It’s no surprise that Rodney Fitch & Company and Wickens Tutt Southgate have severed their official ties (see News, page 3). They have so little in common, with The Seattle Coffee Company, now merged into the US-based Starbucks empire, perhaps best known among their few shared clients. Rumour has been rife of an impending split and the decision by the two groups not to enter this year’s Design Week Top 100 survey, having jointly reached 19th position in 1998, suggested something was up.
There were good reasons for the deal struck in late 1996. Retail interiors being Rodney Fitch’s forte, he needed to add branding expertise to his offer. WTS meanwhile was reported to be in dire financial straits.
But while the deal met WTS’ immediate needs, with Rodney Fitch taking a “generous” stake in the group and backing from his partner, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, an integrated offer never materialised, as WTS founder Paul Southgate admitted last month (DW 26 March).
The reasons are many, but the collapse of the Asian market – where Rodney Fitch & Co had strong links – must be a factor. Gone were those mega retail schemes the two groups were geared up for. Then Virgin work never really materialised for WTS, Virgin’s own group Clinic taking a big share of the branding work.
We can look back and wonder why the two groups thought the deal would work. But so much has happened since that’s been beyond their control. At least both had the nous not to try to merge their different cultures and the strength to admit that things weren’t working. No face has been lost. Neither has compromised its professional standards – WTS, for example, has won creative awards for work for Seattle Coffee and Superdrug completed since the deal.
Rodney Fitch’s decision to buy out from Virgin also makes sense. Branson’s backing was invaluable in 1994, when he set up on his own having been ousted from Fitch. But Rodney Fitch & Co has not relied on Virgin work, and Rodney Fitch is used to standing on his own. A design industry founder, he is best at ruling his own destiny and it is ironic that he should regain his independence so soon after Fitch sold out to US conglomerate Lighthouse.
Rodney Fitch and the WTS directors have integrity. That’s why there’s likely to be no public spat about the parting. If they can maintain an amicable relationship, they’ll show that being honest about a situation that isn’t working is better than patching over the cracks.