When planning the right whitegoods to go with your new home or renovation, your first choice may be sleek models from Germany, Sweden and Italy. But these days you could do just as well looking closer to home.
New Zealand is better known for its stunning natural wilderness than its manufacturing base, but local company Fisher & Paykel has successfully taken on the old-world masters with a mantra of innovation, smart technology and a good dose of yesteryear patience.
Founded in Auckland in 1934 by two entrepreneurs then in their twenties - Woolf Fisher and Maurice Paykel - to import radios, refrigerators and washing machines, the company moved into manufacturing in 1938 and hasn't looked back.
Fisher & Paykel industrial design manager Mark Elmore says the company managed the transition from local supplier to international player by focusing on the needs of the customer and innovative design. About 200 people work in the research and development team, representing about 10 per cent of the total staff.
"We try very hard to develop a culture around innovation and encourage everyone in the organisation to participate in that," Elmore says. "This involves investing a lot of time in exploring new ideas and being prepared to accept that not all ideas will work, but you keep on trying and looking."
Once known for offering products at economical prices, the focus during the past decade has been on developing high-end products for export. "We are aware that our future is not about manufacturing high volumes for low prices but about adding value for the consumer with differentiated design and technology," says Elmore.
To this end, Fisher & Paykel has developed a range of intelligent timesaving appliances, utilising software to control variable speed ECM monitors. Cornerstone products are built around core technology platforms including the DishDrawer dishwashers, Active Smart refrigerators and Smart Drive auto washers. Other products are Fisher & Paykel designed dryers, freezers and cooking products.
About half of Fisher & Paykel products are now sold outside New Zealand to Australia, the US, UK, Europe, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Fisher & Paykel first went into Europe in 1995, and a year later the SmartDrive auto washer was launched in the US market. In some cases it acts as a boutique supplier to major brands; for example, in Europe the DishDrawer is marketed under the Whirlpool and Bauknecht brands.
Despite going public in 1977, Fisher & Paykel strives to retain the advantages of being a family-run business. Both founders stayed involved with the company for the rest of their lives. Woolf Fisher passed away in 1975, and Maurice Paykel became chairman of the company. He died February 2002, and his son Gary is currently executive chairman.
Despite several global markets experiencing a downturn, in the six months to 30 September 2002, Fisher & Paykel Appliances posted a profit of $NZ34million, with total appliance revenue at $NZ373million. The results were driven by strong sales in its main export markets of Australia, which experienced growth of 13 per cent over the same period the previous year, and the US, with growth of 16 per cent.
Rome wasn't built in a day
But innovation takes time and this is where the patience comes in. The DishDrawer, for example, which has won a string of international awards including a Gold Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America, was a nine-year project with a small, dedicated team working on the idea until it was considered a viable investment.
Predicting that there would be a demand for a more flexible dishwasher, effort was put into developing a system that had two independently-operated wash drawers, allowing consumers to customise washloads. The drawers can also be used as storage,
eliminating the need to empty the dishwasher each time.
The Active Smart refrigerator also uses intelligent software to manage temperature control within the refrigerator and the freezer compartment in the most energy efficient way, allowing food to stay fresher for longer.
Similarly, the Intuitive Washer, which automates the task of washing by choosing load sizes, water levels and fabric cycles, was launched about three years ago, after two years in development. It builds on the Smart Drive platform that was launched in 1991.
Like most technology-driven companies, Fisher & Paykel faces the threat of competitors coming out with similar products, and at a faster rate. Some protection is offered by making sure new ideas are protected by patent or copyright and by actively pursuing any infringements. But ultimately speed to market and being there before anyone else is the best defence. Developing the majority of the competencies in-house also helps to keep ideas under wrap. In terms of challenges, the company has its work cut out keeping ahead of consumers who are expecting more from their whitegoods than ever before. "The appliance has been elevated to a fashion item or creative tool in the domestic situation, so the expectations for material, performance, look and appearance are now very high," says Elmore.
To this end, the company is moving towards more superior finishes and design-orientated products, such as the Iridium range released as part of the high-end Quantum range in Australia in November last year. Iridium products, including built-in-ovens, cook tops, range hoods, refrigerators and DishDrawers, are made of a special stainless steel that emulates the finish of aluminium.
Elmore says that there are two key trends emerging in cooking. On the one hand, there is a demand for increasingly automated products that enable users to cook a meal quickly with minimum fuss, and on the other hand there is demand for products that are more manual that allow people the enjoyment of the cooking process. Because the same person could potentially operate in both these modes, products that can change from one to the other will be key to Fisher & Paykel's focus.
The company has long adopted an environmentally friendly stance, taking steps to minimise pollution output at its three plants in Mt Wellington, and East Tamaki in Auckland and Cleveland, Brisbane.
Fisher & Paykel is currently developing smarter software that allows for increased efficiency in the use of natural resources, including water, gas and electricity. Elmore expects that as surface cooking emerges as a dominant form, there will be further developments in the use of gas technology in the kitchen.
Regarding other developments, Elmore thinks the much-hyped bluetooth technology is still about five years away from being costeffective and practical. "I think some of the benefits will be quite subtle, but useful, but I'm not sure you would want to spend thousands of dollars to get them. We have some ideas about benefits that really will enhance the way consumers use our products, but the question is whether they justify the premium at this stage," he says.
And as for another touted wonder product, the oven that can also act as a refrigerator defrosting food and cooking it a pre-set time, Elmore thinks that it is a question of priorities.
"As a manufacturer we can't do everything that is possible, and if we see a swing towards people requiring that for a lifestyle need, then we will build it, but at this stage we don't see that as a key driver," he says.
Research conducted by Fisher & Paykel into the product shows that choosing meals before you left home wasn't a practical lifestyle choice for most people. While he remained tight-lipped on specific product innovations, Elmore says that the future kitchen will be about diversity.
"Our products will continue to be very adaptable to allow people to create the environment they want," he says. "There will be products that will be very expressive and act as the centrepiece of the kitchen, allowing you to be a great chef, and there will be other products that disappear, allowing your living space to be very clean, simple and stylish," he says.
Sounds simple enough, but staying one step ahead of ever-demanding consumers takes dedication and perseverance, and this home-grown New Zealand company may just be nimble and savvy enough to do it.