James Kemp – Amicus

Member of TEC 50, Chaired by Rob McComb
Sydney, New South Wales

James Kemp Amicus InteriorsStepping into a new role is difficult for any business leader, let alone moving into an industry they have no experience in and one which is constantly evolving. In this situation, CEOs have to think quickly, focus on their team and be prepared to keep learning if they want to grow in the future.

This was the situation facing James Kemp from Amicus. As a founder of the company, James had no direct experience working in the office fitout sector. Ten years later, he has guided the company through the Global Financial Crisis and seen it grow into a sizeable enterprise.

●    Changing course to match global upheaval
●    Finding new clients in a challenging environment
●    Building a culture to match the name ‘Amicus’

The challenge:

Building a profitable enterprise

When Amicus first started, James and his team experienced rapid growth, both in revenue and personnel. However, while the company’s income grew rapidly, the company’s profits weren’t matching the increase in business activity.

This was prior to the global financial crisis in 2009, which significantly altered the commercial office landscape for a whole range of companies operating in the construction sector. Faced with a rapid drop in new projects, James and the team were forced to reevaluate how the company was performing.

Among the first decisions the company made was to slim down the number of staff, reducing the number by a third. The changes at Amicus went much deeper though, and involved a complete rethink of the company’s strategy.

“In 2009, we said let’s not just grow, let’s focus on getting quality, profitable work. That’s really a journey the company has been on since then,” said James.

One of the biggest obstacles here was the existing work Amicus was taking on. The company had been competing for lump-sum tenders where they were only involved in the building stage. That market was incredibly competitive, with low margins, high risks and very little room to differentiate their work from competitors.

Equally challenging though, has been the implementation of this strategy. James has seen firsthand how gradual the process is when changing the direction of a company.

“One of the challenges with changing a business is that these things take time – changing strategic focus or building a high-performing team all happens slowly. The challenge is to keep the business ticking over and at the same time developing a long-term plan.”

The solution:

 A three-pronged approach to business success

Rather than simply try to continue with business as usual, the team at Amicus made a conscious effort to change the way they operate at every level, starting in 2009.

One of the first decisions James made in response to the financial crisis was to stop competing for lump-sum tenders and cut that stream of the business off. While this meant forgoing a source of revenue, it had become increasingly apparent that these projects didn’t fit with the company culture.

There were two further strategies James and the team undertook as part of this three-pronged approach. The second was to really work on the culture of the organisation and hiring people who would fit the business. Finally, the company translated this culture into every aspect of its strategy.

“This three-pronged approach took a few years to implement and it’s only in the last 12-18 months that we’ve seen a really strong and consistent cultural identity,” stated James.

When people ask me what my number one concern is as an MD, I say I am a custodian of the business culture. That is my number one priority.

Joining TEC has also played an important part in growing the business, with James having now been a member for almost as long as he has been managing the growth of Amicus which has grown to include a range of business units: Amicus interiors, furniture, facilities, Labline, and Consulting.

“The business was about a year old and joining TEC was a great informal network, but it also gave me access to really high-quality speakers. For those first few years, having access to those speakers helped me developed my own leadership style that was a bit raw and a bit rough around the edges when we first started Amicus.”

The results:

Rapid change leads to a profitable organisation

While it has taken time for this three-pronged strategy to come into effect, the impact has been a broad increase in the performance of the organisation across every front.

The move away from low-value work towards a stronger focus on more profitable projects has seen a substantial increase in the company’s profits, compared to the period before 2009. This has also led to an improvement in the quality of the product the company is offering.

Beyond just profits, the company has seen the culture of the organisation become a lot stronger, creating a vibrant team environment with low employee turnover.

Getting ordinary people to do extraordinary things is easy when employees truly love what they are doing and who they work with.

Finally, the company has a much clearer purpose behind its operations, giving James and the senior management team “a reason to get out of bed in the mornings” and contribute to something with a clear purpose.

The growth of the organisation has also given James more time to invest in spreading the importance of office design as part of organisational strategy. He brought this same enthusiasm to the recent Unlocking 2020 TEC conference, where James led a dedicated breakaway session on how activity-based working can benefit both leaders and employees.

“I love to get the message across that businesses need leaders and workers who love what they do. If you aren’t really passionate about what you are doing, go and focus on something else.”