When Fionnuala McCarthy stepped up as the leader of Studio Italia and Mondoluce in 2018, she brought with her not just years of experience within these companies, but also fresh ideas and a clear vision for their future.
Since then, her leadership journey has been marked by strategic shifts and innovative approaches that have significantly propelled the growth of these prominent players in Australia’s luxury lighting scene.
In a candid conversation, Fionnuala opens up about the transformative strategies she and her business partner Celine Chong implemented, their navigation through the challenges of the pandemic, and the importance of building strong customer relationships. She also gives us a peek into the behind-the-scenes efforts that ensure the high quality of their products and shares her valuable advice for budding entrepreneurs in today’s competitive market.
Fionnuala, taking the reins in 2018, what key strategies did you implement to drive the growth and success of Studio Italia and Mondoluce?
When my fellow owner Celine Chong and I took over the two businesses, our first challenge was to create a company structure which established a chain of decision-making right through the business, not just at the top.
We then outlined our one-, three- and five-year plans, which concentrated on improving business systems, sustainably building solid commercial foundations, and growing relationships with both B2B and B2C customers, while continuing to maintain the high quality which has always been synonymous with both brands.
We started our one-year plan straight away to help us transition from the previous ownership, and to consolidate and streamline elements of the business. This included investing in an inventory management program, to help us effectively manage the volume of products we stock in our Melbourne warehouse and sell in our two showrooms. We also moved to new accounting software, and these two changes had a big impact in making the business more tech-savvy.
As a leader, how did you navigate the businesses through the challenges of the pandemic, and what were the key lessons learned during this period?
During the pandemic, the businesses enjoyed a period of rapid growth, in line with a boom in home renovations. We used this time to place an emphasis on our digital presence and growing e-commerce sales.
One of the biggest contributors to this success was implementing Office 365 in 2019 – this made us realise we could actually work remotely and communicate effectively. It was still tough, but at the end of the day Covid was very kind to us. We have a very good supply chain which we were able to maintain right through the pandemic period to keep stock in the country. Our suppliers were also keen to sell products so we were able to support one another.
For us it was key to get messaging out to customers that we were still open for business, albeit with reduced staff numbers. We were able to maintain two staff in both showrooms at all times, and our work transitioned to online showroom and product tours conducted over FaceTime and Zoom. This truly proved the remote selling concept and led to 2021-2022 becoming our best ever year as a company.
You’ve placed a strong emphasis on building relationships with B2B and B2C customers. Can you share your approach to customer engagement and why it’s been crucial for your brands?
We are very fortunate to have a very solid client base, and we’ve been trusted by some of Australia’s best architects, designers and home builders for decades, leading to our products featuring in a range of notable residential and commercial projects.
Our team focuses on building these relationships organically with architects and designers, because they all talk to each other and word of mouth is very important. The customer relationship typically starts with someone at the junior architect level, who is given the task of sourcing and specifying products on behalf of a senior architect. Our approach is to offer the same level of customer service to someone just starting out as we would to someone who has been in the industry for 20 years. This level of service is always remembered, and in time, these people turn into repeat customers.
After taking over the business, one of the first things we did was to address problems and challenges immediately, and commit to having a resolution in place within 24 hours. This was great for building our reputation and in turn our customer base.
With the shift to digital and e-commerce being a game-changer, how did you adapt your business model to thrive in this new landscape?
As part of our three-year plan, we set out to upgrade the two company websites, to give us a strong platform for e-commerce. We were able to link the websites in with our inventory management system, DEAR, and this was the biggest factor in helping us automate the business and move away from manual processes. The next step was to link our online selling tool Shopify with social channels such as Instagram, to allow us to move into social selling.
As a result, e-commerce is now a reasonable part of our business, but there is still room for growth. We still like to have a conversation with our customers before we sell to them, so they don’t end up with the wrong product and end up needing to return thousands of dollars’ worth of goods, which can lead to breakages.
The recent Black Friday sales were a good case in point that proved how well online selling can work, however our business still thrives on the personal touch of speaking to people about their specific needs. Across 2023-2024 we are working on a CRM project as the next asset in our digital toolbox.
Both Studio Italia and Mondoluce are associated with high-quality products. How do you maintain this standard, and why is it vital for your brand identity?
We actually purchase a sample of every product we intend to stock to test it for the Australian market. We take each product apart in our warehouse, have our electrician wire it up and then make sure it’s compliant with Australian standards.
We send each product to our Melbourne and Sydney showrooms for the opinions of our sales staff. We believe it’s important to engage them in the process of ordering and stocking new products, as they are the ones who have to sell those products on the showroom floor.
Another key element is attending international trade shows with our reputable suppliers, where we can see first-hand how good the products are, and make informed decisions about the new stock that will resonate with our customers.
Reflecting on your journey, what advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs looking to build a successful brand in today’s competitive market?
The biggest thing is to know your customers – don’t go into business thinking you know everything. In retail, you need to understand who you are selling to, and where your company is going. You need to have your business plans and a clear vision of where you want to see the company – and then take the time to re-evaluate every year.
For someone starting out, I’d say it’s important to ask yourself questions such as: Is my business viable? Who is my end user? How will I navigate and reprioritise when there are bumps in the road, such as a pandemic?