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Seller Spotlight: Nick Munro
12/06/2020
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Damon Westbury
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 In this week’s Seller Spotlight our co-founder, Damon Westbury catches up with globally renowned designer and entrepreneur Nick Munro.

With a 30 year track record of success across a diverse range of industries, Nick provides a fascinating and thought provoking interview discussing his views on how design and retail will have changed forever in a post COVID-19 world.

Nick's a leading British engineer and artist, he's also the master of design at the Royal College of Art London, protege of the Duchess of Westminster, a fellow of City & Guilds institute in London, and a visiting professor at the design Royal Academy of Engineering at Imperial College London. He's also won multiple international design awards, he has designed the official London 2012 Olympic Games silverware and also the teapot for Her Majesty the Queen for the Diamond Jubilee. 

Critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic with blue chip co-brand partners including JohnLewis, Wedgwood, Belstaff, and WPP, Nick does however give an interesting insight into how he believes collaboration has been enhanced by the affects of COVID-19. 

Nick has founded two businesses; Nick Munro Holdings where he creates beautiful, original, desirable, practical British design and sells it to the world and through Nick Munro studio he colloborates with some of the worlds-leading brands.

Nick's products can be found throughout many of the top retail environments as well as premium restaurants and hotels worldwide including The Wolsey, Hotel de Berri in Paris and The Standard in New York. You can find out more about him here.

Watch the inspiring full interview below to hear Nick's incredible wisdom.

Short on time? No worries, you can read the interview questions and answers below too. 

 


 

Q: How has the COVID-19 lockdown impacted your business to date?

A: All of the manufacturing activities has had to be shelved and what that's meant is that people have had to be furloughed or we just had to deal with that process. I don't think there has been any choice on that and actually I support it because I think that there needs to be a response to what's happened. 

Interestingly, on the other hand, the studio side which is design consultancy, where one's working with clients around the world. Well thats very facilitated by the sort of technology that we're deploying today really and it's growing and people are really focusing on 'OK well, we know the situation that we're in but what can we predict will be the situation that we find ourselves in in a few months time and how do we design the future?' And for me that's a real switch on because I think looking forward, looking at the opportunities that present in times of change is what it's got to be all about and so the studio is is really busy on that. And as it happens you can put that together as a network of digital nomads effectively, who are all working from home and still achieve a lot, so I think in that regard design consultancy is already morphing, has already morphed really, into a remote style, interconnected series of professionals rather than the glamorous office with all of the kind of impact that that implies. I think all of a sudden, well that just look likes cast rather than necessarily credibility, so I think we've got some changes ahead on that front.

Q:  How do you think colloboration with change in a post COVID-19 world?

A: I think creatives are naturally at the head of the arrow with regard to change anyway. They've got an appetite for that, so I think these circumstances have caused people to adjust their approach and certainly my team is able and equipped to operate without previous, what would be seen as assets perhaps. And going forward, I think we can change and in so doing I think the creatives in the economy can be the pathfinder for OK, well how do we continue to achieve but in a manner which is appropriate to the changed circumstances? 

I think people have found a new etiquette, it's actually OK. It's actually cooler be in touch with people through this medium for instance, rather than necessarily saying I'll jump in the car or jump on the plane to come and see you. That isn't, I think, obligatory or isn't going to be obligatory in the same way that is perhaps was. The dividend is time and freedom and I think that that plays into our wider agenda with regards to sustainability, the environment and all the rest of it and it's cheaper so I think that in a lot of ways you can deliver more value, more efficiently. However, having said all that, in the end there's nothing like getting around a table with a cup of tea and saying 'OK, what's going down here?'' What do we need to do. How do we need to deal with, whatever challenges are in front of us?' That's obviously going to come back and like anybody, I welcome that because ultimately that has a fun factor which is important.  

Things like balance for instance. You can't see that on a screen you've got to feel it and one you should be able to close your eyes and feel the product mentally so picking it up and playing with it. So I think the physical reality is a very important part of it, absolutely that's something that we we celebrate.

Q: What projects are you working on that will have more relevance post COVID-19?

A: There's a project that we're working on at the moment for scent. It's essentially home fragrance but we think there's a new opportunity in not just candles but sanitiser for instance. We think that whole process of crossing the threshold could include a little process whereby much as in certain cultures you take your shoes off when you cross the threshold we think it may well, be that you just elegantly sanitise your hands before you really welcome either a guest or you feel welcome as a guest entering a home. So there is quite a lot in that and the scent is important. It's a real mental experience scent and you can't do that on a screen either. That's a process that we we are trying to get right remotely but ultimately that's got to be around the table.

Q: How do you see manufacturingchanging in the coming years?

A: I think that there's a new kind of marriage of technology with craft. So for instance, most people are familiar these days with 3D printing but that as a technology is developing enormously and you can now print in a vast range of materials from metal through to plastic so that allows for quite fast and quite bespoke elements to be made. Ultimately, I think all of these things feed into a story. What people are buying really is a story and it's the telling of that that makes it compelling and if the story has a bespoke element to it well, then thats even better.

I think it's pretty interesting what Nike did a few years ago where they actually allowed people to design their own trainers when you can go online you can make it up and it will be made accordingly. Well there's a certain version of that which we deploy for different hotels where they want an element, a story of bespoke. Raymond Blanc for example, would want a coffee pot that actually said something about him and his operation rather than be something off the shelf and in that regard you can do simple things like print handles that take a standard format and then make them into something bespoke. I think that marriage between technology + craft allows you to do quite small volumes of things and therefore make things quite special and investible that have meaning and are expressive.

Q: What changes do you envisage happening for both the creative & design processes?

A: I think that there's a change in my opinion going to happen. We're told quite forbidding things about the future with regards to the UK economy and so on. Nobody's really got magic wand on that but if one just looks historically; well what happened, really in the past young people, new generations come along with new ideas fuelled by whatever the new technology is at the moment and they just make things happen and I'm pretty confident that will be the same. 

For the future retail will be different. I think that it would be much more to do with a more traditional model of artisans living over the shop almost but producing things of fine and high-quality. I think that the high street where you've got the, Tinker, Tailor, Candlestick maker looks quite appealing to me and plays into the rise of open-air markets and I think that a billion different decisions feed into a big moment of change and I think that's what's likely to occur. 

How that really distills down into a clear picture? Bit difficult, bit too early to say but I think that smaller scale, more meaningful, more ethical, more local and more investable, all of those things seems to me the kind of messages that brands are going to need to be strong on rather than just stuff or more stuff or even more stuff! That's just warehouses full of merchandise that no one needs and in the end nobody is going to buy. That's just over in my opinion.

Q: How do you look at this trade, or this manufacturing being done say in China? Do you think that you see that sort of real localised resurgence? And do you think that might be on a regional basis or just really quite widespread across the country?

A: I think across the UK there's already a big reset happening and I think that the future has to be locally made, really well designed, high-quality produce, well priced things that have that storyline that I mentioned to you before. The storyline to a certain extent is validated by 'made in the UK'  but that never really has been enough on its own. You've got to have all the other credentials and then the 'made in the UK' really underlines that and gives people an extra reason to believe and I think that's the route really. 

Q: What changes do you envisage happening for both the creative & design processes?

A: I think when you're designing things as opposed to making them, well the world's your oyster really. 

So for instance you mentioned China or the Far East and what's happening and there are changes there too. So this old idea that you would be able to buy a container load of inexpensive goods and find a ready market somewhere as soon as you ship that into a western country, I don't think thats the road. But I do think that by working with Chinese suppliers and factories as we do now is important and growable when they have the same value sets as we're talking about here. 

So for instance, we're working on a new collection of cast iron pans right now which is really quite innovative and different from a shape and performance point of view and has many attributes including it will be lighter weight, various sculptural differences, beautiful quality but manufactured in relatively low quantities so it allows people to specify the kind of handle that they want, the kind of finish that they're looking for whether it's a colour or whether it's a texture and so on and so on and that's a model which is much more responsive to market demands, trends and needs and that's great. Not only in terms of how that will create meaning within a market like the UK, but also how do you sell that in China? How do you get that to be local? How do you take what we're saying is the pathfinder approach in the UK and transport that into an economy like China where you are making and supplying locally to people who also want a story? Everybody's the same at the end of the day and so I'm very optimistic about that.

Q: Do you see mass markets changing to a more made to order process?

A: I think it'll be more expensive and rightly so. 

We're working with people like Burberry at the moment, just as we've worked with people like John Lewis. The buyers of places like that have to have reassurance that whatever is being made is compliant and whether they're making that in the UK factory or far Eastern factory, the thing that becomes common currency is the compliance with whether its ethical, whether its environmental, whether it's financial considerations, is all the same but to win that business not only do those supplies need to be compliant but they've got to be flexible so on that basis, they can charge more for what they're doing because it's inherently worth more. To me that's pretty positive stuff and the old model is the old model, from the old world. We're looking at New World, new folks, new strokes.

Q: What trends do you see impacting retail?

A:  Well I think all brands really have got a challenge there. I think that the traditional retail operation where you've got a large square footage with a diverse collection of products is difficult. Difficult to make that work and pay. I think there is definitely a shrinkage going on in terms of bricks and mortar footprint up and down the country.

The question that emerges, is on the one hand how are any of the brands in question going to continue to show presence in physical terms? Retail itself as bricks and mortar is important because the likelihood of someone buying something when they are in a shop evidently is two and a half times greater than if they were online so it's already a better conversion. Where as I think online portals are more and more competitive, more and more expensive to operate and have overheads such as returns. For example, you order a sofa and you don't quite know is it comfortable or not and the supplier has to give you a 7-day money back guarantee. That's a significant on cost with regards to the limits that are always going to be in play online.

 If you look at retail space, one of the things is supply and demand means it's going to be cheaper so whatever deals were written previously and many retailers, are trying to get out of those deals right now, and succeeding in doing that, the deals that are going to be deliverable for landlords on retail property going forward will be nothing like as rich as they have been and what that means is there's access to those spaces for other people doing new things and unless they demolish stores, and that's just not going to happen, you're going to find that those ones get adopted in a new way and I'm pretty interested to see that.

Q: Do you think lockdown be a driver for creativity and innovation?

A Yeah, I feel very positive about that for some quite big reasons. 

We're having a cash injection into the economy in the UK of something like 500 billion. Real money, that is unprecedented and that is flowing into the economy. So that will provide people with the capital to start businesses even if it's been pushed into existing businesses, it will allow those businesses to make decisions about other things that they may want to do and I think that's quite interesting.

At the same time our inflation rate has actually fallen. It's not like you just printed a lot of money and then inflation has rocketed. That hasn't actually happened, so what will be very interesting to see is how that injection of cash translates into new entrepreneurship and just as it has been previously where you had the Marshall Plan post Second World War in Germany and obviously a parallel in Japan that injection of very significant amounts of money triggered change.

What's quite interesting really is how such a large amount of money to come into the economy now at a time when we've got the technology, we've got the demand and we've got the understanding of the potential of a Green Revolution so I can't think of any other circumstances where a 500 billion would come into the economy and collide with that kind of opportunity.

Q: What positives have you experienced in terms of funding for your current projects?

A: There's a project we've been working on for a while actually, to do with air quality monitoring and that's a tech project really thats come out of Imperial College and we're connecting with big landlords, whether they have office space, hospitals, schools, etc. and the point here is that the trajectory of that project was already positive and very strong but the thing with COVID is its made people needful of reassurance. Let's say that when they are going in space It is one where the air is healthy and therefore a place that is just safe to be. Consequently, that project which is also likely to get innovation funding is very much receiving a green light and that's got huge potential hugely sort of magnified potential at this point. Whereas, pre-covid lets call it that, it was interesting and positive but not the sort of exponential growth that it's likely to achieve. So that's actually one of the most exciting things we've got going and it's probably 10 times more exciting right now as a result of these circumstances than it was before and it was exciting then so I'm very energised by that.

Q: Why is buyfair fair for you?

A: The thing about buyfair that immediately is very appealing is the word fair. It's great, it captures something very important. 

I think initially the proposition was that it was fair in terms of price and value but actually you can widen out the context of fair to say is it fair to the environment? Is it fair to people? There is all sorts of different elements that you can hang on the word fair so I think as a brand proposition, in my view, the storyline for buyfair could well be that actually this is a very fair place to exchange value because it's considerate of lots and lots of different elements.

It may be that in due course there's an element of paying back. This is just a proposal but where you to ask me I might say it would look pretty good and be pretty good and you'd feel pretty good if there was 1% of your turnover donated back to the planet one of those initiatives would be great just because it helps people to realise that fair is wider than fair it's really got a huge resonance going forward.

Although buyfair is constructed that way around, fair is the more dominant asset in your brand, in my opinion so I'd be really interested to see what you guys do with that but I think that you've touched on something which is really imperative right now and if you can really nurture that and really develop that I think there's a really big story to tell there.

<Damon> Well thank you Nick, it's definitely core to our value and we realise though that it's got way more than that as you say that we've got the opportunity to really participate in taking very valuable stock they had a huge amount of carbon footprint to it from just the digging of the raw materials to the manufacturing to the packaging to the transportation is effectively just large blocks of carbon sitting on warehouse shelving which as I mentioned earlier is one of the fastest growing industries right now and being able to bring that into the daylight, to prevent it going to landfill. So we absolutely see this is a circular approach. We also think that this enables brands and retailers, consumers to buy much more locally which you're absolutely right we really want fair to be a core value to what we're doing. So I appreciate the idea and the feedback there, that's really good to hear thank you.

Q: What lasting change do you think there will be in consumer habits?

A: I think there's change and I think that's the case for ourselves just as anybody else. 

I think that to really broad brush it, what's cool now is not what was cool before. Coolness counts, it's an overused word in some respects, but it actually does connect with people. Often the motivation for going to purchase something is because it makes you feel good which is fine, but it might be expressive of your personality and be seen as a cool thing to have bought.

 What's a cool holiday? For instance, what's that going to look like? Is it just jumping on easyJet and going on to Benidorm? Maybe, maybe not, is it going on a world cruise? I don't think so, and I've been involved in that industry to a certain extent and know it from the inside so I wonder how that's going to look. 

So I think that on a micro-level, shop local, support local and value what's right in front of you as such as a first step. Which all sounds a little bit preachy. I don't mean to be that way to be honest but in answer to the question that's probably where our orientation has shifted a bit and it's shifted in a way that's probably a new bearing, a new compass bearing, so there's like a new North. North has shifted and I think that's going to reflect in billions of different decisions that people are going make. 

No ones got all the answers, so its really about talking with people, collaborating, pulling ideas, sharing and I'm interested to see how the context politically develops in the next few years because obviously we've got quite a lot of adversarial politics in the world presently and that doesn't look anything close to being a solution to. For instance, COVID and I think that pennies already dropped with people all over the world so frankly as soon as this particular political mood changes and the characters in question shuffle sideways, I think there's an opportunity for some leadership to come which will be much more in tune with the sort of things that we're talking about here and helps magnify that as a core message and that in itself will trigger a great response from creative people, micro-businesses or large businesses but I'm kind of predicting change from a political point of view because how can it not change in the circumstances that we're talking about and personally I'm hoping but I guess I'm betting to that that will be a mature and positive change rather than something darker and worrisome, here's hoping.

Q: I would say that in summary you you look at this as an opportunity as an opportunity to reset and it's one that could I think bring about a very different and brighter future although there's probably going to be a period of hardship in between it. Would that be a fair summary?

A: You can't say the consequences of those hardships really that's going to be tough for a lot of people no doubt including ourselves, absolutely but such is the splitting of the atom, to release the energy there's got to be something that is actually triggered and whose to say that mother nature has not thrown an atom splitting moment and forced us to address things, that really were known about, but were easy to airbrush over given that most people were living a life that was such that every dial was on max everything was done at the fastest possible pace and that was people very close focus so other things that were wider considerations were very much fringe and so I think fringe has become focus now and consequently I think the upside of the pain which is regrettable for sure, will be quite significant progress and a reset in philosophy which I think will be pretty good.

Fascinating Nick. Well Nick Munro, thank you very much for joining us today. It's been a pleasure to talk with you and I hope that we can get a chance to catch up again soon and and hear how these changes are taking place.

Thanks very much.

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