Design and Innovation Director at the Breville group, Richard Hoare has been a guiding hand in the development of electrical appliances in Australia for over 20 years.
November 15th, 2017
Design and Innovation Director at the Breville group, Richard Hoare has been a guiding hand in the development of electrical appliances in Australia for over 20 years. First with Sunbeam, then Breville, he’s helped transform a local outfit into an international maker of appliances that sell in 50 countries.
Through his 26-year career Hoare has designed over 360 household appliances. He’s won more than 70 awards worldwide and has overseen and developed 1200 design patents across products ranging from juicers and espresso machines, kettles and tea-making, compact ovens and microwaves, to ice-cream and waffle makers. He insists credit is hard to apportion because product design is a collaborative process and it takes a good team to make a great product. But that’s not to detract from his achievements, as his strengths lie as much with people as with inventive products or innovative details.
He leads projects, analyses problems, understands consumers, searches for insights, develops strategies and encourages creativity, and with all that has become a remarkably successful industrial designer, in the broadest sense of the term.
“To be a good designer you have to have an affinity with things and an empathy with people,” says Hoare. “If you are into objects and how they work – if you’re prepared to immerse yourself in the thing – that really helps, but you have to keep coming out to check what it really means to people. You have to be able to read them, understand them, and have that empathy with them” – simply because success depends on how the user interacts with the product.
Hoare seems to be one of those people who has both sides of his brain working overtime. He’s equal parts big-picture thinker and detail man, and extremely analytical by nature. “I enjoy the process of solving problems, I’m very persistent,” he says, explaining how much he loves to do those logic puzzles that have most people tearing their hair out. “You’ve got to step sideways, get out of your normal way of doing things and look at them from a different direction.
“Creativity is definitely about your subconscious brain. You ask your brain a question, feed all the information in, and later on it comes back with an answer.” While spruiking innovation in business might be par for the course, Hoare says: “I do want to find things new. I always want to improve things, even if it’s just the process or the culture, I want to do something different.”
Fit and boyish at 51, Richard Hoare is as enthusiastic as ‘the kid in the candy store’. He enrolled in industrial design in 1984, at what is now the University of South Australia. Years before that he was the kid who was always making things, building gliders, drawing plans, pulling things apart and trying to fix them.
“Ironically,” he says, “I can remember one day standing in the kitchen staring at the old espresso machine we had, and thinking: ‘What is this black magic? How would you ever learn enough to make that?’” He was only 12 or 13. “It’s funny looking back on that,” he says, “because that was fascinating to me, and it’s probably why I ended up here.”
Straight after school Hoare studied medicine for a year but knew he was on the wrong track, and when his sister suggested industrial design he didn’t look back. Her industrial designer boyfriend helped arrange a visit to the Sunbeam Sydney factory; Hoare did some work experience there, then took a job. “It was really like an apprenticeship in all aspects of manufacturing”, because he was involved in design, prototyping, testing, detail component engineering, tooling, production engineering, quality assurance and product improvements.
He also had the factory at close quarters: “They were doing chrome plating, die-casting, powder coating, injection moulding. What an amazing education that was!” However, he says, “the writing was on the wall [because] the whole cost structure for manufacturing in Australia didn’t work.” The first two ranges of products he designed, irons and toasters, were engineered so the various parts clicked together, and each product was finished with only one screw to minimise assembly costs. “It was a big puzzle to design these things so they wouldn’t snap apart – a complex, bespoke, clip system for every product,” which made product development laboriously slow.
Hoare was not only witnessing the decline of manufacturing in Australia, they were turbulent times for the company too, with a couple of buyouts, a company float and a hostile takeover. There were 10 managing directors in 15 years, an experience he describes, with typically positive spin, as “a very good lesson in corporate life.” In 1998 Hoare was made design director and, forced to reduce the design department from 12 to six, he set about overseeing the transition from manufacturing in Australia to manufacturing in China, and the transformation of Sunbeam from a manufacturing-driven organisation into consumer-driven one. Within a few years he had refocused the design staff, introduced the higher performing café series, standardised the look of the Sunbeam range and increased product development fivefold. The company grew spectacularly.
These developments at Sunbeam had been noted by competitive brand Breville, and in 2001 Hoare, together with his friend and colleague Keith Hensel, were approached to join the company, which they did 12 months later. Hoare joined what he describes as a family business with a track record of innovation. Breville was also keen to expand internationally (Sunbeam’s license was only for Australia) and he found this, and the challenge of building a new design team at Breville, very appealing.
He started with a department of five including himself, Hensel, a designer doing product graphics and two model-makers. He now oversees a team of around 20 people, including experts in user experience (software and internet technologies), rapid innovation, prototyping and intellectual property, which together with engineering and marketing makes up the Global Development Group of around 50. As part of Breville’s executive committee and strategic planning team, Hoare’s input has since been central to all of the company’s major moves. A significant part of his role has been to establish a culture of innovation, with a focus on identifying consumer problems (opportunities) and coming up with novel design solutions that can be protected by patents. The performance and appearance of Breville products have also been improved, taking the brand up-market, with Kambrook, also made by Breville, covering the lower end.
He has also been intensely involved with the international expansion, which began with the launch of a limited range of premium-priced products in the USA in 2003. Despite entering “the most competitive market in the world,” he says, “we managed to navigate that difficult territory and make a success of it.” At the same time he worked closely over several years with Breville head of marketing, Scott Brady, to define the company’s strategic position as ‘food thinking’. This has focused product development on all things kitchen-related and led them to establish relationships with food experts and chefs.
“We ‘stalked’ a few people in the food world,” Hoare jokes, “and Heston [Blumenthal] was one of the people we really wanted to meet.” Eventually a get-together was engineered and Hoare reports that “when he saw some of our products and how we’d come up with them, we very much found a mutual affinity that was very genuine. He’s just like us … loves experimenting and solving problems.”
With Blumenthal signed on as its global brand ambassador, Breville was able to launch its products in the UK in 2012 and achieve instant recognition and credibility. Because the Breville name had been sold off in the eighties along with the local rights to the sandwich maker, they created a new brand: SAGE, by Heston Blumenthal. “The media coverage was incredible because of Heston,” says Hoare, “but also because we were taking 10 years of innovation, these very well-developed products, and dropping it in all at one time. To come up with a new brand, all the design, packaging and communication that goes along with it and to launch in a market like the UK, is a big achievement. It was all done here and that’s something we’re all proud of.”
On the back of this success the company has expanded the Sage range and launched it in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, while the Breville brand is sold in many Asian countries, including China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.
While its international growth has been dramatic, Hoare believes Breville has not yet realised its full potential. “We’re like a sapling, where you can see some of our characteristics but we’re not the full tree yet. There’s much more growth to come.”
As part of this growth, the ‘food thinking’ philosophy has led to relationships with other chefs as well. Breville juicers are used by Rene Redzepi at Noma in Denmark for his juice-pairing menus, and were also on hand at Sydney’s pop-up Noma in early 2016. Neil Perry’s team at Rockpool is testing some new Breville cooktops. “We’re getting a lot of input from chefs around the world, in recipes too,” says Hoare, who is clearly enjoying the expertise at the top echelons of the food world, finding its equivalence in the challenge to create and refine the company’s products to make them the best they can possibly be. “There is an aspect of me that’s a perfectionist, but I’m probably living in a time when that’s okay. It works for the very fastidious consumers, and we’re all very versed in that [process] now, and keep on refining and pushing until it’s right.”
Take the new Breville Oracle coffee machine, for instance, which Hoare says came about because Australia is currently leading the world in milk-based espresso drinks. “We’re all coffee snobs now, so we set this challenge for ourselves of making a machine that’s capable of making an espresso like a barista.” The Oracle “automates all the tricky bits”, taking the chance out of grinding, dosing and tamping to make the espresso. It then produces “silky micro-foam like a barista, so at the end you can do latte-art,” which Hoare says is the sign of a properly made coffee. (Blumenthal apparently loves the Oracle and has one in his UK restaurant, Fat Duck.)
Hoare is also pretty thrilled with the tea-maker that’s been a big hit in the US market. It looks a bit like a kettle but it boils the water, lowers the tea leaves in to steep, then raises them again at just the right time. Ready to pour, no bitterness. The kettle that boils water to the precise temperatures required to make different kinds of tea is another favourite. So is there such a thing as the perfect product? “I think our citrus press is a great product,” he says. “It’s beautiful. It’s very innovative and functionally excellent. We’ve had it on the market now for a long time. It’s a work of art.”
Richard Hoare was featured as a Luminary in issue #65 of Indesign.
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