How do you take a radical idea and turn it into a market leader? JAMES MORROW talks to Ross Cameron, Managing Director of Dyson Appliances’ South-East Asian operations about how he took a vacuum cleaner developed in a Bath, U.K., coachhouse and turned it into one of the fastest-growing brands in Australia – and in the process
For almost eighty years, the first three words most people came up with when asked what they thought of when they thought about vacuum cleaners were ‘big’, ‘loud’, and ‘ugly’. But in the past decade that has changed radically, thanks to the work of British inventor James Dyson and his Australian counterpart Ross Cameron – two men who have not only turned the prosaic market floor cleaners upside down, but in the process introduced a new word to the language – ‘Dyson’ (as in ‘I have to Dyson the carpet’, or, just as common, ‘sucks like a Dyson’).
Today Dyson is the number one vacuum cleaner brand in Australia in terms of both volume and value, the result of a remarkable story that brings together radical thinking, a will to win, and a lot of dirty floors.
The story of how Dyson came to be a brand-leader not just in Australia but in Britain and the United States is a classic tale of an inventor working through prototype after prototype in a lab; of highs and lows with business backers; and lots of old-fashioned door-to-door (or rather, store-to-store) salesmanship. In 1979, British designer James Dyson – who had already invented a series of marine and gardening products – realized the common flaw of all vacuum cleaners, namely, the bag, and like all true revolutionaries, decided to do something about it. He sold his shares in one of his previous inventions for GBP10,000, and spent the next five years making 5,000 prototypes before coming up with his unique Dual Cyclone Technology in 1984.
But despite the genius of the technology, not everyone was interested. For one thing, big multinationals were reluctant to back a product that could, if it succeeded, do to the vacuum cleaner bag market (worth GBP100 million a year in Britain alone at the time) what digital cameras have done to makers of 35mm film.
Fast forward to 1989, and enter James Cameron.
Cameron, who at the time was working for S.C. Johnson Wax as part of their global team trying to develop equipment that would go along with the firm’s already-existing chemicals lines, recalls the first time he heard about Dyson’s product as a real eureka moment in his life. ‘I said to myself, wow, there’s the answer! I have an engineering background myself, and knew we had to do this’. So Cameron set about convincing his company to buy the commercial rights to Dual Cyclone Technology, and sat down with Dyson to make a viable vacuum cleaner for the marketplace.
‘So we had the backing of S.C. Johnson and James had a little coach house in Bath, in the U.K., and we had a couple of engineers. He would be designing, and we would be getting prototypes made, and finally we had the design sorted out’, says Cameron. ‘We were also meeting up regularly with the global marketing people from S.C. Johnson to make sure there were going to be buyers for this thing, and got them to spend $3 million on tooling. We got the machine produced in Italy, launched it in 1990, and did very well with it across Europe.’
Soon, though, the other shoe would drop – in the form of a corporate edict from on high that said vacuums were not part of the company’s core business, and therefore, the Dyson operation was shut down. Of course, it’s pretty hard to keep a good idea from eventually forcing its way to market, and that’s just what happened as Dyson and Cameron teamed up to take on the world. James Dyson started selling vacuums in the U.K. in 1993, and as soon as a barrel vacuum was developed in 1995 – about eighty percent of the floor cleaner market down under is for barrel vacs, as opposed to upright models – Cameron flew down to start breaking in to the local market. Of course, that’s the sort of thing that’s easier said than done – and as Cameron quickly discovered, his first problem was getting into a retail market he didn’t know about with a product no one had ever seen before.
His solution? Hit the streets.
‘I took it out to the stores, and was pretty persistent. A lot of people told me what I could do with my vacuum cleaner!’, laughs Cameron as he remembers some of the less-than-diplomatic receptions he was accorded by store managers. ‘But I wanted to win. I believed in the technology, and I made a decision that this was going to go, and I know it was just a matter of getting in the door and showing retailers the technology’.
This faith in the product – and the fact that the product was so unique (as opposed to other manufacturers who had for years been essentially repackaging old technology in new housings) – is what sustained Cameron, who notes that that sort of passion is necessary for anyone trying to get a business off the ground.
‘I suppose I was a bit naïve, but I’m bloody-minded, and I just wanted it to work.’
Eventually, though, Dyson’s break came, and David Jones placed an order for 120 vacuum cleaners in May of 1996. They sold just 24 through the following month, a number which Cameron still remembers vividly to this day. But better luck came in the form of a deal with Myer’s: ‘They said they’d put it on sale and placed an order for 170, and we’ve never looked back’.
But while this was the break Cameron was looking for, he realised that managing growth was going to be tricky, and that continued success – predicated as it was, at the time, on so much word-of-mouth advertising – depended on more than just being able to get more product to market. So Cameron and his team spent virtually every night of the week going out into the stores and training staff in how the Dyson worked. ‘We would take the thing out, pour fine powder on the ground and let them see how it separated it out, and even let them take them home to try them out’, says Cameron, who never moved the product out to market without also giving this sort of support to retailers. ‘They realized it was different, but it was damn hard doing all that training’.
From there, Dyson’s Australian operation grew at ‘a ridiculous rate’, with giant retailers like Harvey Norman and Retravision quick to sign on. All of which led to another problem that Cameron never imagined: many of his employees at the time did not want to work for such a high-growth company, having joined up thinking that they were going to spend their days at a staid little operation without too many demands being made of them.
‘In one year I lost 70 per cent of my staff – they couldn’t handle the pace. That was the year our sales doubled. They said they wanted to work for a little company and have a little job – and I knew they couldn’t meet our expectations’, says Cameron, adding that he went through a great deal of soul-searching about his hiring processes. And, as Cameron discovered, getting the right team on board was key as the company was tipped for major growth.
‘One of the things I said was that I didn’t need a lot of little Ross Camerons around’, he says, describing his hiring philosophy. ‘The important thing is to find people who have a vision, and who’ve got passion – the most important thing is that they have that.’
Cameron adds that this quest for strong, diverse people leads to a much stronger team, especially when there’s conflict over an issue.
‘I’m a hard taskmaster, but my people push back. If they defend an issue, I’m very likely to accept what they’re trying to say – I want strong people around me’.