Fulfilling his destiny Featured

1:17pm EDT August 30, 2004
When Rodney Fitch left his design firm, Fitch, in 1994, it was not under good terms.

"I left under acrimonious, unfortunate circumstances," says Fitch, who today serves as group chairman of the 18 Fitch offices in 12 countries scattered across Asia, Europe and North America.

Fitch left the company, which he founded in 1972, under pressure from investors.

"In 1989, Fitch was No. 1 in the world," he says. "We'd only gone public for a few years and were on the major stock exchanges. We were flying very high."

But then, the economy took a turn for the worse, not long after Fitch had embarked on an expensive property development project to rehouse the company's various studios under one roof.

"I fell out badly with the new shareholders," Fitch says. "They were active rather than passive investors, and I felt I couldn't work with the largest shareholder group. They made my life difficult, so I resigned. It was unpleasantly done."

Out of the company he founded, Fitch didn't pack up his creativity and retire to a nice house in the country. Instead, started a small specialty design firm and remained a powerful force in worldwide design. Today, that small firm is part of Fitch's current group of holdings.

Fitch has always been a force to be reckoned with. He is deputy chairman of the London Institute and has been a trustee or working influence on many of the United Kingdom's art museums. And when Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, Fitch's parent company (WPP purchased Fitch in August 2003) asked Fitch to return to the company nearly 10 years after his departure, there was no hesitation. Fitch rejoined Fitch in November 2003.

"All of those investors have moved on, they are all gone, and I have returned to fulfill my destiny," Fitch says. "I always felt I should be in the Fitch business. I am home."

Home now includes Fitch: RPA, a retail and product design firm that has helped build more than 1,800 brands in 41 countries and has been consistently recognized as a leader in strategic retain design. Over the years, Fitch has served such clients as Audi, Bausch & Lomb, Charles Schwab, Disney, Lancome, LEGO, Microsoft, Nokia and Swatch.

Overall, the organization that Fitch oversees employs more than 500 associates worldwide out of WPP's more than 70,000-person work force in 1,400 offices worldwide.

Then, last April, Fitch acquired RPA, a Columbus-based design firm headed by Todd Cameron. Fitch, who is based in London, asked Cameron to stay on as president and CEO of the combined company.

"Initially, I was excited about what the WPP network offers," says Cameron, who explains that the initial challenge in integrating the two firms was keeping RPA's employees focused. "We have to continue taking care of our clients and not get too overwhelmed with all the new things at our fingertips."

Who says you can't go home again?

Despite Fitch's sense of coming home, life at the company after a 10-year absence -- and under new management -- has changed drastically, and the venerable creator is facing his share of adjustments and challenges.

"My biggest adjustment has been becoming an employee again," says Fitch. "I haven't been an employee since 1969."

But Fitch is too busy integrating the various Fitch offices into a unified front to spend much time thinking of his new employment status.

"The Fitch network allowed the offices to become disparate," Fitch says. "They don't have integration. I am working to get them to all sing from the same hymn sheet."

Fitch is developing a strategy which will not only integrate the studios but also ensure their relevancy to clients and make sense to parent company WPP.

Says Fitch, "WPP owns many other design businesses. How we fit into that universe and become useful consultants providing value is a major challenge. But there are loads of challenges."

Fitch intends to return the company to its world leadership role, aiming to be one of the top three businesses of its kind globally.

"In some markets, we are already there," he says. "In the events market, we are already No. 2 in Europe."

To develop this strategy, Fitch first identified the company's top four markets: retail, live entertainment, brand communications and product design engineering. And each of these market is aimed at the consumer.

"We are interested in mass markets, touching the maximum number of people," he says. "We have little interest in haute couture, but only that which affects the maximum number of people. The single platform that supports all that we do is consumer-facing."

Fitch says the global aspect of the company is one of its biggest assets, and can be tricky to manage at times, but not challenging.

"There is no such thing as 'overseas' for Fitch," he says. "We are a child of modern times. Meeting with colleagues, clients and sharing portfolios make us a one-time-zone business. It is not more difficult to manage as long as everyone is talking a common design, quality service language."

Fitch says this worldwide aspect lends itself to global clients.

"A company's needs in New York City are very different than in South America," he says. "It is not the same thing at all. You are operating across cultures, time zones and delivering consistent, high-quality consultancy. It's not easy, and we are not one to underestimate it."

And, he says, it is better to hire one company that can deliver the client's message to various markets versus hiring several different agencies.

"We can deliver in that context as opposed to a local manager hiring local 'fire fighters,'" he says.

Leaving a legacy

In the immediate future, Fitch and Cameron are concentrating on combining the two companies. RPA is moving into Fitch's Worthington office, and Cameron and Fitch are preparing for a relatively smooth transition.

"RPA fits into Fitch's strategy, complementing our offerings," says Fitch. "They are an important part of that strategy. Our Columbus management team will benefit and change from Todd and his merry men moving into the facility. But it is geared toward delivering Fitch strategy across our global studio."

Cameron agrees.

"Operationally, we are changing our focus, targeting a select group of clients," he says. "The global studio has huge advantages, but our mindset's got to change."

Cameron says Fitch: RPA is looking for clients that can take full advantage of the company's service offering.

"We will spend our marketing dollars more wisely," he says. "In the past, we haven't done as well as we could have."

Fitch is counting on what he calls common DNA to pull the two companies together.

"Designers are held together by their DNA, with design," he says. "We all start with a common culture. We all appreciate what great design is. The only difference is in management style and process."

Cameron is realistic, though, about the combined culture of the new organization.

"We will help associates through the changes. You can't flip a switch and enjoy the new culture or not enjoy it," he says. "But the associates are amazingly very positive."

And that goes double for Fitch, who is happy to "finish" what he started when he founded the company more than three decades ago.

"By the time I am leaving -- someone carries me out or Todd works me to death -- I want to leave a distinctive, unique company that is genuinely useful to our clients," he says. "That is the absolute venture -- the business of leaving behind something better than I started with." How to reach: Fitch: RPA, (614) 885-3453 or www.fitch.com