Three "arrangements" have dominated the life of Rodney Fitch. The best - the one with Burton - made it possible to go it alone. Chris Blackhurst reports.
When social historians analyse the past 20 years they will be unable to ignore Rodney Fitch. With Sir Terence Conran, he will be acknowledged as a chief architect of the retailing revolution.
Founder and chairman of Fitch-RS, the design group, he introduced the high street to stripped wood, chrome, glass and colour co-ordinates. Leading retailers to have benefited from being "Fitched" include Asda, Woolworths, Ryman, Top Shop, Debenhams and Boots. Such is his record for boosting sales through design that non-shopkeepers have also come knocking at his door. They include Lloyd's of London, Midland Bank, Heathrow Terminal 4, BT cordless phones and the Imperial War Museum.
So far Fitch has avoided joining another list of interest to future historians: victims of the 1990-91 recession. But only just: profits of his group fell last year from £3.7 million to just £50,000, while its share price dropped from 238p to just 15p. Fitch has cut costs, reduced his workforce from 550 to 400 and looked elsewhere for work. "We are now much more internationally orientated. I don't plan building back via the UK economy. Now a lot of what we do is connected with work overseas."
He has not entirely written off the UK. "There is masses still to do. As soon as the recession ends, people will want to spend money. They don't want dull, boring, grey, badly serviced shops."
By his own admission, Fitch is not a deal-maker. "Deal is such an awful word. It's like 'punter' - dreadful. The idea that you can do a good deal by doing somebody else down is something I loathe. It's a lousy way to spend your life. I prefer to think of arrangements I've made with mutually compatible people."
There are three "arrangements" of which he is particularly proud. The first came when he made his break from Terence Conran in 1970.
He has reason to be thankful to Conran. In 1963 Fitch had quit his first job as designer with Hickman and Company, a north London firm of upmarket shopfitters, to join Conran, then an up-and-coming designer with his Conran Design Group. Unfortunately, on the day that he was due to start, Fitch, a militant member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), was in prison for his part in a CND demo. "Conran kept my job open. There are not many people who would have done that." He joined Conran, reduced his CND activities and began to climb the management ladder. By 1968 he was managing director.
A year later Conran sold the design business to Ryman, which then became part of The Burton Group. "Terence went off to start Habitat and I was left at Burton, as the head of a small design group within a vast business." Fitch approached Cyril Spencer, Burton's head. "I said, not knowing what on earth I meant, 'Can I buy this business from you?' I was married, with two small children and no money to speak of."
Spencer, "bless him", said that he would talk to his colleagues. The answer came back: "It will cost you £180,000. We're all on your side - here's an introduction to Kleinwort Benson." He got his £180,000 - not, he stresses, from "Kleinwort but through a friend, privately" and with Fitch putting up 25% himself ("God knows how I did it").
For all his naivety, Fitch had a trick or two up his sleeve. Thanks to his management, the design company had a cash balance of £100,000 - "so I was buying the entire business for £80,000". The independent designer's first client was Burton. "They were really supportive. They've remained a client."
His next break came in 1974 when he was asked to decorate and furnish the interior of BP's new City headquarters. In 1982 Fitch-RS came to the Unlisted Securities Market. Two years later the company joined the main list. His second "arrangement" came in 1987 when he bought Benoy, a small firm of retail architects, a leading player in shopping centre development. When it was bought, Benoy numbered 45 people. Before the recent cutback, that total had risen to 100.
His third "arrangement" was the purchase in 1988 of Richardson Smith in the United States. "It must be seen against a background of wanting to be the number one design business in the world. To be that, we have to be large, international, very professional and multidisciplinary." While it was big in retail and leisure design, graphics and architecture, Fitch was not in product design and strategy, nor was it in the US.
Richardson Smith was Fitch's chosen target. Based in Boston and Ohio, it was the leading product design company in the States. Its two founders, Dean Richardson and Dave Smith, had left the running of the company to Martin Beck. While Richardson and Smith were sceptical about joining Fitch, Beck was keen. Fitch went to the US and met the three of them at Atlanta airport.
Being artistic, they did things differently from hard-headed businessmen. After two hours of talking they shook hands and agreed a price: for $19 million, Fitch could buy the company. Then they called in their financial advisers. It was, says Fitch, a "terrific deal". It took Fitch to the US, brought Martin Beck into the company (he is now its chief executive) and expanded the company and enabled it to stay afloat during the present recession. Fitch is in no doubt that starting the business was his best arrangement - "Without that, there would be nothing else".
(Chris Blackhurst is City editor of the Sunday Express.)