Appetite, added value and aesthetics… Max Grundmann – the Max of Maxwell & Williams and owner of H.A.G. – talks to us about the ingredients for commercial success.
Meet The Man Behind Maxwell & Williams
Max Grundmann is a busy man. His passion for life means there’s no such thing as pause. H.A.G. is the business behind brands like Maxwell & Williams, Krosno, and Casa Domani, and the Ritzenhoff presence in Australia.
Over the last fifty years, its reach has expanded to 50 countries. Today it operates out of a purpose-built warehouse on a property of 33,000 square metres – a far cry from its humble beginnings.
The H.A.G Legacy
The initials H.A.G. stand for Harry and Anna Grundmann, Max’s parents. Holocaust survivors, the Grundmanns immigrated to Australia in 1961.
As Max tells it, Harry had “a pretty high degree of resilience. He came all this way around the world to forge out a new life”.
Harry was working for a homewares wholesaler when the business refused to pass on a $1 increase in the car allowance. Harry resigned and approached a competitor who’d previously offered him a job. The role was gone by the time he was ready for it – a blessing in disguise.
They suggested he start his own business and H.A.G. was born. Originally based in a Brighton garage, it has become a multi-national success story.
Max is an entrepreneur in the purest sense of the word. When we asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he laughs.
“I haven’t grown up yet,” he says, which is quite possibly the secret to his success. “I wanted to make a difference and had aspirations for going into politics but found that the values there don’t match my values. I’m essentially an entrepreneur, I like the challenge of business.”
Max was studying economics, politics and law when he discovered a love of sales, selling educational books door to door. “I’m just a salesman by nature,” he says.
“I love the connection between people. If you behave with integrity and if you add value, you never fail in business. If you don’t add value, then you’re clearly going to struggle.”
How The Business Began
Max joined the fledgling business as the junior salesman in 1974. His father was Head Salesman, they had a country rep that worked on commission, and his mother handwrote the invoices.
Then in 1978, his father suffered a heart attack and stepped away from the business to recuperate. Bill Ryan, a retailer, joined.
With Bill’s expertise in finance and Max’s prowess in buying and selling, this partnership would rock the homewares world.
Max recognised that growth necessitated moving beyond a simple importation business. “We built the whole notion of branded homewares,” he says.
“Firstly with Krosno, then with IVV – glassware from Italy. We decided that to reach scale, we needed to create our own brand with diverse capability from different suppliers.”
The Maxwell & Williams Name
The search for the appropriate name for this new brand came to a head in 1996. Max was holidaying in Florence, doodling on a butcher’s paper tablecloth after rendez-vousing with several bottles of chianti.
He wrote Maxwell and Williams on the paper in front of him and the die was cast. This slip of paper is now framed and hanging in the M&W offices.
Maxwell & Williams is a global business founded on Australian values: “The idea of fairness and flair, and a society that is egalitarian – that was all part of the strategy that was Maxwell & Williams.”
The brand’s growth was exponential with their signature white basics made it an industry stalwart. “We were the first in the world to create a sticky label that went on the front of the plates, differentiating them from all the other white plates on display. They just took off. It became unbelievable the volumes we were selling. It’s been an amazing experience.”
“There was one point at which we were placing orders with the factory in China that were so massive that the factory believed we were over-buying so they didn’t ship the goods.
“We were having to ration the products and people were getting upset, because they couldn’t get enough of them. And when we finally went back to the factory and asked, ‘Why did you do this? We gave you the orders months ago’, they said, ‘We actually didn’t think you needed that much and we didn’t want to embarrass you”. It’s a very Chinese mentality. So some strange things happened.”
An Australian Icon
So what makes this brand stand out from the rest? “It’s how well you combine the commercial and the aesthetic – that determines how capable and how credible and how compelling your product is.” Max’s personal flair comes from the marriage of these two elements.
“My dad was the commercial person and my mum had fabulous flair and style. We weren’t particularly wealthy so she only bought very sparingly but when she did she bought great things. She had great taste. So I got the taste from her and the commerce from dad – that made a pretty formidable combination.”
Max finds his inspiration in all areas of life. “You’ve got to expand your horizons…” He’s an avid reader and having majored in philosophy, it is no surprise that this has a heavy influence on his approach to business. “From Voltaire to Hegel to Marx. I read a lot. I love music and I love reading and I love socialising and I love sport. So I’ve never got any time.”
For Maxwell & Williams, passion must be paired with principles. “You have to bring an authenticity to what you do,” Max says.
“And if you do that everybody notices… As human beings, we’re more similar than we are different. That’s part of our philosophy – why don’t we concentrate on our similarities and enjoy the differences, rather than make the differences a source of problems?” We have to agree!