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Entrepreneurial flair is writ large in the Export Council of Australia’s Export Heroes Awards, a hall of fame celebrating those who have made extraordinary contributions to the development of a uniquely Australian export culture. Monica Higgins talks to one such winner—Professor Philip Cox, founding director of the Cox Group of architects, who was named an Export Hero in the 2004/2005 awards.

In an award acceptance speech in 1984, Philip Cox said: "Throughout our development, Australians have been afraid of expressing enthusiasm for anything Australian; except for a few sportsmen and a singer or two, Australia rarely has acclaimed its artists or architects … This situation must be reversed."

With this driving force behind his business, Philip Cox has guided his architectural firm, the Cox Group, to completely reverse this situation; achieving exponential growth and acclaim here and around the world.

Active ImageThe criterion for being named a champion of the export community is very explicit. Not only must your business be actively exporting to an international market, but it must also contribute to Australia’s image as a progressive member of the international business community. An export hero must be seen as a role model for future generations of Australian exporters.

Where role models are the name of the game, the Cox Group is an industry leader. With almost three decades of history that traces the architectural annals of this nation, from the early days of contemporary design when much of Australia’s iconic buildings sprang from the earth, to today, where architecture is an intricate fusion of technology, culture and environment, Philip Cox’s architectural genius is imbued within Australian society.

Rising Reputation

In 1962, when he was 26, Cox’s small practice won its first award, the Sir John Sulman Medal for the design of St Andrews Presbyterian Agricultural College in Leppington, New South Wales. Back in those days, the firm worked on a smaller scale. But with a focus on quality service and a rising reputation for innovative and exciting design, the firm has since expanded, and in the past decade it has become a world-wide success with national offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Canberra and international offices in Beijing and Dubai. Current and past projects include work in China, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Canada, and Germany.

Establishing an international presence is not a speedy or accidental process, but one born out of dedication and, often, a flow-on effect from years of business development. Cox says they knew exactly when the time was right to spread their wings: "We started getting inquiries from overseas, from China and Singapore. This was largely based upon our reputation in Australia."

The Cox Group has earned its exceptional reputation by offering a wide range of quality architectural services, spanning public buildings, commercial and retail development, tourism, urban planning and interior design. Their visionary, quintessentially Australian blueprints leap to life as icons of our nation’s distinct culture. The King St Wharf in Sydney echoes an outdoor lifestyle yet actively engages with the structure’s maritime environment. The master plan for Newington Olympic Village at Homebush is a vision of a modern suburban sprawl that gives equal weight to ecological, social, and cultural considerations. The Bruce Stadium in Canberra is a structure that reflects the idioms of Australian sporting culture.

Active ImageWhile there are, of course, Australian and international competitors, the Cox Group’s distinct market edge—a commitment to a union of graceful and practical architecture that is sensitive to region, culture, and economy—has given them international weight. And despite the firm’s size, they have never allowed its growth to become more important than customer service. As Cox says, "personal involvement and dedication is the key to our success".

Rather than taking a blind nose-dive into their first export venture, the firm tested the temperature of international waters first. "The countries [considered for export ventures] ran various competitions in which we participated, and this launched us into that particular country and the international scene at large," Cox explains of the firm’s initial export strategy.

The urban plan for Pearls Sea Cities in Kuwait is testament to the first tentative steps of the firm’s early overseas ventures. In 1990, the Cox Group won an international competition to design two new sea cities in Kuwait. The final design reflected the Australian ethos of innovation, yet was sensitive to the environmental constraints and limitations of a resort town. The result was an organic environment in both plan and form.

Solid Expertise

In a global spotlight, winning awards early on, as well as more recent accolades such as the Export Hero Award, has given the Cox Group international stability. "It has provided a confidence to the various countries that we are serious in providing international services to, and also highlights that Australian expertise is relevant and significant," says Cox.

Active ImageWith an established reputation for quality and innovation, the next step in exporting the Cox Group’s services was to develop local contacts in each nation. This phase is essential for gaining a local perspective as well as being able to offer a full scope of personal services that are culturally specific. "In China we selected a graduate from Beijing who was fluent in English, in Thailand we associated with one of the major engineering companies, and in Singapore we teamed up with a local consultant," says Cox.

"We do, however, keep staff to a minimum in each country and do the majority of the work out of Australia." The upshot of having smaller staff numbers overseas is the firm has been able to monitor quality control and offer personalised service.

Now, with international success tucked firmly under his firm’s belt, Cox says there is still more of the world to explore. "We intend to consolidate and grow the business in countries where we have had previous commitments. We are always keen to explore new markets, but not at the expense of under-servicing the existing ones. Exciting opportunities offered in other countries are hard to refuse and we usually find space to service these."

He ended the 1984 acceptance speech with: "I am a great believer in creating the art of which future generations of Australians will be proud."

With Australian streets lined with the Cox Group’s architecture, and the international marketplace vying for his work, Cox has certainly given Australians something to be proud of by helping to put our nation’s progressive export profile on the world stage.

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