What does a project manager do and what is the best approach for a particular task? John Ryan reports


Every time you look at a new store there are several components that automatically come into play. There’s the retailer’s desire for something different, securing appropriate store designers who will be capable of translating, or even completely changing, the retailer’s brief and, of course, the shopfitting contractor. This might seem a comprehensive list but there remains another element that may or may not merit inclusion: the project manager.

Project management can mean many things to many people. For some, there is merit in employing an independent project manager capable of tying together the strands and wielding the on-site whip as required. Others take the view that shopfitting and associated store construction equates to project management and that the task should be implicit when a shopfitter is retained.

Whichever view you happen to take, the need for somebody to take control of the processes and individuals involved in the creation of a store is paramount. But what can they do and how much power should be afforded to them by a retailer in possession of a fixed budget and a desire to get things delivered on time? Equally, should retailers expect them to exercise a watching brief over what is taking place or should they get down and dirty with the new store supply chain, seeking ways to cut costs, value engineer and improve on what is already there?

Roman Fussthaler, managing director of Austrian shopfitting giant Umdasch’s operation in the UK, is clear that there is more to project management than just making things happen on time and on budget. “Value engineering is the big thing,” he says. He cites Niketown in Oxford Circus as a case in point. “Oxford Circus is Nike’s biggest store worldwide and in the last six years they’ve refurbished every department at least twice. We are regularly invited to engineer what they’ve designed and to make things happen.” Fussthaler offers a beguilingly simple definition for all ofthis: “Project management is the professional implementation of a retail project.” Unarguable, but surely it must be rather more difficult than that?

True to Teutonic form, Fussthaler seeks to expand and clarify: “It does all sound a bit boring and Germanic, but that’s what clients like. In shopfitting and project management, you have to deal with so many different priorities – materials, people, timings and with all of this, there have to be really clearly defined processes.”

This still sounds a mite dry, but perhaps it really is the route to quality and when dealing with a project on the scale of, say, Dublin’s Terminal 2, which Umdasch completed at the end of 2010, perhaps it is the only way. But practically, what is involved? The first stage is easy: appoint a project manager, whether an internal person, an independent individual or a company, that will provide a ‘turnkey’ solution (for which read all things to all people – on-site design, project management and building and construction services).

The task ahead

There is also the matter of what happens beyond the immediate job in hand to be considered. Rachel Mellows, Plan A property project manager at Marks & Spencer, which recently opened a Simply Food store in Sheffield aimed at providing “learnings” for the retailer, says: “Our aim is to embed 70% of what we have here in our future stores.” Of course it is – how many large retailers open stores in isolation from the rest of their estate? But does this mean that every part of the construction and subsequent performance of a store needs to be closely monitored? Again, the answer is yes and an internal project manager, providing a company is sufficiently large to include somebody fulfilling this role, is every bit as vital as any external individual. It is also pertinent to remark that most large retailers award project management roles on the basis of packages rather than single stores – it helps to keep the costs under control.  

What becomes clear from all of this is that project management and the role of the project manager is on the rise. For some, this is a positive with companies such as Wates and Styles & Wood acting as project managers as well as shopfitters. Practically, this has spawned the phenomenon of the shopfitter that employs shopfitters – which has been the source of disquiet among some within the sector. At which point, the words of Robert Hudson, director at the National Association of Shopfitters, come sharply into focus: “Many shopfitters just aren’t very good at marketing themselves.”

If they were better, there is certainly an argument that shopfitting and project management could be largely synonymous, but for the moment UK companies that do this are the exception rather than the rule.

The best store fit-outs from across the continent tend to be carried out by the biggest cross-border players, whether it’s Umdasch, Vizona, New Store Europe or Schweitzer. And the reason for this success is straightforward – a company that can take from a retailer the burden of project management, shopfitting and, to an extent, design, makes the store development department’s job considerably easier.

Project management is an integral part of the process of getting a store over the finishing line. And whatever approach is taken, in-house, professional company/individual or a project manager who comes as part of a shopfitting service, there is no escaping the importance of a person who can bring all of the pieces together. Equally, when it comes to choosing which sort of project manager to use, there are many ways to skin a cat and it is perfectly possible that there will be several alternatives.

Timing is everything, and project management has the ‘time is money’ maxim at its heart. Left to their own devices, designers will go in one direction, shopfitters in another and the hapless retailer will be left wondering what to do to make a go of things. A good project manager is at the centre of every successful new store build.