Retail revolution

Rodney Fitch, founder of one of the world's leading design firms, injects his philosophy into the region.
Retail revolution
By Claire Ferris-Lay
Thu 01 Nov 2007 04:41 PM

It is the largest business in the world and other than sleeping we spend more time doing it than anything else. It is the only way we can distribute all of the products in the world - it is the purpose of life," enthuses Rodney Fitch, chairman of Fitch design group.

It may come as some surprise to learn that Fitch is in fact talking about shopping. Not surprising, however, when you learn that he is the founder of Fitch, one of the world's leading design companies, which has designed some of the most well-known retail areas in the world. Among other things, he has also been awarded title of Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his influence on the British design scene, as well as accepted one of the most prestigious awards an individual can receive in the field of retail design - an ISP Legion of Honour.

"Even today I think the business of shopping still gives me the greatest design buzz. The history of flight doesn't define the human experience, nor does the Industrial Revolution, but the business of shopping started when we were cavemen. The hunting and gathering form has now evolved into four million square foot malls, which is only another form of hunting and gathering," he says. "You can be very facile about it, but if you want to think about it on a deeper level like I have done, you can convince yourself that shopping is the purpose of life."

I am arrogant enough not to admire any contemporary designers except Raymond Loewy.

Fitch is passionate about design: that much is clear. In particular retail design, which is what Fitch, both the company and the man himself, specialises in. "I have a love affair with the shopping experience and retailers. Fitch is a consumer experience company as well as a design company because we are about the consumer experience at all touch points. What drives our business is delivering vivid experiences rather than ordinary experiences."

What becomes apparent when talking to Fitch is that he takes design to another level. He thinks about design quite differently. Throughout our conversation he refers constantly to design and innovation, the subject of choice for his speech which he will give following his interview with Arabian Business to around 45 investors and potential clients in the region. The speech coincides with Fitch's trip to the region to meet his new team from brand consultancy agency, gscs, which is based in Dubai Media City, and which Fitch has just bought a majority stake in. His speech, he tells Arabian Business, will aim to inject some of his unique design philosophy into the Middle East region.

"I am trying to persuade people here, and this is not exclusive to Dubai, that design on its own is insufficient. Innovation on its own cannot work without design and both are the product of imagination." This is somewhat of a mantra for the design guru, who having acquired gscs, now known as gsFitch, will now head up one of the largest design companies in the world.

Fitch's tried and tested mantra must be working. If you think hard about all of the major brands in the world, Fitch has probably worked with them at least once. From the luxury to the everyday, clients have included Bentley, Marks & Spencer, Universal Studios, General Motors, Microsoft, Wal-Mart and Louis Vuitton, to name but a few.

Fitch, the company, is based on a business model first used by the "father of industrial design," Raymond Loewy, whom Fitch greatly admires. "I am arrogant enough not to admire any contemporary designers but I think the father of what we do is Raymond Loewy. He was the first who bought together people of different design skills to work together collectively for a client. The Loewy office would contain graphic designers as well as interior designers, and because they worked as a collective they could work on almost anything. Their work included designing airplanes, space ships, interiors, graphics and packaging."

Following on from Loewry's early business examples, Fitch offers a range of design disciplines to its clients including retail design, architecture and brand communications from 18 offices across North America, the Middle East, Europe and the Far East through 500 employees. Not bad for a company which started in 1972 and now is now a multimillion dollar concern. "I already had the basic design skills but wanted to be an architect so I went back to college," he recalls. "Before I qualified I started working for a shop fitting company where I was completely inspired by the head designer. During my time there I learnt a lot about retailing, which really set me on my life's work."

Keeping it green

Only a couple of weeks ago His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, announced that all buildings in the emirate would have to be constructed as per environment-friendly "green building" standards from January next year.

Since then going green has been the only topic of conversation for businesses embarking on corporate social responsibilities, and Fitch is no exception.

"I think going green by 2008 is a bit of a boast because it is too short a space of time and I think it would take much longer, but it is certainly the start of the process," he says.

"Going green is extremely important in design and it is something we are being asked to incorporate in our designs a lot more. It cannot be ignored."

Fitch, which has a long standing relationship with British retailer Marks & Spencer, is currently working on a carbon neutral store of the future for the company following its announcement to become a completely carbon neutral business by the year 2010.

"The store as a whole will be carbon neutral so we are having to find innovative ways to design the store which is a huge challenge," he adds. "But they have said that is what must be done."

The firm itself also practices what it preaches and has just opened a new studio in Arizona, US, which Fitch describes as its "greenest studio ever". It may be a challenge but Fitch believes that it "can be done and it must be done."

The recent acquisition should help Fitch to "dominate the world" in retail design as he says jokingly, as well as grow significantly in this region. He already has some experience in the UAE having served as a member of the Design Advisory Board for the International Design Forum held in Dubai. "I want Fitch to be very much more substantial here. I want to be able to offer this part of the world our multi- disciplinary range of resources so that if you are watching this space in five years time, we will be five times the size," he says. "I don't think it is a foolish dream. When Fitch is five times the size, Dubai will also be five times the size - or more." Through the acquisition Fitch will be adding big-name clients such as Emaar, Dubai Holding and Burj Dubai to its already extensive portfolio.

As well as his passion for design, Fitch is an astute businessman. Fitch was the first design company in the world to obtain a full stock exchange listing in 1982, but one gets the feeling that nothing substandard is acceptable when Fitch is involved. The company experienced a change of shareholders in 1992 but when things should have been running smoothly, Fitch quit his namesake company two years later (see box). It appears that compromise is simply not an issue for Fitch.

Dubai’s airport is where the city starts. It is not just the place where you get on to the airplane.

So what does the man who founded one of the most successful design firms in the world, who is the chairman of V&A Enterprises, former president of the Chartered Society of Designers and of Designers and Art Directors Association and who thinks the Dyson vacuum cleaner is iconic, actually make of Dubai? "There is no doubt that Dubai architecturally is one of the great visits of the world, but how many world class buildings are actually here? It is like going to Singapore. In Singapore there aren't that many world class buildings if you measure them against all of the other tall structures around the world which actually claim to be a world class structures. Certainly in the context of these mega malls Dubai is at the cutting edge. If you want to build a 10 million sq ft mall you look at the experience of Dubai. Fitch looks to America's example when it comes to the design of shopping malls. "The US invented the department store, the plastic bag and the checkout but in the US there is not a single mall that is being built now that is anything like what is being built here in Dubai."

"What is being built in the US, which is still the biggest and most shopped community in the world, is the lifestyle mall rather than the mega mall. A typical community mall is smaller, has indoor and outdoor areas and is very much woven into the fabric of life. Only around 60% of space in these malls is related to products and the other 40% is devoted to hospitality. They are less about material acquisitions and more places of social interplay." But he says this is no different to other countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Fitch clearly enjoys a challenge so when asked what he would like to design more than anything he says he would like to contribute to solving the problems of the National Health Service in the UK. "It is in desperate need of innovation and more good design," he says. "Of course it is just a pipe dream because the politicians wouldn't allow me to do it, but if I could I would employ what we at Fitch call the 4D process - that is discovery, definition, design and deliver. Just because someone is ill it doesn't mean they should be forced to stay in an inferior environment."

Of course with his strong opinions on what is wrong with this region's shopping malls, he says he would jump at the opportunity to design his own version of a lifestyle mall, amongst other very large scale projects. "I would love someone to challenge me and say ‘I heard what you said about shopping malls, now design me a better one'." He of course adds that his mall wouldn't be like the ones in America because it would have to be better, and almost as an afterthought, because of the weather conditions here. "If I got the opportunity when it was finished it would be the best in the world."

Like many, Fitch would also relish the challenge to take over management of the traffic system in Dubai which he believes is crying out for his two favourite words - design and innovation. "There are a lot of cars here but there are a lot of cars everywhere. I would love to have the responsibility for two years to give the traffic management some innovation and design. "I would love to work on the new airport too," he continues. Having already had extensive background in designing airports in both the US and the UK this should come as no surprise. "I've done a lot of work at Heathrow on terminals one, two, and four and I am now working on terminal five, which when it opens next year will be the most state-of-the-art airport terminal in the world, but for how long? 10 minutes?" he says, before saying that if he had to only work on one thing it would be his own version of the future of the mall. As with his unusual view of seeing shopping as the purpose of life, Fitch also has a curious description of how he sees Dubai airport. "The airport is where Dubai starts. It is not just where you get on an airplane, it is the hub of Dubai and the region. I would love to be a part of the gateway to how Dubai envisages itself."

It may be too late for the airport, but Fitch's passion for design means it shouldn't be too long before the UAE is shopping in one of Fitch's latest lifestyle malls.

Trouble at the top

In 1994 Fitch left Fitch & Co and founded a smaller, more focused design firm, Rodney Fitch International, which specialised in branded retail, entertainment environments and communications for clients in Europe and Asia Pacific.

The move, however, was not under good terms. "I left under acrimonious, unfortunate circumstances," he says. "In 1989, Fitch was No. 1 in the world. We had only been public for a few years and were on the major stock exchanges. We were flying very high."

But then things took a turn for the worse and not long after Fitch embarked on an ambitious and expensive property development project to re-house the company's various studios under one roof, he fell out with the shareholders. "I fell out badly with the new shareholders," he says. "They were active rather than passive investors and I felt I couldn't work with the largest shareholder group. They made my life difficult, so I resigned. It was unpleasantly done."

Rather than packing his design bags and giving in, Fitch founded Rodney Fitch International which became a successful specialty design firm in its own right. Today, that firm is part of the Fitch current group of holdings.

"I worked with Richard Branson and I did everything for Virgin and then I bought him out and rejoined Fitch." Following the acquisition of Fitch by its now parent company WPP, Fitch rejoined the firm with three main objectives; the company's strategic positioning, client development and the recruitment and development and retention of talent.

At the time of his return Fitch couldn't contain his pleasure about working with his namesake company again, saying: "I really am over the moon about this appointment. During the past decade, Fitch, together with our industry, has changed quite a bit but the firm's constants of a terrific team, fantastic clients, and wonderful work remain. I'm delighted to be a part of it again. I'm home!"

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