Inside Energetiks | Introducing Gail, Karen and Lynda, the Energetiks CEOs
The Inside Energetiks series introduces you to the people behind your favourite dancewear brand. This edition is particularly special. You may already know a little bit about our three CEOs, but we decided it was time our readers heard exactly how Energetiks came to be the company it is today. Prepare to be inspired!
It’s a warm Friday in Melbourne and Energetiks in-house photographer Elly and I are waiting to meet with Gail Gardiner, Lynda Chapman and Karen Tsonidis at a studio near the Docklands in Melbourne’s CBD. They arrive together, all smiles, but it’s down to business straight away; after all they have a company to run. They settle on the couch and I ask them to start at the beginning and share how their love of dance began.
Gail and Lynda are sisters, and started dancing together when they were young. Lynda was only two years old. “Our mum always dreamt of taking ballet classes when she was young, but unfortunately her family couldn’t afford it,” says Lynda. “When a ballet studio opened in our local church hall, she immediately enrolled us. I’m happy to add that mum fulfilled her dream in her thirties and forties,” she smiles. “She studied adult ballet under the renowned Lynne Golding-Kirk in Melbourne.”
Gail met Karen at primary school, and by grade six the two were best friends. Karen joined a marching team at five years old and later studied ballet, jazz and tap. She then joined a performance group and toured throughout Australia performing with renowned Australian artists. Meanwhile, Lynda and Gail continued to study classical ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. Gail developed a passion for teaching ballet, while Lynda continued to study intensively until a hip injury requiring surgery forced her to stop training. “I was advised to stop dancing completely after my injury,” says Lynda, “but I also loved to teach, so against the surgeon’s recommendations I continued to teach classical ballet for over ten years.” I ask her if her hip still troubles her, because you would never know it from the way she carries herself at work. “Yes,” she nods. “I just manage it.” A typical dancer mentality.
Gail was working as an accountant and still teaching classical ballet part time when she founded the first Energetiks store. Short on capital, she recalls visiting several banks to apply for finance. Despite having a business plan and extensive research into the local dance demographics, she was turned away. “Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in securing a loan,” explains Gail. “I was twenty-one years old, inexperienced and considered high risk.” She was not discouraged. Determined to get her business venture off the ground, she secured a loan from her father-in-law to buy stock. “My father-in-law has since passed away,” says Gail, “but I will be forever grateful for his generosity.” Gail and Lynda’s own father outfitted the entire store and built all the furniture and fixtures. Against all the odds, Energetiks was officially open for business. It was an instant success. “I had such a passion for dance,” explains Gail, “and I really felt that I could empathise with the needs of the local dance community which I cared so much about.” I asked Gail where the name Energetiks came from. “My senior ballet students and I came up with the name during a discussion in class,” she says. She wanted it to represent the energy of dance. “From there we came up with Energetiks,” she explains. “The ‘k’ actually represents kinetics and movement.”
I’m curious to know what prompted Gail to take such a big leap of faith at only twenty-one. The answer is very personal. “When I was dancing I could never understand why we had to travel so far to buy our dancewear and shoes,” she says. Lynda nods in agreement and adds, “I remember taking the entire day off school to buy our dancewear, because we had to take the train all the way into Melbourne. Mum struggled to pay our tuition fees, so we could only afford to buy shoes, tights and second-hand leotards,” she says. “There were baskets in front of the store containing all the second-hand dancewear, and I remember one year I chose a brown, long-sleeved leotard made from a very thin Lycra. I regretted that choice when I arrived at my next ballet class,” she laughs. Both Gail and Lynda recall feeling intimidated and out of place at the city dance store because they weren’t professional ballerinas. Spurred on by these childhood experiences, Gail hoped that Energetiks would make dancewear more accessible and affordable for local dancers. She also wanted to create a welcoming and inspiring atmosphere in-store so no dancer would ever feel out of place.
Karen was studying business commerce and co-ordinating a sales team at Nestlé when she became pregnant with her first child, Michael, and decided to work part time at Energetiks. Lynda was only fourteen and still at secondary school when she joined the team. She continued to work there even as she went on to study nutrition and dietetics at university. “I felt so connected to the store,” says Lynda. “It was like it was a part of me. And I was very proud of my sister.” I glance over at Gail and she looks touched. When Karen and Lynda came on board, Gail was pregnant with her twins Sarah and Steve, and was grateful for the support. Twelve months after Michael, Sarah and Steve were born, Karen gave birth to Alexandra and Gail had her third child, Hannah. Suddenly, there were five children under eighteen months old underfoot. “We were committed to being hands-on mothers while also nurturing the business,” says Gail. “Thank goodness we had each other! And we were lucky that our customers were so supportive. They really respected the fact that we were working mothers,” she adds. Karen nods in agreement. “Customers still remind us today that they held our babies while we fitted their children with dance shoes,” she says, smiling. It’s clear to me that Energetiks’ formative years evoke fond memories for the trio.
The business quickly outgrew its humble beginnings and moved into a large shopping centre. Once again, Gail and Lynda’s father volunteered to renovate the new store. “Our new location replaced an old greetings card shop,” says Gail, “and the previous tenants left all the fixtures and fittings, including the plastic display holders that held the cards. Dad cut them all down and used the plastic to create dividers in the drawers to keep ballet shoes upright for easy access.” I smile at this, because having worked in our retail stores extensively, I know that we still store our ballet shoes in the same way. “Dad’s very resourceful,” says Lynda proudly, “always building something out of nothing!”
The store operated smoothly at the new site for about twelve months, when it became apparent that a combination of high rent and low profit margins was putting a strain on the business. Karen remembers vividly the seriousness of the situation. “It looked as though the business would go into receivership if we didn't act quickly,” she says. “It was coming towards the end.” It is not uncommon for small businesses to go under in their early years, and it would have been easy for Gail, Karen and Lynda to give up and cut their losses. Instead, they rallied. This low point was the catalyst that inspired them to commence the manufacturing of their own Energetiks garment line. Lynda and Karen officially bought in to the company, and they moved forwards in an equal partnership as co-CEOs.
Creating your own line of dancewear is no easy feat, especially when you make a commitment to use Australian fabrics and manufacturers when so many would choose to source from overseas. But it was imperative to Gail, Karen and Lynda that the Energetiks brand reflected their vision. “We focused on ensuring that our designs and fits suited every dancer, from the novice to the professional,” says Lynda, “and we were committed to supporting the Australian economy. We knew we wanted our line to be Australian-made, using Australian fabrics, and affordable.” This vision remains the essence of Energetiks now. 98% of Energetiks garments are Australian-made from start to finish. Amongst the handful of styles that formed the basis of the original line, the gathered front leotard (CL04) remains a best-seller to this day.
The dance community appreciated the new fits, quality and pricing of the new Energetiks garments and as the business grew they expanded their styles to include innovative new designs. “We worked extensively with Australian manufacturers and Australian fabric mills in the development of quality garments using cutting-edge performance fabrics,” says Karen. The CEOs’ belief in their product led them to wholesale their brand to other independent dance store owners. It was a resounding success. “Our aim was to offer higher quality garments using fabric technology that was unique to the dance industry, along with improved profit margins and supportive and caring customer service. The feedback was extremely positive,” says Karen. “They were inspired by our garments and vision, and quickly placed repeat orders. We made a decision then to expand our collection of core uniform lines.” To facilitate this, Energetiks once again moved premises to a location in Essendon that supported the storage requirements for wholesaling. The three CEOs remained hands-on in every way, covering retail, product design, production, dispatch, and customer service with minimal staff.
If this wasn’t enough, they were still juggling five pre-schoolers. “Our children have been on board throughout this incredible journey,” says Gail. Karen nods, and adds, “We balanced being hands-on mums whilst running the business. Looking back now I’m really not sure how we did it!” As wholesale expanded to interstate, the business was moved to larger premises next door, which is the current location of the Essendon retail store. Soon after the move, all five children were off to school. The logistics of managing five school timetables was simplified with a little forward planning. “We made the decision to send all our children to the same school, four in prep and one in grade one, so that we could support each other with the school pick-ups and drop-offs,” says Karen. When Karen had her third child, Kirriley, they created a nursery in a small store room on site and she joined them until she went to school.
Eventually the addition of wholesale on an international scale required yet another move to an office and warehouse in Tullamarine, near Melbourne Airport. Lynda’s son Stuart was born soon after and spent most of his time at the new location. Energetiks opened three more retail stores and relocated to their current headquarters, a much larger warehouse and office in nearby Keilor Park. “When we purchased the new warehouse I remember believing we would never fill the space,” says Karen. Since that time, they’ve added an additional floor to the warehouse. “It’s hard to believe we were worried about filling it now,” laughs Gail.
It’s clear that it took an enormous amount of dedication to get the brand off the ground. “When everything was expanding so quickly, it was a challenge to make sure our children and the business were not compromised in any way,” explains Gail. “We have an enormous amount of love and respect for each other, so we all just chipped in and did what needed to be done.” That mutual respect proved invaluable to the company’s success. A trio of female CEOs is unconventional, but it works. “Having three of us is a huge benefit,” says Karen. “We all bring different attributes to the company, each of us specializing in what we do best, supporting each other within our areas of expertise.” Although their roles have adapted and changed throughout different periods of growth, they tend to stick with their strengths. Lynda, the more creative of the three, covers design, marketing and visual merchandising. Karen, the problem solver, overseas production and sales, and Gail, known for her love of numbers and strong organisation skills, looks after finance, operations and the retail stores. It’s not always smooth sailing of course. “Although we are very close we don’t always agree on everything,” says Karen. “In those situations we always listen to each other’s point of view, vote, and majority rules. This might sound unorthodox, but it works for us.”
There is so much for these women to be proud of, and I ask them to reflect on that for a moment. “I’m proud of so many things,” says Karen. “The love and friendship we have for each other, after thirty years. We have all had personal hardships, but having each other to lean on during those times has been invaluable. I’m proud of what we’ve created, and the difference we’ve made in the dance industry. We’ve never compromised our integrity or core values to run a successful business. And we’ve always remained committed to being Australian-made.”
“I’m proud of our friendship too,” says Gail. “We’ve been through so much together, and we’ve weathered the storms. It’s like a family in the end,” she says. “I’m also proud of the mothers that we are. And I’m always proud of the Energetiks team; I love and value all of our staff.”
“I think I’m most proud of the growth that we’ve achieved and how we’ve achieved it,” says Lynda. “We never lost our integrity, passion or our drive. We never, ever give up, even when presented with the toughest of challenges. We rally with each other, pick each other up, and say, ‘We can do this!’ We are a team.”
We Are A Team is one of the core values that Energetiks established with the relaunch of the brand in 2016, along with Be Amazing, Have Integrity, Support Our Community, Be Innovative, We Are Customer Centric, and Balance. In reality, these core values have been the essence of Energetiks from the beginning. “The core values formalised who we are and what we’ve always been committed to,” explains Lynda. It’s a culture that is now firmly ingrained within every staff member’s training and experience at Energetiks. As the company has evolved, staff levels have grown substantially to facilitate the changes. “The passion amongst the community at Energetiks is infectious and creates a wonderful work environment,” says Gail proudly. “We could not run our company without our amazing team. 95% of the Energetiks team are dancers, who understand the industry and the journey that we’re on. Our love of dance is something that ties us all together.”
Apart from an unwavering commitment to making incredible dancewear, Energetiks maintains an extensive sponsorship programme, supporting competitions and events across Australia, the major dance syllabi, including the RAD, Cecchetti and the ATOD, and dance companies like The Dream Dance Co. “Support Our Community is one of our core values and it’s very important to us,” says Lynda. We are always looking for ways to acknowledge our amazing industry. We give a large portion of our profits back to the dance community every year.”
As for the future of Energetiks, it’s clear that Lynda, Gail and Karen are here for the long haul. “I have no doubt that I will still be coming into work when I’m eighty years old, although I’m not sure if I will be a help or hindrance by then,” laughs Karen. “It’s hard to identify who I am without Energetiks. It’s been such a huge part of who I am for so long,” she says. Gail agrees. “I can’t imagine life without it. I love what we do,” she says. Lynda laughs and admits she’s never even had a job interview. “Energetiks has been my life since I was fourteen,” she explains. “It’s in my DNA, it’s who I am.” she says. There is a general agreement between the three of them that as time goes on they will focus more on one the core value Balance and allow their Executive team to take on more responsibilities. “We have an amazing team and its only right that they have the opportunity to make an even bigger contribution to our company,” says Karen. “They are talented and eager to spread their wings.”
I’m reminded again of what an achievement it is to establish and grow a business from scratch that will stand the test of time. Gail, Karen and Lynda remain as humble as ever. “It’s never been about us,” says Gail. “It’s about the dancers, the people who work for us, and the industry. We genuinely care, and we strive to make a difference. This, coupled with our initial vision thirty years ago, is who we are and what we live by.”
Interview & Article by Emily Newton-Smith
Photographs by Elly Ford