From struggling single dad to supplement success story

How an unemployed single father turned his life from anxiety to a $6 million success story.

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In 2009, Mat Stillone was unemployed, battling anxiety and depression and in need of a fresh start. After heading to Brisbane with his six-year-old son, he spent two years on the Centrelink Single Parenting Payment and working in low-paid jobs before striking out for himself.

Six years on, Protein Supplies Australia, the enterprise he founded with $5000 and a healthy dose of hope, is a $6 million success story. Its supplement range, marketed as ‘natural nutrition without the crap’, is stocked in 1500 gyms, health food stores and speciality retailers.

In addition to producing its own lines, the company has branched into contract manufacturing for the likes of Australia’s largest supermarket and retail chains, and is preparing for an export push.

Stillone’s entrepreneurship has netted him his share of laurels, including publishing group Business News Australia’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2016, Wholesaling, Manufacturing and Distribution (two years in a row), plus a spot on the short list for the Telstra Business Awards 2016, in the Queensland micro-business category.

A rocky start

Growing up on an organic farm in northern NSW, Stillone spent his weekends picking vegetables and working in his family’s Lismore health food store. After leaving school, exposure to the region’s drug culture led to what he admits were questionable friendships and destructive choices.

“I became a father at 19 and pretty quickly after that a sole parent,” Stillone says.

“If it wasn’t for my son and having that responsibility so early I’d be scared to think where I would have ended up. I was a bit of a wild younger guy and a bit lost. I continued down that path for about five years before I had a huge wake up call, seeing some friends of mine arrested and sent to jail.

“Mum came to visit and she sat me down and said, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ It was a reality check. I knew I had to make a change so I rang a friend in Brisbane and said, ‘Can we stay with you until I find work?’, packed up and got out of Lismore.”

Early struggles

Jobs at a health food store and pharmacy chain set Stillone thinking about the market potential for protein supplements without additives and, by December 2010, he was itching to give his vision of producing a range of all-natural supplements a go.

Signing up for Mission Australia’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, an education and mentoring program to help job seekers set up small businesses, enabled him to receive a Single Parenting Payment while working on his fledgling venture.

The enterprise kicked off with a pallet of dairy protein acquired on trust from a Sydney distributor, hand-packed by Stillone and labelled with stickers printed on his home computer.

“I didn’t have big overheads – I was doing everything from home,” he says.

“I’d drive around to stores, gyms, cafes, delis, fruit and veg shops – you name it – all day looking for stockists. I had a diary and I’d write down where I was going then I’d head out and tell them my story. Ninety per cent of people said no but 10 per cent said yes”.

“It was really hard work and there were times when I struggled to put food on the table and pay rent, because we had no money.

“I did it pretty rough for the first 12 months and there were times when I’d see an opportunity and I didn’t have the cash flow to be able to pursue it. I had to haggle with suppliers for better terms and sometimes I’d borrow $2000 from my mum until payments came in.”

The venture turned over $120,000 in its first year and $2 million in its second, after Stillone’s offering caught the eye of a distributor who took the range national.

Expanding fast

Business lessons learnt on the fly and relentless focus on cash flow have seen Stillone transform Protein Supplies Australia from a backyard business into a manufacturing and marketing powerhouse, without recourse to external investment. The company turned over $6 million last year and employs 12 staff with more soon to join the team this year.

Equipment financing was used to invest in the production and packaging equipment for their first 400 square metre warehouse in the outer Brisbane suburb of Tingalpa in 2014.

“That’s when NAB really started helping me grow my business because they could see the potential of what I was doing, based on our numbers,” Stillone says.

“I’ve been a customer since I was old enough to have a bank account and my Dad always spoke highly of NAB.

“It’s about finding a solution that works for you and your business; partnering with a bank that’s going to help fund your growth in the future, one that can see potential and opportunity.”

On the up

Where to next for the business Mission Australia cites as one of the NEIS program’s biggest success stories?

The company is set to double its production capacity, following Stillone’s acquisition of a 500 square metre neighbouring facility in early 2017. A spin-off venture, Integrity Foods Co, will focus on contract manufacturing and a tilt at the Asian market is on the agenda.

“We have a bunch of really exciting things coming up – I can’t wait for them to happen,” Stillone says.

 

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Issue 24).