Source: NZ Life and Leisure
bonnie-soul1bonnie-soul2bonnie-soul3A CAN-DO KIND OF KIWI, Bonnie Rodwell began a very successful business by selling woolly jumpers in the middle of the Australian summer. Now she’s starting a health spa, where encouraging clients to adopt the spiritual as well as the sybaritic is filed under I for inspirational, not D for difficult. There’s a keen business brain behind the talk of transformation and toxic cleansing though: her holistic model should bring fulfillment for the weary wealthy and owner alike.Woolly jumpers are only one aspect of what has been a quiet achievement in the Australasian retail scene for 20 years. BONZ (explained here as Best of New Zealand and in Australia as Bonnie’s nickname) is a string of shops that operates on both sides of the Tasman and meets the retail needs of well-heeled tourists. The business turns over millions every year and has given its owner a great lifestyle – but she isn’t stopping to put her feet up. Establishing the new spa venture, in the hinterland of Australia’s Gold Coast, should burn through quite a bit of BONZ cash flow but Bonnie is relishing the opportunity to create something she has been dreaming about for years.

Back in the 1980s, when an American came up to her at Auckland airport and offered to buy her hand-knitted sweater off her back, health spas were the last thing on Bonnie’s mind. “I said to him, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, surely you can buy something like this at one of the shops here’. Then I went and had a look and there wasn’t anything like it, anywhere.” As she drove home to Kerikeri, the idea took hold. Never a believer in formal education, Bonnie had been a waitress and worked in restaurant management before moving into sales and marketing. When her husband Graeme said he didn’t want to live in the city any more, she left behind a good job in Auckland and transferred herself to an old Bay of Islands villa with studio attached. Which was to prove very handy.

The next move was to put an advertisement for hand-knitters in the local paper. She received hundreds of replies. The first tourist shop she approached gave her an order; the local bank manager was supportive. BONZ was in business as a home-based wholesale operation. Bonnie designed the jerseys, which from day one featured eye-catching graphic representations of local icons, adapted from existing patterns. In New Zealand these were kiwis and sheep, naturally; in Australia koalas and Uluru. Because she didn’t have established retail outlets, no one would supply Bonnie with the yarn she wanted so she hand-dyed the wool herself. And she developed a system that is still in operation 20 years later, putting together packs for the home-working knitters, each containing the pattern, yarn and buttons needed for exactly one sweater. “I used to get up at four a.m., pack the orders, go to work at the Kiwifruit Authority all day, then come home and make up the knitters’ parcels ready to be dispatched the next day.”

When Graeme was offered a job in Australia, Bonnie left her mother in charge of New Zealand operations and relocated to Sydney. She soon saw potential and determined to take her operation a step further. “One day I went past an empty shop in the Argyle Centre in the Rocks. I just knew I had to have it.” The Centre managers – more used to Ken Done bikinis than one-off woollens – were not keen initially but Bonnie persisted.


bonnie-soul4bonnie-soul5bonnie-soul6She opened the doors days later, with a desk from Freedom and broom handles for rails. “I needed to sell three sweaters a week to cover costs. From day one we were selling three a day. I thought I was a millionaire!” Graeme joined the staff and shops in Cairns, Surfers and Queenstown followed.Bonnie’s market instinct was proved right. High-end visitors (with jumpers selling at around $500 each this isn’t the tourist tat market) want to buy something particularly New Zealand or Australian to show off when they get home, hence the surprising figures for woolly sales in the likes of Cairns. “Our turnover in summer is 75 percent higher than in winter. Tourists like to go home with something they can wear straight away.”The concept has evolved over the years. Bonnie still designs most of the jumpers (the biggest seller is the strangely trans-Tasman-sounding ‘Dreamtime Sheep’), mapping each on a grid system she developed herself. She stopped selling to other retailer’s years ago and today has seven shops of her own: Queenstown, Queenstown Airport, Christchurch, Auckland, Auckland Airport, Surfers and Cairns.But hand-knitting is a dying art, at least on this scale, so other Kiwi materials – leather, possum and slink skin (the very soft pelts of stillborn lambs) – are made into coats and jackets. At the peak of jersey production Bonnie had 2000 knitters in Australia and New Zealand; these days it is around 700. Local art and crafts also feature in the shops as do New Zealand-made cosmetics and gift items.

“It is not a clever thing, it has been hard work. But I believe in karma. I know I will succeed in what I do because I’m fair and I’m good. I’m tough – the people who don’t like working for me are the people who can’t do it my way. But I do have a really loyal team and great family support. I’ve worked for years just to prove I’m good enough. Now I’ve realized I am good and I’m moving ahead, working towards things I really believe in, without any constraints, without anything at the back of my mind saying this isn’t right.” Bonnie credits this to “finally taking responsibility for myself, not blaming things on others or on things outside my control”, a realization that has come about with the help of a spiritual mentor. Bonnie isn’t a fan of organized religion and describes herself as a survivor of a Catholic girls’ school, but is interested in different spiritual paths, specifically Buddhism, and in the power of meditation.

Which is where the new business venture comes into it. In 2004 she bought Songbirds, a resort set in 50 acres of rainforest atop Mt Tamborine, 40 minutes inland from Surfers Paradise. “For years I was too busy to take time out. If at 25 I’d had a mentor to tell me the importance of stopping, of putting time into myself, it would have been invaluable. Songbirds is about helping other people to realize that. I thought I didn’t have time to meditate until I realized meditation gives you more time. Now I’m running BONZ and Songbirds – but between meditation and red wine, I don’t have stress.”

It isn’t all serenity and spirituality. Having sunk a couple of million into the venture already, it is all hands to the pump. Bonnie has redesigned the existing villas, brought in a new chef and completely overhauled the restaurant which, after just seven months in operation, was named Restaurant of the Year on the Gold Coast.
And she is everywhere. Chatting to customers, answering the phone, organizing tradesmen, chasing up the champagne. Just as she worked seven days a week for three months after opening her first shop (“I didn’t trust anyone else to maximize sales”), now she’s out on the floor in the restaurant. It wasn’t planned that way – “a 50-year-old waitress isn’t a good look” she laughs – but just try to stop her. When away visiting her son in Christchurch, she admits to texting hourly to check how many were in for lunch.

Her goal is an holistic retreat “where people will be drawn to learn new skills”. A new spa building, 20 treatment rooms and 14 new villas are proposed … yoga, pilates, qigong, massage, beauty and mind therapies … two restaurants (one 95 percent organic, 75 percent raw) and a cooking centre. And different spiritual masters will spend time on site.

But nothing too worthy or earnest – one-time Wellingtonian Bonnie is a Gold Coast girl these days (very Veuve and Versace, darling). “Even luxury spas can be a bit boot camp-ish. Songbirds will be about choice. There won’t be a prescribed programme. A naturopathic consultation will be included in your room rate and
you can choose to follow up on the knowledge you are given from that or not. If I take a break I want luxury combined with serious time out and a range of practitioners who can help me move forward to another level in business or spirituality.”

The venture is combining a lot of interests: business, food, property, organics and the search for mental and physical strength. She’s already planted 3000 lavender bushes at the family property in Queenstown to provide oil for use in the spa and 150 hazelnut and oak trees, complete with truffle spores, in the hopes
there’ll be truffles to use in the restaurant.

As the restaurant is set up for the evening, staff set out hundreds of tea-light candles under the watchful gaze of the kookaburras perched in the trees that surround its wide terrace.

If it is a shopping experience at BONZ, here it is a dining experience – and some time in the next few years it will become a full spa experience. Spirituality will be an optional extra.