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How Sussex Tapware Future-Proofed Their Family Business

Small Business

Sussex Tapware is the kind of family business with a story that gives you a little more faith in the modern world. When Nicolaas Johannes van Putten emigrated to Australia from the Netherlands in the 1960s, he brought his jewellery and watch-making skills with him and started Sussex in 1991. His daughter Vanessa would assist with admin after school and, over time, became more and more involved with the higher level management.

Now, Vanessa has been running Sussex for close to a decade, and she knows the business’ entire ecosystem (as well as all her factory workers’ names!) inside out. We visited the tapware company’s Melbourne factory to chat to Vanessa about her family story, sustainable manufacturing and making it in a male-dominated industry.

12th March, 2020

Vanessa Katsanevakis, the Creative Director of Sussex Tapware. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

A lineup of Sussex taps. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

In the studio. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Vanessa brought her passion for fashion and architecture to the design part of the business when she took over as Director from her father in 2011. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Sussex brings new technology to centuries-old craftsmanship. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

It took Vanessa a second to find her feet at the helm, but now it is firmly in her control! Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Vanessa heads up branding and visual communications, and brought on her husband to take care of the manufacturing side of the business. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Sussex Tapware is one of the last companies to own its own foundry where all the swarf (filing, debris and metalwork offcuts) can be melted down to create new tap fittings. It’s all closed loop! Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Vanessa knows the name of all her factory workers. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

With four factories across Melbourne’s north, all Sussex’s hardware is made locally. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Artisans have been hand cutting the taps on-site for the last 29 years! Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Sasha Gattermayr
Thursday 12th March 2020

‘It took me some time to grow the confidence to run a business on my own two feet. Particularly in the manufacturing industry which is so male-dominated’ – Vanessa Katsanevakis.

When the GFC hit in 2008, the temptation for a lot of businesses was to take their manufacturing offshore. For Vanessa Katsanevakis, the Creative Director of Sussex Tapware, this was not only an option she wasn’t interested in, but one that didn’t make much business sense.

‘I felt there was a growing group of consumers who were more interested in locally-made, sustainable homewares and that were in a position to pay a bit more for them,’ Vanessa explains, demonstrating a nuanced strategic eye and an intimate knowledge of her family business that belies her ‘creative’ job title. ‘While it was a risk, it would pay off to stick to our roots and maintain local manufacturing.’

With a staunchly family-oriented history, and all the emphasis on craftsmanship that Sussex already had pumping through its legacy, it made more sense to keep doing what they were doing and weather the storm. Vanessa knew the appetite for local, handcrafted products would return.

And return it did; alongside an invigorated and impassioned sustainability movement.

‘There was just so much to fight for with our company: all our artisans, who had literally been hand-crafting our taps since the beginning, and our unique foundry capabilities,’ explains Vanessa. As one of the only tap manufacturers in Australia to own and operate their own foundry, this means Sussex also has a completely closed loop production line. They are able to melt down swarf (the chippings and debris leftover from metalwork) to create brass blocks that eventually become the tapware.

‘Our foundry enables us to have a sustainable, circular production model, but if we also look at sustainability as a business practice, staying local gives us more control,’ explains Vanessa. With four factories across Melbourne’s north, operating locally also cuts their carbon footprint in half, especially as everything is designed and manufactured in the city. They also recently installed 100kw solar panels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 131 tonnes per year.

Though this seems as savvy as leadership stories get, Vanessa didn’t immediately trust her instincts when it came to taking her established family business into the twenty-first century. ‘It took me some time to grow the confidence to run a business on my own two feet,’ she recalls. ‘Particularly in the manufacturing industry which is so male-dominated.’

Much like her father – who transferred his watch and jewellery-making skills into tap making – Vanessa brought her longstanding passions for architecture and fashion to her role as Creative Director, aiming to inject influences from other areas of the design sphere into the business’ robust legacy. Vanessa was taking Sussex in an updated direction, but making the conscious decision to keep the heritage narrative intact, and visible. Gradually, the leadership role began to feel her own.

‘When I took over, one of the first things I set about doing was updating the brand to feel much more contemporary and forward-looking,’ she explains of her business philosophy, heavily imbued with an equal attachment to Sussex and the principles of good design. ‘It’s about carrying all that legacy knowledge and letting it give us the confidence to be bold and modern with our branding and visual communications.’

With her husband heading up the manufacturing side of things, and Vanessa at the creative helm, the business remains family-owned and run, and the pair have been able to add new technology to their manufacturing processes, alongside the age-old, handcrafted brass techniques. This digital innovation spills over into the customer-facing side of Sussex, with their Design Studio app allowing clients to mix and match colours and finishes on their tapware to create bespoke fittings. ‘Hand-craftsmanship is still a fundamental pillar of our manufacturing methods, but we aim to be agile and responsive, mixing a tailored approach with big capabilities.’ It’s this blend of digital innovation and family legacy that Vanessa says makes Sussex special.

‘When I took over from dad as Director in 2011, I brought with me a really strong sense of the company’s ethos,’ she says. ‘I grew up with Sussex very much being part of my life and over time I became more and more involved. Now it all feels like a very organic evolution—one that is still going.’

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First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net