An Innovative Spirit – The History of Fisher & Paykel
Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Words Rose Onans

From a family business that grew from an idea hatched around a kitchen table in Auckland in 1934, Fisher & Paykel has evolved to become a global brand shaping the future of appliance design and manufacturing. The success of this story has been driven not only by a pioneering approach to innovation and a tenacious commitment to problem-solving but by a distinctly Kiwi company culture.

The story begins in the 1930s when Mrs Olive Paykel read an advertisement for an electric refrigerator. Olive’s husband George had been importing goods from all over the world into New Zealand, and, at Olive’s suggestion, he imported 22 electric refrigerators from the United States. Word spread, orders were placed, and following the success of this initial shipment, Olive and George’s son, Maurice Paykel, and son-in-law Woolf Fisher saw an opportunity. Fisher &Paykel, “General Merchants, Indenters, Importers, Exporters, Manufacturers, Warehousemen and Agents, Electrical Merchants, Engineers and Contractors” was born.

The story begins in the 1930s when Mrs Olive Paykel read an advertisement for an electric refrigerator.

Fisher & Paykel has evolved to become a global brand shaping the future of appliance design and manufacturing.

The pair’s business instincts and talent for sales saw Fisher & Paykel grow as an importer of products manufactured in England and North America, but in 1938 the New Zealand government’s ban on imported products posed a challenge to the new business’s survival. A loophole was found with the importing of parts still allowed under the new rules, and Fisher & Paykel set up its first facility to assemble appliances under license. This swift pivot in the face of a crisis was an early example of the responsive approach that saw the company grow and flourish over the years. Keeping a finger on the pulse of markets, technological advancements and the needs of their increasing number of customers, Fisher & Paykel has continually proven to be unafraid to take calculated risks in order to remain ahead of the curve.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Fisher & Paykel expanded its factories to increase manufacturing capacity and continued to advance its product offering, including the first automated washing machines and home freezers. A major hurdle to the company’s growth, however, was the small size of the New Zealand market. Yet the barriers to becoming international were considerable – hitherto, Fisher & Paykel had been predominantly assembling locally functionally similar versions of products manufactured on a larger scale in Europe and North America. The company could never hope to take on these larger competitors at their own game, so the decision was made to gain an advantage through innovation.

Olive’s husband George had been importing goods from all over the world into New Zealand, and, at Olive’s suggestion, he imported 22 electric refrigerators from the United States.

Fisher & Paykel’s success has been driven not only by a pioneering approach to innovation and a tenacious commitment to problem-solving but by a distinctly Kiwi company culture.

In 1960 Maurice Paykel’s son Gary joined Fisher & Paykel. He introduced the concept of flexible manufacturing,revolutionising the factories’ efficiency, withmultiple products now able to be produced on the same assembly line. Where previously a freezer took 25 hours to assemble, and consequently cost a vast sum of money, it now took five hours. And where a competitor overseas produced only a single model per production line, Fisher & Paykel could produce 25 different models on one line alone. This practice of questioning accepted wisdom saw Fisher &Paykelgo on to tackle the home dryer in the 1970s, and an appliance that had previously been considered a heavy, noisy fire hazard was redesigned to be light, quiet and safe. Washing machines were also transformed from cumbersome products that relied on gearboxes to electronically-driven appliances that were more efficient and gentler on clothes.

All this was made possible by a company culture supportive of experimentation and that valued ideas over hierarchy. Gary Paykel says “if you made something and you stuffed it up, you didn’t find yourself out on the road wondering where your job had gone. The opportunity to ‘have a go’ was there.” Julian Williams, an aeronautical engineer who joined Fisher &Payel in the 1960s, recalls Woolf Fisher asking all his senior executives how they would solve a particular problem. “After he’d talked to everybody he said, ‘That’s interesting. I’ve just been talking to Colin Bolton.’ Everybody knew that Colin Bolton was the head cleaner. He said, ‘Colin had an idea of how to solve this problem. I think it’s a good idea and I think that’s exactly what we’ll do.’ That was the way Woolf was. It didn’t matter where the idea came from, if it was the best idea, he’d use it.”

Word spread, orders were placed, and following the success of this initial shipment, Olive and George’s son, Maurice Paykel, and son-in-law Woolf Fisher saw an opportunity.

Times and technology have progressed beyond measure since 1934. But at Fisher & Paykel, relentless curiosity and an innovative spirit continue to lead the way.

Between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s, Fisher & Paykel tackled the numerous challenges involved in revolutionising the dishwasher to create the first DishDrawer, which was driven by the observation of drawers’ superior practicality and ease of use. The configuration of the typical kitchen meant that everything the DishDrawer required to function needed to be incorporated into very limited space. A little over 100 millimetres was available in each drawer to hold the motor, wash pump, drain pump, heater and filtering. The company’s fearless approach to solving seemingly impossible problems set the design team in good stead, and in 1996 the first DishDrawer was released to widespread acclaim.

In recent years, this pioneering and explorative attitude has resulted in the development of new products such as the column refrigerator and freezer. Meanwhile, the company’s interest in in the way people live and how this has changed over time has seenFisher & Paykel embark on their Case Study program, which works closely with architects and designers to gain insights into both their needs as designers, as well as the practical requirements of their clients. “We believe our role is to make appliances that are not only of the highest quality but also fit seamlessly into the kitchen environment. The ultimate goal is to provide complete design freedom, allowing designers and architects to realise the dreams of their clients without constraints,” says Mark Elmore, Fisher & Paykel EVP Design and Brand. “By listening and working with designers and their clients we can understand more about what they are trying to achieve, and how they are designing and living with our products – these insights directly inform our work and future products.”

Times and technology have progressed beyond measure since 1934. But at Fisher & Paykel, relentless curiosity and an innovative  spirit continue to lead the way.

Fisher & Paykel, “General Merchants, Indenters, Importers, Exporters, Manufacturers, Warehousemen and Agents, Electrical Merchants, Engineers and Contractors” was born.

Published 24 September, 2020
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