Toby, Bickie, Basil and all the Tambo Teddies in their family are often credited for putting the tiny outback Queensland town on the global map.
But without the commitment of Alison Shaw and Tammy Johnson, and the other women business owners and founders before them, the iconic Queensland business simply would not be what it is, or at all.
In 2023 the business will celebrate 30 years – three decades of evolving to meet global market demand, championing Queensland sheep and wool industries, promoting their home town and all the while paying homage to the history of the brand and the values it was founded on.
Alison and Tammy have owned Tambo Teddies since 2014, having bought the business with then business partner Kiralee, from previous owner Mary Sutherland.
Mary was one of the original business founders, alongside Charm Ryrie and Helen Sargood. The impact of three women taking over from three women isn’t lost on Alison and Tammy.
“There was a lovely synergy when the three of us purchased the business, however it was only Mary who owned it at the time and had done so for around 16 or 17 years”, Alison said.
“Really I just can’t imaging men owning and running the business.”
For Tammy, the female perspective is different to that of a male.
“Not better, not worse, just different”, Tammy said.
“It might have something to do with our sensitive nature, whatever it is, it fits well with teddy bears.”
Tambo Teddies are unique teddy bears handcrafted in Australia from the softest sheepskins.
“We knew when we bought Tambo Teddies, we were buying the quality”, Tammy said.
“With all the changes we have made over the years, we have always maintained the essence of the core product.”
Alison and Tammy have paid special attention to making sure the business is relevant in current and future global markets, investing in e-commerce and digital marketing to ensure Tambo Teddies are accessible to families right across the world at the same time as travelers who specifically pass through Tambo to visit the bears.
“When we took over we had a vision to grow Teddies and make them available to everyone”, Alison said.
The women set to work – implementing a digital strategy, rebuilding the website, creating social media accounts, building a customer data base, and implementing digital advertising.
They took the cottage industry business global.
Tammy says she and Alison manage the majority of these developments themselves, allowing them to know exactly what they need and want for the business to secure future success.
‘We considered our market was not just people driving through Tambo – but a global market”, Alison said.
“We recognised Tambo Teddies had an amazing core product that customers loved, who doesn’t love a teddy bear, but we needed to introduce change without losing our unique selling position, hand crafted, sheepskin, Australian made, from the Outback.”
“We have implemented processes around cutting the skins to maximise output and minimise waste, tripped to China to source our raw materials ourselves and cut-out the middle man, implemented ecommerce, inventory management systems, and point of sale.”
“I really love sales – I get a thrill whenever we well a bear and someone takes it home or sends it off as a gift. Sales never cease to excite me. I really love online sales as this is where we want to grow and expand the business, so to me online sales represent success.”
“We are always on the look out for new ideas and work together, constantly forward planning to ensure we have new products, new stories to tell, new ways of telling our story.”
Alison said in 2017 growth slowed due to supply challenges and they struggled to find enough sewers to meet bear demand.
“We came up with the concept of a Regional Sewing Hub.”
Alison and Tammy leased a building in Toowoomba, and partnered with Multicultural Development Australia to find workers – four sewers, two from Syria, one from Eritrea, and one from Charleville. Bonnie, who had been sewing for Teddies during 2018, took on the management of the Hub in February 2019.
“We haven’t looked back, even during COVID we blitzed our financial goal”, Alison said.
“It was soon obvious we had outgrown our little Hub and we purchased a much larger warehouse space and fitted the space out for retail and production, the same as in Tambo.”
A constant for the business in the past 30 years has been its reputation – largely fueled by a motivation from the original owners in promoting the bears around the country, and creating a name for the business.
“The bears and the business really put Tambo on the map. And they did it the hard way – they tromped around the state, visiting every show and market they could. Helen reckoned she wore out at least one care promoting the bears”, Alison said.
“Tambo Teddies had a presence, it was known, mainly due to the fact it was a quirky concept that went forward and captured people’s attention.”
Over the past nine years, Tammy and Alison have celebrated many business and personal successes. Three weeks after they purchased the business the Premier’s Department rang and ordered a Mr Stockman to be given to Prince William, Kate and George when they visited.
The next few years came weddings and babies, degrees and national awards. By 2018, the Royal Family had been gifted a second Tambo Teddy from the Premier of Queensland, and the following year a multicultural award landed them on the ABC’s Landline Program – an opportunity Tammy said resulted in a new level of exposure and demand for Tambo Teddies.
The brand’s connection to Queensland communities is strong. Even so, RRRW President Julie Mayne has fond memories of the bears being part of her childhood.
“I even remember my mother bringing home huge bags of teddies for us to stuff with wool using wooden spoons while watching TV at night, even the ringers helped. Such was the energy around the idea, that we all got together to support them”, Julie said.
“I remember dropping off bags of stuffed teddies to their little shop in Tambo when I went to town, and hearing the chatter and laughter as a bunch of women sat around stuffing, sewing and trimming bears.”
Alison said despite these achievements, Tambo Teddies is and will always be an icon of Tambo, with the community having special ownership of the business and the brand.
“The community is very proud of Teddies”, Alison said.
“Even though we own it – we feel a responsibility to ensure it is successful, not just for ourselves but for Tambo as well. We really feel like custodians.”
“The wider Outback are similarly proud of Teddies, and we are often called on to collaborate with other groups.”
“We are considered a role model – a small business that can be established and can thrive from a remote location.”
“It’s what Tambo Teddies represents that make the bears special. Teddy bears represent love, hugs and cuddles, but Tambo Teddies also represents support for the Outback, for the sheep and wool industry, and love for Tambo itself.”
“A Tambo Teddy is made by hand, it is made with love, and it is made to last.”
Meet Alison and Tammy
Alison Shaw moved to Outback Queensland from New Zealand, having previously worked on a goat farm in New South Wales while on Uni holidays.
She decided instead of heading home, to head for Outback Queensland – landing in Tambo and never leaving.
“I had very romantic notions of the Outback, but really had no idea what to expect”, Alison said.
“I took a job on a property as a jillaroo and loved it. I met my now husband at the local pub and stayed.”
After jillerooing for three years on a sheep property, Alison went to Brisbane to study woolclassing and then worked around Tambo and western Queensland as a Classer for about twenty years.
“I love sheep and love wool. I love working with wool – I am very passionate about wool and believe it is the most amazing fibre”, Alison said.
“I do love the Outback, I love the wide-open spaces, lack of traffic on the roads and the fresh air.”
“Each morning I take our dog and cat for a walk out on the road, and really love looking at the scenery, its pretty good at the moment, lush and green.”
Alison spends a day off pottering about the garden, socialising with friends, and supporting the local Art Gallery – and working on her grant writing business ‘The Right Grant’.
“I enjoy being involved in community activities and organisations such as the Show, Heritage Group, and the Arts Council.”
Tammy Johnson grew up in Charleville and has spent the majority of her life in Outback Queensland.
“I love the outback way of life”, Tammy said.
“Queensland is a great place and many people wish to visit at some stage. Tambo, like many smaller towns around Queensland, has a beautiful vibe. People and wildlife are friendly, and the weather is beautiful.”
“I love working with Alison, she is driven and focused. We might discuss an idea today and she will have actioned it by tomorrow. Over the years we have developed some key communication tools that we use that has definitely helped.”
Outside the business, Tammy spends her time at home with family – including three small children.
Story by Emma Clarke