November 23, 2012 7:45 pm

Expat lives: From Sydney to Portland

Kim Graham-Nye’s ecological nappy business has made her one of Fortune’s 10 most powerful female entrepreneurs
Kim Graham-Nye in Portland©John Clark

Kim Graham-Nye in Portland

When pregnant with her first child, Kim Graham-Nye came across a shocking statistic: not only do more than 50m disposable nappies end up in landfill every day in the US, but each one takes about 500 years to decompose.

“When you have kids the future of the planet suddenly becomes very personal,” says the 41-year-old Australian. “I said to my husband, ‘We simply cannot carry on doing this. One day this child is going to grow up and look at us and wonder why we didn’t see this environmental disaster coming.’”

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Kim and her husband Jason, 42, a stockbroker-turned-schoolteacher, decided to look for environmentally friendly alternatives. They found a company selling 100 per cent biodegradable nappies made of wood pulp, invented by a woman in Tasmania. During a year of negotiations the Graham-Nyes secured funding and managed to buy the worldwide rights – excluding Australia and New Zealand – to gNappies.

The clause in the contract left them with a challenge – but also an opportunity. If they were going to have to leave Australia to develop their new business, where should they go? The decision to leave family, friends and their home on Bondi Beach, Sydney, and move with their son Finn, then aged 18 months, was based on a surprisingly dispassionate calculation.

“We realised that the US is the home of entrepreneurialism and it also has a market of nearly 300m people,” says Graham-Nye. “We then chose Portland, Oregon because it’s the sustainability capital of America. It has the most bike ranges and miles of city tram. We also realised that, as the home of Nike and Adidas, it would give us great access to textile expertise for the business.”

After deciding that Portland ticked many boxes, they made a brief visit and, in 2004, took the decision to move.

“It felt like the right thing for us as a family,” Graham-Nye continues. “If you’re starting a business, you have to put absolutely everything into it. We didn’t want to feel that there was something we hadn’t done or an avenue we hadn’t explored and find ourselves saying years down the line, ‘If only we’d gone to Portland ...’ But we knew that we had to make it work for the family too.”

The couple rented a house through the website Craigslist in an area called Lake Oswego, about 10 miles south of the city. The size of the house impressed them – especially since the owners had found it difficult to let because it was regarded as too small by local residents.

“We found more people here open to our crazy ideas,” says Graham-Nye. “I think people who come to Portland are looking for a better work-life balance with proper childcare.”

The move, however, was not without challenges: after a week of negotiations with an investor’s lawyers and accountants, the couple were on their way to sign a contract only to be told that the investor had died the night before. “We had four days to come up with an insane amount of money,” says Graham-Nye. “Then I went into labour with our second son. That was the most intense week of our lives.”

Over time they discovered that the US rewards risk takers. “In this country you haven’t earned your stripes until you’ve failed a couple of times. There was a great deal of ‘Good on you,’” she says. “What’s amazing about America is that you can arrive here with no business network whatsoever – it’s really about you and the idea that you have. In Australia there’s a lot more of who you know. Also, I suppose, when you move 10,000 miles and you don’t have a back-up plan then investors can see that you’re really committed to the business.”

Their dedication has paid off: in 2011 Graham-Nye was named one of Fortune’s 10 most powerful female entrepreneurs. Although the couple always planned to make money by selling their business and move back to Sydney, they’ve now decided to buy property in Portland and make it their permanent home.

The Graham-Nyes are regular visitors to Forest Park, which sits just behind the city centre and is one of the largest city parks in the US. It includes more than 70 miles of tracks, ideal for the city’s large community of runners. As typically outdoorsy Australians, they appreciate Portland’s warm, bug-free summers at Lake Oswego in particular. “The boys are at the lake almost every day, swimming or kayaking, and every Saturday we go to the farmers market to get fresh meat, veggies and artisanal bread,” says Graham-Nye.

“A trip to the coast, just two hours west of the city, is terrific in the summer,” she adds. “The beaches are not Sydney beaches, but it is great to get to open spaces. Similarly, one hour east of us is Mount Hood, a pretty decent ski hill in the winter and a fun place to head in the summertime. This summer we managed to get out sailing on the Columbia River, which was a lot of fun and sort of surreal – 30 degree heat with a snow-capped Mount Hood looking over us. America is very much our home.”

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Portland in short

Pros

Oregon is one of the few states in the US that has no general sales tax

Extensive public transport links and cycling facilities

Outdoor activities galore – making this a great place to raise children

Cons

Rains for a significant portion of the year

Fewer properties are currently emerging on to the market

What you can buy for ...

$100,000 A two-bedroom/two-bathroom condominium in downtown Portland

$1m A three-bedroom/two-bathroom house with six acres of grounds in a Portland suburb

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