This article was originally posted on NZBusiness
A ‘Fresco approach’ to quality, innovation and consistency over two decades has won endorsement both locally and internationally for North Shore’s Fresco Shades.
Frequently, throughout the year, Fresco Shades founders Richard and Megan Cummins, and long-term operations manager Ravin Sharma, meet with the company’s business adviser to take advice and management guidance from a knowledgeable outsider.
The closely-knit team have learned the value of having an “uncompromising friend and sometime umpire” for the 20-year-old business.
The 100 percent Kiwi-owned, multi-awarded North Shore company designs and develops a range of customised canopies, which create a unique ‘outdoor room’ concept for homes, schools and businesses. Their innovative and tailored designs have seen the company win Best Canopy for several years (awarded by the Outdoor Fabric Products Association of NZ), and an international award (IFAI) for design excellence.
“The company has been ‘self-funded’ throughout and has experienced healthy growth since 1998,” says Richard. “We’re meeting the needs of more and more Aucklanders wanting to extend their homes at a time when building materials and labour have continued to rise [in price].
“Those being priced out of the city and North Shore, plus down-sizing ‘baby-boomers’ trying to adapt to smaller homes and smaller sections, have been a great niche for us.
“Probably our only near-crisis was in the early days where we faced a challenge to meet the monthly wage bill for a small staff”.
“Today we have 23 employees, many who have been with us most of the way.”
Richard’s own career is an inspiration to others. He has adapted his various products and services to market changes, based on both his experience and acquired self-taught skills and technical knowledge. Add to that, polished cold-calling sales and marketing skills he developed after getting a business degree at Massey University.
“I started out at university with a mate doing carpet-cleaning. We worked hard by day and then at night went cold-calling on the Wellington night clubs, which we realised would need our services and, of course, were only open at night. It broadened our education at the same time,” he says.
A successful window-tinting vehicle business was his first enterprise, post-university. That broadened to buildings, so blinds were added. Then, based on the needs of his clients, he saw an opportunity to further extend his offering and started creating shade sails.
“Shade sails also have their limitations, so we then developed fixed, outdoor, PVC cover solutions which we realised were superior to polycarbonate in terms of quality and weatherproof fitting. Since then Fresco has evolved in terms of using design and engineering techniques, with structures to give flexibility and stability to the space we add to homes, commercial properties, schools, crèches; you name it.”
While that was going on, Megan was earning a BA (Education/Psychology) and doing leadership courses at Auckland University Business School. She worked in Sydney for Roy Morgan Research before becoming managing director New Zealand for global research firm Millward Brown.
Eight years ago she joined Fresco Shades to head up marketing. She is now the GM, wearing many hats and handling day-to-day operations. That has freed Richard to develop a market in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty.
She is also credited with adding an understanding of brand and marketing, which has helped to move Fresco into the ‘quality positioning’ it needed to thrive.
“Richard’s always said Fresco means ‘fresh’ in Spanish,” says Megan.
“What sets us apart is our ‘fresh thinking’ which is around how can we make something work. There is a high-level of innovation and clever design which makes our product work across a number of situations, even around outdoor fires“.
“While we do try to standardise as much as possible, this is to cut costs, not quality. We will only enter a market niche if we can see growth beyond the immediate project.
“Word-of-mouth is a key driver behind our success. We also have considerable repeat business, as well as numerous referrals. Fresco is an accredited supplier to the Department of Education, for example.
“Yes, being New Zealand-owned and operated helps, but more the fact that we are a one-stop shop. And we create the canopies on site, even down to the powder-coating, and have our own team of well-trained installers.”
Fresco Shades do not subcontract any aspect of the process, explains Megan, right down to installation. That has placed some constraints, until now, on expanding. Some of their longest-serving staff have been designers, innovators and problem-solvers; that’s hard to duplicate with certainty.
“We don’t use contractors so there are fewer delays, and that means total ownership of each project. We are committed to expanding nationally, and even internationally, in the long-term, capitalising on our IP, but probably not via franchising,” adds Megan.
So how have they met the challenge of a highly-competitive industry?
“New entrants have started up and others have tried to emulate what we do,” says Richard. “Our positioning is ‘the experts in outdoor rooms’. We have been very focused on our core offering, and on the quality of finish.
“All our outdoor rooms are custom-made, and in some cases the amount of thought and design-detail going into a canopy is considerable. This is what sets us apart and has helped us consistently win awards over several years too.”
Being a husband and wife leadership team has both benefits and challenges, adds Megan. “Switching off at night, at home, is particularly hard. We cope by clearly designating what our roles and responsibilities are and, of course, through regular meetings with a business consultant, who sometimes has to ‘umpire’.
“He has helped us restructure and guided us, while providing that important independent voice to help solve road blocks.
“I think the use of a third-party is essential for couples in business. The short answer is you have to make a conscious effort not to be consumed by the business.”
New Zealand has a particularly harsh climate, with very high levels of UV and some of the worst skin-cancer rates in the world.
“I believe, after 20 years in the game, Fresco canopies allow people to enjoy the Kiwi outdoor-lifestyle, safe in the knowledge they, their family, friends – and their furniture – are protected from 99 percent of harmful UV rays.
“That sun issue is unlikely to improve in the near-to-medium term,” says Richard.