dairy, natural skincare, organics and activewear, Ms Zhou said.
She said using daigou channels was useful because Western merchants struggled to understand the vastly different Chinese market — even those who spoke the language.
“These resellers have their own loyal customers and they know what the consumers want,” Ms Zhou said.
Tmall global was best for established brands, she said, while Alibaba.com allowed producers of lesser-known products to access wholesale markets.