26 April 2024

Veteran-owned businesses: Julie Nichols goes from flight steward to market mogul

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Julie Nichols

Julie Nichols has built the Handmade Market Canberra into the largest indoor craft market in Australia. Photo: Handmade Market Canberra.

In this second instalment in our series profiling Veteran-owned businesses based in Canberra and the wider region, we speak with Julie Nichols from Handmade Market Canberra.

Canberra’s Handmade Market is rapidly becoming an institution amongst not only local residents with a flair or eye for handmade design, but for craft and food stallholders around the country.

The quarterly market at EPIC now has more than 250 stallholders offering quality wares and food, and is overseen by founder Julie Nichols who established the now-thriving business in 2008.

But few would know Julie is also an air force veteran who served in Sydney and Canberra for about decade.

“I grew up in a tiny place called Howlong just outside of Albury,” she says. “There were only about 1100 people in Howlong at that time, and there wasn’t a lot to do, so fairly early on I decided I would join the air force.”

Julie was 17 when she signed up. “When I went off to training, I never moved back to Howlong,” she recalls. “But I like to go back there and visit when I can.”

Julie tried to join as a photographer, but found the air force had other plans for her.

“I got the ‘We’re not accepting photographers, but why don’t you join as a steward?’ spiel,” she says, adding the air force initially suggested she could change to photography after she got in.

“And, of course, that never happened,” she said. “So, I did 12 months as a steward and then transferred to become a flight steward.”

Julie Nichols in the RAAF

A young LACW Julie Nichols during her time in the RAAF. Photo: Julie Nichols.

Julie worked at No 33 Squadron based at Richmond, near Sydney, flying the Boeing 707 on long-range VIP or passenger transport missions. She then transferred to the Canberra-based No 34 Squadron which operates the government’s fleet of dedicated VIP or Special Purpose Aircraft (SPA).

“That was during the Hawke and then Keating administrations,” she says. “So I did my 10 years but being a flight steward in the air force wasn’t something you could really do for too long, especially once you decided to have children.”

Julie’s husband was also in the air force, and served for 35 years.

READ ALSO Veteran-owned businesses: High-flyer Chris Huet strives to help people be understood

During her service Julie studied millinery and took her wares to various markets after she left the air force.

“I guess I always had a bit of a creative side, it had always interested me,” she says. “I actually think a lot of people in the ADF and public service seem to have a creative side.

“We moved around a fair bit and, during that time, I had been doing some market stalls. When I got out, I had a skill that I could take to markets as we travelled around or got posted, so I did lots of markets around Australia.

“When we got posted back here to Canberra, I quickly realised we didn’t have a lot of choice for markets.”

Julie went back to study at CIT in Watson where she did a business course. From there, she decided to establish her own Handmade Market.

Initially held at the Albert Hall with 35 stallholders and about 2000 visitors, the market grew as it moved to the Canberra Wine Company, the National Convention Centre, and finally EPIC. It now takes up three pavilions and has more than 260 stallholders and 20,000 visitors.

Handmade Market Canberra

Handmade Market Canberra now has more than 260 stallholders and 20,000 visitors. Photo: Handmade Market Canberra.

Julie says Canberra is a great place to run a business and raise a family.

“From the point of view of my business, I think what makes it so unique is it’s quite small compared to major cities. It’s so easy to get the word out about an event.”

But despite being a small town, Canberra’s fairly large transient population provides for a good turnover of visitors to the markets, Julie says.

“We obviously have a lot of Defence people, lots of diplomats and public servants,” she says. “So, we constantly have new customers and new people.”

READ ALSO Julie Nichols reflects on the Handmade market she launched from her spare bedroom 15 years ago

So successful is the Handmade Market that she now has stallholders and visitors from interstate.

“We draw a lot of our stallholders from Australia wide, but you would be surprised how many of our customers come from interstate as well,” she says. “Especially if they have family or friends in the region, they’ll often time their visits to coincide with the market.”

Her company has also become an unofficial peak body representing the interests of market stallholders in the region, with 600 members and a thriving e-business.

“We have an online business directory, so everybody who’s registered with us has a listing. The SEO is amazing, and the traffic to the website is great.

“And we also work in the background with stallholders to improve their SEO or their website, or help them with social media. It’s not necessarily something that a customer might see, but we’re constantly working with those small businesses to keep them in business.

“So, we love growing and being able to support our stallholders and our community.”

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