Kiwi Business Story: Owner Manager Programme – MWDesign

Posted by Ben Whittacker-Cook on May 4, 2022 10:00:00 AM

Mike Williams is the Founder and Director of MWDesign. Based in Hamilton, the business is one of New Zealand’s leading product design agencies, specialising in industrial and product designs for clients around the world.


Location: Hamilton and Tauranga
Business Type: Industrial Design 
Founded: 1997 
Number of employees: 16 
Current Business Situation: Ground recovered post-Covid loss and showing strong steady growth
Relationship with The Icehouse: Owner Manager Programme Alumni

What's your day-to-day role?  

Probably less of the stuff I want to do! Around 50% of my day is spent removing barriers to enable my staff to get on with the creative side. So much time and effort is spent with the day-to-day, that the actual design work – what people want us and need us to do – obviously needs to be priority. So, as an owner, if I can free the team up by taking care of any operational issues that need to be solved, then everybody’s happy.

How did you arrive in the business? 

We were established in London 1997, and we headed home to New Zealand in 2000. We spent five years in Auckland before moving ourselves to sunny Hamilton in 2005. I had a moment of clarity while stuck in Auckland traffic one day. Half my customers come from the Waikato, so I asked myself ‘Why am I in Auckland?’, and we never looked back. We have also created a separate studio in Mount Maunganui, providing product design services in Tauranga.

What are your current challenges?  

We design for so many clients across such a diverse range of industries – from aerospace to vehicles – and we’ve weathered other financial crises quite well. As one area drops there’s usually work in another. But with Covid everything dropped, and we lost 90% of our work in such a short time.

R&D, which is what we basically do, is all about future profits and growth but when nobody knows what the future is, that stops suddenly. But I’ve found these lockdowns to be the best time to do R&D – a disaster can help you get a jump on the competition and drag you out of a slump.

What did you do with The Icehouse?  

I did the Owner Manager Programme 49 – the longest one in history, as it was disrupted because of Covid! And it wasn’t the usual journey.  

What were your key takeaways?  

Honestly, at the beginning I didn’t like OMP. I didn’t sign up for it, It was my ex-business partner who signed on originally, but he left just before and I took on OMP the very next week!

It was really confronting. I felt the questions being asked were personal jabs at me. I know they weren’t, but I’d been running my business for 20 years and to suddenly be challenged on that was tough. The truth hurts!

I saw other people having breakthroughs and having their epiphany moments and I was very frustrated. What’s wrong with me and why can’t I get this?

On the very last day, Deb Shepherd (the facilitator) mentioned something to the group and it all came together. In a single moment I realised OMP was really, really good for me and I knew what the past few months had been for and why I’d reached this point.

How do you weave this into the business?  

The revelation was that I’m absolutely rubbish at commercialisation. What I am good at, and what the company is good at, is that we're Gods when it comes to R&D. That’s our secret sauce.

So the answer was to partner with people who do know commercialisation and who are good at that. It was an amazing moment. Getting funding, finding distributors, whatever it is, partnering with people who know their stuff in certain areas enables us to focus on what we do best… the R&D.

The template that we work from is that consultancy is the core of us all. Design is our weapon, and the consultancy side keeps that razor sharp. From there, we can look at other areas and genres and assess that and decide if there’s an opportunity there, who we can partner with best (be it a joint venture or a kick-starter programme or whatever) to stoke that particular product.

What has also happened over the past few months is that one of the team quit during Covid. She was isolating in Tauranga and said she wasn’t going to come back. I told her she was! She’s an awesome and talented designer and I wanted her to stay. So we opened a new design studio at the Mount in 2021. The studio is growing and so we’re looking at replicating that across a couple more regions and maybe even internationally.

Everything we do is aligned, and looking back, I might not have considered that if I hadn’t been on the OMP journey. I look back on OMP with rose coloured glasses. You’re going to get hit a few times, but you do get into the rhythm of it, and it’s been amazing.

Have you worked professionally with any other alumni since doing the programme?  

We’re in touch and in contact all the time! Freighting product around the world has been a nightmare since Covid broke, but a godsend has been working with Jenners Worldwide Freight Limited, a fellow OMP 49 alumni, and they’ve helped us out massively.

What ownership advice can you offer right now?  
Be sure your business is sound under these circumstances. Know yourself, know your strengths and employ people in the areas where you know that you suck!

Follow the link for more information on MWDesign and its range of services.

Topics: Owner Manager Programme

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