Balancing Act


Since 1988, Ramvek has been a leading retail shopfitting and hospitality fit-out company producing quality projects for commercial and retail clients. The company is capable of both high-end and complex work delivered from its five thousand square metre manufacturing facility.
The shopfitting industry has given itself something of a new look, having lost a few major players during the lean times in the last couple of years.

So says Mark White, founding director of Melbourne-based Ramvek. He breaks the sector into two main categories based on the size of the client. Many local contractors are able to work for small, usually individual, retail outlets. Just a few companies are capable of providing a sufficiently comprehensive service to handle the larger clients – including the global retail chains now (perhaps belatedly) invading the Australian high street and shopping centre.

Mark says although there is a glut of the smaller companies, “at the other end, there probably are not that many shopfitters around with the capacity and size to deal with the big names.” Major retailers require a national presence and a team large enough to cope with a roll-out across Australia. Ramvek has upped its game accordingly. Its website, for example, is “very much focused on and aimed at people looking at our profile from overseas.” Ramvek wants to be at the forefront when a global name comes to town.

There is always a danger of a boom-and-bust economy in this sector – boom at present with the influx of the major brands following several bust years – but Mark says Ramvek has staying power, having been around for more than twenty-five years already. “We have experienced several of these cycles. In the firm times, you have to make sure you don’t get ahead of yourself. You need to be smart in how you do things and choose wisely when it comes to projects. “

It is also important to know in advance and have good relationships with appropriately skilled subcontractors who can be called upon when things get really hectic. “In a way, it’s good when it is tough because then you need to make yourself much more efficient, and you come out the other side a better company.”

Mark Gale, Sales and Marketing Manager, points out that Ramvek has other related business areas that tend to balance out the overall picture. In the last two years, for example, the company has carried out a lot of high-end projects in the hospitality sector, which has been particularly buoyant (mirroring the manner in which the food and beverage market has been in many ways propping up the whole retailing sector and breathing life into shopping malls and high streets up till the new boom of 2014).

A level of versatility is essential in a market such as Australia that is of limited size; if you stick to only one area of expertise, you limit yourself too much, he says. “It’s an opportunity – you can spread your wings and get into other sectors.” In addition to retail (names include: Burberry, Chanel, David Jones, Sportsgirl and Miu Miu) and hospitality (including: The Emerson Hotel, The Duke of Wellington Hotel, Charlie Dumpling and Melbourne airport eatery), Ramvek is adept at commercial fit-out (examples include: Sheraton, Novotel and Langham hotels, Hawthorn footy club).

Rather than overreach and try to cover all the bases in-house, Ramvek has developed a close relationship with a couple of leading architectural practices so it can offer a full end-to-end design and construct programme for clients who want new ideas instead of coming to the company with a brand DNA already established.

Is there a gap between architectural design dreams and the reality of commercialisation? “Generally, we would build to what the architect requests, but if it was not commercially achievable we would advise accordingly. Most architects do understand commercial reality.” But if a client agrees with the architect on a fabulous finish from Finland, “we go to Finland and get it. That’s our job. Depending on who they are, some of our clients are prepared to pay for that service.”

The whole sector benefits from the increasing importance of displaying any particular brand to its absolute best advantage. “Nowadays, that brand image has to run all the way from the merchandise to their shopfitting, so that has to reflect the quality or even the price point. There is no doubt that corporations are prepared to spend money on exactly what they want because they see it as that important.” Typically, a big brand knows the cost of what it needs but would nevertheless take a project to tender; its price per square metre tends to be higher, though, because it really does need the very best. Ramvek can dial in whatever combination of quality and image the client needs.

Mark White says the industry has swung round from a decade or so ago, when fit-out companies did everything in-house, to a situation in many cases in which some companies are little more than an office that outsources every aspect of a project. Ramvek still does the majority of its own work – painting and metalwork, for example, manufacturing most of its components.

“We find that if we can get clients to our premises to see our manufacturing facility, we win them over because they feel comfortable we know what we are doing because we are doing it ourselves. If the project manager, the joinery, the metalworking in-house, you really have control of the destiny of the project.” Some work is subcontracted out – notably electrical and floor-covering, “but less than most others. We feel it is one of our best sales tools, and we are very proud of it.”

One of the features of Ramvek’s service offer is its ‘international manufacturing program’. This dates back to 1999 when the company worked on a new Borders book store in Melbourne. The client said it would ship all the joinery, and when it arrived from China and was seen to be of high quality it acted as an eye-opener for Mark and his team. A Chinese speaker was soon employed; communications with suppliers then obviously improved, quality rose and imports became integrated with Ramvek’s own factory’s output, “in order to remain competitive”.

“Our overseas product has reached the point where our on-site supervisors cannot tell whether what we bring in is from our Victorian plant or overseas.” If it comes in from Shanghai, it is carefully inspected by Ramvek staff, and if it passes muster, it gets a Ramvek stamp, which is part of the reassurance factor for clients.

Will the proportion of manufactured items from overseas increase? “With the cost of labour rising all the time, the answer is ‘unfortunately, yes’.” In order for Ramvek to do its best on its clients’ behalf, its role will gradually shift from local manufacture to sourcing cost-effectiveness. As long as Ramvek remains vigilant and retains its quality focus, says Mark, the local and overseas joinery will continue to complement each other.

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January 18, 2019, 3:35 AM AEDT