Thoughts from the Shopfront

Tú Projects

Tú Projects is a true end-to-end shopfitting company – but that description hardly encompasses the thinking that has gone into the business of providing a shopfitting service. It’s a whole lot more complex than just nailing things together in a mall…

At its headquarters in Brisbane, Unita is the umbrella organisation bringing what the group describes as a “holistic approach” to the design and construction of projects in the retail and hospitality sectors. Under this umbrella are the shopfitting and fitout business, Tú Projects, which constitutes the largest element of the group, together with a planning consultancy, a design business that covers interiors, food service, branding and visual merchandising, and – beneath the Tú Projects brand – a number of the key manufacturing inputs. There are two joinery companies; a stainless steel business; a catering equipment supplier; and a signage company. “Within that structure,” says Keri Thomas, Chief Executive of the group, “what we do is effectively plan, design and construct for our customers.”

This, Keri adds, is not quite like the typical model in this sector, where a planning company will generally come up with a concept, taking account of RoI and cost, which is then handed on to a designer, with a QS in the middle as well as a project manager, then a shopfitter and all the other elements fed into the mix. “This leads to gaps in the service delivery model,” he believes. “What we do is value-engineer the whole process, through from the original vision.”

Within the holistic approach, though, Tú Projects stands clear in part because not all clients are alike and some require more or less of the various components of the company’s service offer. Giving them this separate brand enables the project to be handled in an optimum manner, with big-company expertise hovering in the background but only brought out when required, rather than a client engaging a massive multinational for every job. It’s a classic ‘horses for courses’ approach. “It enables us to run successful satellite businesses that have their own specialisation and client bases and skill sets, but at the same time combine those when we need them if the client requires more than a single service.”

Keri cites a current project in the Western Australia capital Perth: it is a stadium and Unita is carrying out the full initial front-end planning of the project – which at first sight appears to have little to do with design or fitout and more to do with economics. The company has been splitting the premises into tenancies and working out which ones should cover which food offering at what price point. “Then we can design it and work out what is required; we can brand it, work out what needs to be done in terms of signage,” says Keri. “Then we value engineer it, then we build it,” making sure on the way via the other corporate components that what the team manufactures meets the budget. “Equipment scoping and supply,” Unita calls it.

The clear and visible branding of Tú Projects is quite deliberate. It is precisely the language used and understood by the company’s clients, after all: retailing and hospitality (F&B) is all about the brand and the image, yet few if any other design and fitout specialists market themselves in such a self-explanatory manner. This, Keri believes, is partly because the industry is composed substantially of ‘cottage-industry’ operators, who are running small businesses on a local scale. “We can provide that national link but we can service everything from small ma-and-pa shops right up to multinational corporations.” Tú Projects, and Unita itself, has no defined target market; instead it has defined expertise across a broad range of services and can thus tailor it to a broad range of clients.

Tú is also involved in several other and less overtly brand-led sectors including healthcare, aged care, and mining, but, Keri explains, “In most of those markets, brand is important and we have obviously learned a lot from the people we work with. It has helped us to develop our own brand well and share this branding experience with others.” Surprisingly simple, really, yet many competitors fail to see the point. “We feel we would lack a lot of credibility with our clients if we talk about brand and how they should develop their own, if we can’t do it with our own!”

While Tú Projects does not project itself as the cheapest, it is also not prohibitively expensive, concentrating on the value proposition instead. One feature of the company’s ethic is transparency, with a ‘build at cost’ philosophy; proving throughout the project that – rather than trying to exploit the client – the company is passing on costs and making a reasonable return. This is especially attractive to clients with a requirement for multiple stores. “They start to understand the true value of what it costs to build.” Many clients are shocked at first to realise just how much construction costs, but once they come to terms with seeing the actual price of items, design features, and finishes, they are gradually able to make much more informed and mature decisions about what is actually of value to them and their brand. That enables them to tailor to their own specification just what is of most importance, unlike in other operations where each segment of the project is being handled by separate entities.

Rob Rowe, Managing Director of Tú Projects, says that although F&B has been a particularly busy and vibrant sector in the last couple of years, the company is also excited at the way the healthcare industry is moving. It has a significant amount of investment (including a lot of grants coming through). “We understand the sector and what its participants do – and how they do it – and we can offer a design and construction service where there is not a great deal of competition.” That is largely because, Rob acknowledges, healthcare “is actually a hard market to enter.”

There are many pre-requisites to fulfil, but Tú Projects has spent time and effort studying the sector and familiarising itself with what is required. It’s early days, he suggests, but by 2018 the company is anticipating the sector could be bringing in as much as $50 million in a year. Rob points out there are more than 12,000 medical practices across the country, all of which need refurbishing every decade or so; in addition, the whole sector is in transition from the isolated GP to the more integrated polyclinic concept – but this time “with more consideration for the consumer, the patient. Tú Projects wants to become part of that sector, not just work in it, to really understand what it needs.”

Central to Tú Projects’ philosophy is that there is more to retail design and shopfitting than matching a store and its environment to the product and just dialling in ‘pretty’ or ‘functional’ as desired. Take Gloria Jean’s (coffee), for example. The look of this successful chain is not just about a cool spot to sip a latte or long black; it’s about understanding the shift in retailing away from monolithic multinationals to individual owners (usually via franchising) and ensuring that a store operator is provided with a ‘look’ that will go on offering sufficient brand values for an optimum length of time. Again, it’s not only a matter of value, but also of knowing about business and trends, not just about flashy finishes.

Rob keeps coming back to a basic tenet: “we build businesses, not shops.” Conventionally, the shopfitter has limited him or herself to asking questions like, ‘what length of timber do I need?’ But, he asserts, “the shopfitting industry needs to change, as advertising agencies have had to evolve.” It’s about providing much more than a physical service, including all the thinking and the strategy around the brand. “Doing things is a by-product; the thinking bit is where you have to get it right.”

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December 19, 2018, 9:25 AM AEDT