As Founder and Chairman of D+I (Design + Industry), Murray Hunter never set out to be a business leader, studying industrial design in Sydney and London, then working as a designer in the UK, the US, and Australia. Yet over the past twenty-eight years, he has managed to drive the continued growth and success of one of the world’s most innovative design and engineering firms that continually wows its clients, and the world.
Specialising in the development of high-tech business, medical, and consumer products — with services covering research all the way through to production — Murray has successfully grown a fantastic team of highly-skilled designers and engineers that have made their mark on the world.
With an annual turnover of more than $10 million, and clients spread across Australia, Europe, and the US, D+I’s impressive list of accomplishments include designing and building the deep-sea submersible manned by film director, James Cameron, for his very public 2012 journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench — the deepest part of the ocean. “The submersible was a phenomenal challenge, and there was no room for failure. James Cameron would have been dead if just one small thing failed,” says Murray. This reflects the company’s leadership stance that there is no time for ‘it might work’: it has to work
The brains behind Domino’s new pizza robot, DRU
D+I was also responsible for designing and creating the new Domino’s pizza robot, DRU (Domino’s Robotic Unit) — an autonomous pizza delivery vehicle that travels on footpaths from nearby pizza shops to the customer’s door. “Those are just some of many great opportunities where we’ve had to prove ourselves; to show that we can develop a whole bucket of world firsts and then design, engineer, and produce everything in Australia,” says Murray. “It’s so nice when you walk into a trade show in Europe and you see a banner up in the ceiling of this massive building featuring a product that was created by your team.”
With no account executives or sales reps to speak of, D+I is made up of forty-five specialist designers and engineers, spread across its Sydney and Melbourne offices. Together, the team has won more than 140 industry awards for designing and engineering excellence around the world. And these specialists refuse to leave — with some employees racking up twenty years of experience working with D+I, including Murray’s successor and soon-to-be CEO, designer David Jones.
Enjoying loyalty from customers and team members alike
“We have some team members who have been here for twenty years. Then there are some who have been here fifteen years, and others ten,” says Murray. “The average tenure of a manager at D+I is around fifteen years, and the average tenure for the whole team is seven-and-a-half years, which is massive compared to some other firms.” It’s not just employees finding themselves glued to the organisation either, with clients working with them, on average, between three and five years. One client — Ingenico group — has been working with them for twenty years; a period in which I+D have developed seventy-five products for them.
The loyalties of Murray’s growing team at D+I has done more than help grow client business, it has also helped to push D+I’s own radical reinvention. Starting with just six designers in the early years, more and more people continued to join the team — many of whom never left — and suddenly there were too few opportunities for its long-serving designers to advance to management roles.
“We’ve been asked by our team for several years: ‘What’s next for us?’ Because we had a massive platform of managers — half the company was made up of design directors simply because we attract people and they don’t leave. So we had a tenure issue, and we had to consider how to keep these long-lasting relationships with our employees, and the clients that love them. There was only one way to do that, and that was to expand the business,” Murray says.
Masters of reinvention
In addition to better accommodating its loyal staff, reinvention was a great opportunity to increase the firm’s financial security, with Murray being no stranger to tough economic climates. Since it first launched, D+I has survived — and even grown — through four major downturns.
After 2007, the global financial crisis saw the company go through five years of barely breaking even, while many of their fellow design studios in Australia went under. This was another motivation for bringing more designers on board — to grow the strength and expertise of the D+I team, with an ambitious plan of achieving 15 per cent YOY growth in both revenue and staff between 2013–18, and rebranding as D+I. The firm has grown to become Australia’s largest consultancy in its field, with the nearest competitor half its size.
Murray has led a throng of efforts to increase the company’s exposure and profitability around Australia and overseas, by consulting branding experts, launching a sleek new website, overseeing mass refurbishment of its Sydney studio, and the relocation of its Melbourne office. He also recruited a human resources representative to help manage recruitment and training, and upgraded many strategic ICT systems in-house.
Capability acknowledged by a host of awards
“We’ve got a massive collection of expertise, and during brainstorm sessions, the output is phenomenal. The number of awards we have is a testament to our capability, and our heritage of large project success is proof that we will literally rise to any challenge,” Murray says. “We compete with global leaders in our industry, and we win, because we’re cheaper and faster. We pride ourselves on being lean and agile — and that supports the industry as well — and also on improving time to market when it comes to the commercialisation of new products.”
So far, the company is well on track to achieving its growth plan, with the team expanding by 30 per cent, catapulting D+I to a 100-per-cent increase in overall profitability in the first twelve months alone. The second year saw an additional 15-per-cent growth in designers, which led to a further 50-per-cent increase in overall profitability.
Looking ahead, Murray says that there are plans to continue to innovate, diversify into new areas of design and engineering, and break into new markets. This won’t
be without its challenges, but Murray believes D+I has proven itself more than capable of staying competitive. “Anything can be achieved with determination, passion, and total support from stakeholders,” he says. “Coming up with ideas is the easy part — as it should be for someone in this industry. It’s the actual process that is difficult.”