Experts In Focus - Neil Arrowsmith + Bob Angley
hen Neil and Bob joined forces in the retail industry, Bob Hawke was the Australian Prime Minister, Allan Border was performing a rescue mission as the nation’s cricket captain and the Sydney median property price was $169,000.
Neil Arrowsmith tells how multinational retail enterprise Greater Group emerged from the fusion of common interests, gritty determination and hard work, to be the successful entity it is three decades on.
API: You recently celebrated the incredible milestone of 30 years in partnership. Can you tell us about the early days working together and how you came to join forces?
NA: From humble beginnings in 1989, Greater Group emerged in 2013 from three companies and now has offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Auckland, Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Hong Kong and London.
Back at the start, a construction company, Shopworks, was started in 1989 in Eltham by me and in 2003 I was joined by Craig Susans, who effectively ran the company thereafter. Shopworks UK started in 1997 and is still running today. Bob Angley and myself and our families relocated there. Bob had previously run the second company, Vertex Design. Angley & Arrowsmith emerged as a design company, and gradually grew to have offices in Melbourne and Sydney. The next company in the puzzle was Locasia, which was China-based and specialised in procurement of shop fittings. Ryan Arrowsmith started this company 15 years ago, based out of Shanghai as a 20-year-old. And then came the merged entity that exists today.
API: Building such a successful, global company and continuing to expand over three decades is an impressive achievement. Did you each bring different skills and traits to the partnership?
NA: We have always been a “design driven” company and, from the earliest days, we focused on increasing sales through what we term, “the science of retail” - that is, the way people walk, look, shop and engage with stores and products. When this is cross pollenated with staff behaviour, store layout, communications and fixture design, we have successfully formulated a great outcome for the retailer.
The “science” was derived by combining my fast-moving consumer goods, and business and marketing background with Bob’s outstanding design skills and department store training.
Bob and I can boast a 30-year plus partnership and have done virtually everything together. We moved to London with our families (Bob has six kids and Neil five) and travelled most countries with kids in tow. We have bought holiday houses, boats and even a very large city building, which almost saw the end of us physically and financially! But we are still waiting for our first argument.
API: In your early days in business did you come across any challenges or hit a wall?
NA: The biggest challenges in business are cash flow and people. We were and still are very lucky to have met some wonderful people over our journey, both customers and staff. We have been blessed to have attended many staff weddings, housewarmings and special occasions. Plenty of current and former customers are close friends. They all know us as “work hard, play hard” guys and we like surrounding ourselves with similar, hardworking, fun loving individuals. Challenges are constant and often appear more onerous than they are. Sometimes it is just a matter of working through them. The misnomer is that getting larger, employing more people etcetera makes life easier and makes more money. It rarely does.
API: What realisations helped you overcome these difficulties?
NA: Nowadays, we rarely, if ever, work crazy hours. We just employ more people. The realisation is, however, that when we were small, the buck stopped with us. Guess what? The buck still stops with us!
We have learnt that getting larger, doing greater sales volumes isn’t more pleasant or necessarily more profitable, than when you were smaller. My words of wisdom are:
- employ people who are fun
- only employ people who save you money or make you money
- focus on the bottom line rather than the top line
- love your customers
- treasure your staff but don’t tolerate mediocrity.
heir mantra is “creating intelligent retail environments” and as a mark of the partners’ own erudition they’ve managed to stand the test of time in a competitive and rapidly evolving industry. We delve a little deeper into how, they’ve consistently delivered high impact, high return stores – all why growing from 2 to 145 staff globally.
API: As the creator of intelligent retail environments, can you explain what it means and involves?
NA: Great design isn’t just about looks. When we design, we do so for three entities, namely the customer, brand and business. We typically work with our clients to establish key take-outs the design is going to deliver for each. We then review them during the design phase to ensure we are ticking all the boxes. We find our greatest reception using this method is from CEOs and CFOs, as we typically deliver stores end-to-end, that is from design through to build, which increases sales and reduces capital expenditure and operating expenditure.
If we can deliver that formula and still provide a great experience for the consumer, we will keep our clients for a long time. Very few designers can design to a price. Retailers must make profits. Overspending on their stores reduces their viability. Great design doesn’t have to cost more money!
API: Can you describe how the retail design industry has transformed over the past 30 years?
NA: There are very few retailers in the world that aren’t looking for some or all of the following:
- cost savings through purchasing
- modulation, flexibility
- quicker installs and refits
- different cost and delivery architypes (models of delivery)
- multi-country expansion
- brand protection and management (especially in Asia)
Equally, shopping centres now dominate retail distribution and, until very recently, have demanded more of the retailers in look, feel and spend, with most demanding refits every five years. This, together with more competition, locally and abroad and including online, has made retailers a lot sharper and vastly better operators than many of those from 30 years ago.
API: What type of companies does your service work best for?
NA: We specialise in rollouts (multi-store chains). For example, we have designed and built more than 300 stores for Optus over six years and designed all of the JB Hi-Fi stores over 16 years. We design all of the Pandora stores in Asia. Pandora Australia has been a customer for 10 years, where we design and build. Another area is those that need multi-country coverage, such as fixtures into 100s if not 1000s of resellers.
API: Looking ahead, what is your vision for Greater Group?
NA: Our vision has changed somewhat. We are partnering a lot more and leveraging other people and companies’ knowledge and strengths. For example, we have formed partnerships in growth industries such as digital and experiential through “Watch This Space”, design and build for the health industry, design and build for the F&B sector, display, beauty and luxury through X Factor Design and X Factor Display, and travel retail through ""Ground Control”.
About Greater Group
Greater Group is a multi-disciplinary global retail design and delivery agency. We have been creating intelligent retail environments for over 30 years.
Our team works strategically with the worlds’ leading brands to understand and respond to their unique business needs and objectives. Together we strive to ensure our design solution execute the absolute desired result for the brand.
Combining our extensive expertise, we deliver high impact, high return stores, and endeavour to provide clients with an attentive, well-rounded service throughout our journey together.