Christine Nikiel: Design champions, no contest

If winning awards helps promote New Zealand overseas, Auckland firm Alt Group should be well rewarded for their efforts.

The design firm scooped an impressive 55 local and international gongs last year alone - better than one a week - and has been shoulder-tapped for a rare international prize to be announced in New York this month.

Alt Group co-founders Ben Corban and Dean Poole say entering competitions is an important benchmarking exercise to promote New Zealand design internationally and raise the country's profile in the design world.

"We've seen press releases for awards saying, 'We have entries from as far away as New Zealand'," laughs Corban.

The 8-year-old company is now focusing on exporting its creativity and has already had experience dealing with some of the bigger corporate names in the US. Its biggest job to date is working on a project for Fortune 500 furniture company Kimball International's office division. Alt worked with New Zealand office furniture maker Formway on the branding and communication strategy of Formway's office workstation concept for Kimball, called Hum.

Alt ended up with so much extra material that last year it published a book on the design story of the concept and was shortlisted for an editorial award at last month's Design Week Awards in Britain.

Finding similar opportunities is not easy in a recession, but Corban and Poole are optimistic.

"We've always seen uncertainty as an opportunity for creativity," says Poole.

When they set up the company in 2000 with co-founders Aaron Edwards and Toby Curnow, they followed management guru Tom Peters' advice about "taking the stuff nobody wants to do and building on it", says Poole.

The four met at Auckland's Elam art school but it wasn't until Poole and Corban, working and studying in London at the time, talked about setting up an "ideas company" that Alt Group was born.

It was the 1990s and British art had "exploded", says Corban, and artists such as Damien Hirst (of the dissected shark in a tank and the diamond-encrusted skull fame) were making big money by selling direct to the public.

The pair returned to New Zealand, reunited with filmmaker Edwards and 3D design specialist Curnow and began working with one computer from a studio in the Auckland suburb of Kingsland.

Like most start-ups, they found it hard to get their name known.

"We just sat around waiting for the phone to ring and it didn't ring," says Corban.

"That drove us to take the long and hard road. The simplest way to build a firm is to work in the industry and get experience and contacts first, but we had to build everything from scratch."

And scratch they did, not paying themselves for several years and "living on a sack of rice".

None of the four had business experience and although they hired an accountant chairman, and board members to keep the business running smoothly, they learned from trial and error about things such as the importance of drawing up contracts for every project.

They also had to refine their too-broad offerings which included sound design, something Poole says the market wasn't ready for.

The company is now divided into four specialist areas: design strategy, graphic design, interactive design and environmental design, which includes 3D projects.

Family and friends provided the contacts and projects for the early jobs, but the company's diverse client list now includes Mighty River Power, Black Grace dance company, law firm Bell Gully and Australasian architects Architectus.

Alt's first major contract - still ongoing five years later - was to promote New Zealand Trade & Enterprise's Better By Design programme, encouraging businesses to naturally incorporate design in their methods and processes. NZTE has since used Alt for more campaigns, for which the company has won further awards, including the prestigious Australian Graphic Design Pinnacle award which Alt won last year for the second year running.

The company works hard at forming long-lasting relationships, says Corban, and a couple of early customers such as fashion designer Karen Walker and airport transporter Super Shuttle are still on Alt's books. Designers work directly with clients, rather than have an account manager passing on information.

The firm now has 17 staff and works from an airy two-storey studio in Ponsonby. The centre is taken up by a kitchen, from which a cooked lunch is produced and shared most days - a chance to share ideas, says Corban, and the smell of roast lamb is a "great motivation".

When recruiting, Poole and Corban look for "T-shaped" people - those with a broad spectrum of skills but a deep specialisation in one area - and have employed people with pure marketing, writing, technology or academic backgrounds.

Customers appreciate the company's diversity. Hawkes Bay's Ngatarawa Wines had been working with Alt Group for several years (Corban is a member of the West Auckland Corban winemaking family and has contacts in the industry) before deciding a new business model was needed.

The winery wanted to extend its distribution methods and had an idea about setting up a label sold online, says Farmgate manager John Mackinder, who also contracts to Ngatarawa in sales and marketing.

Alt Group came up with the name and concept of Farmgate, a domestic-only label based on the slow food movement and the trend towards local farmers' markets. Pictures of local producers are used on the labels; the local cherry grower on the bottle of merlot, a local fisherman on the pinot gris, and the wine is sold through selected retailers and distributors of local produce, as well as online.

The idea was a change for Ngatarawa which had previously only used traditional marketing and retailing methods, but the board were "very good" about it, says Mackinder, and he wouldn't do anything differently.

The company released seven wines last year, three more are planned for this year and sales are growing, he says.

Alt Group also aims to continue growing, says Corban. "Ultimately we want to build a resilient business that lasts beyond its founders, that can be perpetuated. If you get beyond first generation, you're doing quite well in New Zealand."

- NZ Herald

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