Competing with the big boys

Retail specialist Redjacket is starting to make its mark against high-profile rivals.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Redjacket consists of just ten staff. The consultancy frequently competes against bigger and better-known groups for interiors projects – and wins – resulting in an increasingly public face.

It has had some high-profile wins lately. Last week it emerged that the group has been appointed to develop store formats for Virgin Clothing. And this week it is up against Fitch and Crabtree Hall/Plan Créatif to revamp the retail outlets of high-profile ice-cream brand Häagen-Dazs, and has developed stores for Asian fashion chain Daminis.

Fashion retailers Oasis and Diesel have used Redjacket to create stores and showrooms, as have music chain HMV and travel agent Thomas Cook, and the consultancy is in the process of developing a VIP lounge for south London nightclub Ministry of Sound. All high-profile projects, which any number of consultancies would dearly like to work on.

Principal partner Martyn Bullock derives obvious pleasure from describing this client-winning, giant-killing behaviour as “punching above our weight”, as well he might.

But Redjacket occupies something of a niche: though it aspires to compete further with bigger players, such as the 108-strong UK arm of Fitch, it has no inclination to play on their terms. Head of marketing Simon Jordan says there are no plans to accelerate its steady rate of growth, with 15 staff considered the maximum Redjacket will ever employ.

Fitch director Zuilmah Wallis says Redjacket is perceived as small and creative, but not as a direct threat to the major players. “To my knowledge we’ve pitched against them once,” she says.

Flying directly in the face of current design group fashion, Redjacket’s directors are refusing to emphasise strategic consultancy skills to the same level as their creative ones. A majority of the staff employed over the years have been recruited from the Royal College of Art, to ensure their creative credentials.

“We do understand and provide that strategic understanding – but the levels of creativity are what people are buying into,” says Bullock. One reason for keeping the consultancy small is so he can remain at the drawing board, rather than spend his time as a manager. The desire to be his own boss was one of Bullock’s prime motivations to launch the consultancy, in 1991, after working for Maurice Broughton Associates. Fellow partner Richard Greenleaf was previously at David Davies Associates, and Simon Jordan moved to the consultancy from the furniture design sector.

The enthusiasm of the self-employed is evident in the work rate, but Jordan claims Redjacket chooses people it wants to work for and chases them, rather than pursuing work which staff consider themselves unsuitable for. “We have a very active new-business policy,” he says.

It seems to be paying off, with more client wins, including the possibility of more work for Virgin, thought to be close. The group now harbours a desire to land a major menswear retailing project, to complement the womenswear chains which it often works with.

This focused policy may be partly fuelled by necessity – as a small company, Redjacket finds it hard to cope with free creative pitches and, according to Jordan, refuses to take part in them. The approach seems to be working.

The group has no doubt been helped recently by a buoyant retail market – retailers seem to be spending ever more on their image. According to a recent Verdict report, there is more retail floor space per head of population than ever before. This increasing competition for shoppers is good news for designers.

Figures from the British Retail Consortium may show falling high street sales, but retailers are still confident, and many are creating more design work by showing renewed interest in high streets as opposed to out-of-town shopping centres. Redjacket’s low-growth plan should see it in a healthy starting position to weather the next inevitable recession.

A recent property acquisition has seen Redjacket start to plough another individual furrow, as a landlord. It has bought the freehold of a former light industrial unit in south-east London, and is in the process of forming a community of complementary businesses there.

Space at the site, which is too big for Redjacket alone, has been sub-let to project management group Mark Alford Associates; a modelmaker is housed in another section. Redjacket is temporarily housed in an upstairs unit off the central courtyard of the complex while its eventual home is refurbished, after which there will be space for another tenant.

The acid test of Redjacket’s strategy, though, will come if its current success continues. If more work pours through the door it will surely be tempting to quietly drop the steady growth policy and move up a few gears, getting nearer in size to the groups it is competing against. The temptation may have been resisted so far, but if the jacket fits…

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