A recession of no importance

Guy&Max founders Max and Guy Shepherd. (Photo by Nick Cunard)

An exclusive interview with Guy Shepherd of retailer and brand Guy&Max

Founded at the genesis of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Guy&Max was faced with an uphill struggle from the off. But as Rachael Taylor discovers, the fledgling business that’s never known the good times is not only surviving but planning to expand.

September 16th, 2008, is a date that will never be forgotten by the American banking industry. It was the day that Lehman Brothers went bust, sparking a financial meltdown that plunged the world into the worst recession since World War II. It was also the day that Max Shepherd and his brother Guy opened their first jewellery boutique in Mayfair, the epicentre of London’s hedge fund industry.

The Shepherd family has been ingrained in the jewellery business for more than 25 years. Its original company Shepherd & Taylor is considered one of the best merchants of white certified diamonds in the country, specialising in stones ranging from 1/2ct to 10ct, D to I colours, flawless to SI.

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Max Shepherd, son of Shepherd & Taylor founder Richard Shepherd, is an award-winning furniture and interiors designer. After being bestowed accolades at prestigious design shows, such as 100% Design, and running a bar that showcased his handiwork, Max joined forces with his brother Guy Shepherd and turned his considerable design talent to jewellery.

Max’s style blends the contemporary with the traditional to create classic designs with innovative twists. Its Equilibrium ring is a perfect example of Guy&Max’s signature style; a classic dazzling single solitaire from the front, with a twist hidden in the band that has been squared off on the bottom corners so that the ring sits snugly in between the fingers and prevents slipping.

Despite its ideal Mayfair location, the Guy&Max shop in London’s Shepherd’s Market has never reaped the fruits of wild City excess. The world changed as Lehman Brothers failed and the financial world went into meltdown.

Guy&Max could have been forgiven for pulling down the shutters of the freshly opened boutique and waiting for the recession to pass. Instead, the brothers ploughed ahead.

“From a retail point of view, I’ve only ever known recession. I’ve never known the good times,” explains Guy. “We weren’t really expecting too much but it’s been really well received by the Mayfair community. It’s not wild, but it’s very encouraging for the future.”

Its luxury jewellery, set with the finest diamonds, is not for the cash-strapped, but starting out in a bust rather than a boom hasn’t hurt. In fact, it’s probably made the business stronger; the Shepherd brothers are well placed to capture the City boys if and when flash-cash culture returns.

It’s now 2010 and it’s just been confirmed that the UK is officially out of recession. For Guy&Max, it is the time to forge ahead while the competition picks itself up from a seriously brutal 18 months.

As well as its retail store, Guy&Max also has a growing wholesale business. Its designs are stocked in six high-end independent stores around the country, including Mallory of Bath and Ogden of Harrogate. It has plans to expand this arm of the business and is actively looking for “pioneering top-end jewellers”. The only problem holding it back is the tricky business of building a brand.

“The frustration is the whole brand awareness thing,” says Guy. “How do you get that profile as a small business? I can see how to do it in the long run, but in the short term you want to wave it in front of people’s faces. But unless you are Cartier spending lots of money on advertising, it is difficult to get the message out there.

“I sympathise with the retailers out of town who want to give people like us a chance but have to rely on the big names. The brand is starting to take off in London but I want this to knock on outside of London. I want people out of town to be knocking on jewellers’ doors asking if they have Guy&Max.”

As well as conquering the wholesale market in an exclusive manner, Guy&Max also has exciting plans for its retail business. The company is in talks after being approached by an investor – a fan of the small family-run business with big international plans.

Guy says: “They are interested in it as an international concept. They believe what we’re doing is very Mayfair, very English and this packs a punch in many places around the world that are not in recession any more.

“We’re a family business and we like to keep things in check; Max does the design, I do the selling and dad does the stones. If within that model we were allowed to expand further afield then it’s definitely of interest.”

Personally, Guy would love to target key international cities Paris, Milan and New York, and most importantly the lucrative Far East market. “Our manufacturing business collapsed as a result of the Far East but now the irony is they are so wealthy that they recognise nice British, bespoke, handmade design,” he says. “The super-rich, whether they are in India or China, want something that is unique; they don’t want something that is mass produced.”

Domestic openings are also on the agenda, and Guy says that if suitable independent stockists can’t be found in desired locations in the UK, then Guy&Max will consider opening standalone stores with the help of its financial backer. To keep the brand exclusive, Guy wants to cap outlets in the UK to 20, which he said could be a mixture of stockists, franchises and own stores.

And while these plans are baking, the business isn’t standing still. A website overhaul is planned and the brand will begin to retail its lower-priced items online by August, such as pendants that cost hundreds rather than thousands of pounds.

Administrations and established businesses folding have been a familiar landmark in the recessionary landscape. Guy&Max is the exception to the rule and its start-up tale is one of hope, making it a brand and a retailer to watch as the consumer price index starts to rise.

As Guy says: “If we can do this in a recession, then bring on the end of it.”

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