REBEL AT HEART: An exclusive interview with the founder of Thomas Sabo

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In a rare interview, thee Thomas Sabo, founder of the eponymous jewellery brand, sits down with Professional Jeweller editor Stacey Hailes to discuss what it takes to run one of the most successful jewellery businesses in the world.

When I worked as a sales assistant for one of Thomas Sabo’s wholesale partners, one of my regular customers – a sweet, old lady who came in every Friday to look at the charms – told me it was her dream to meet Mr Sabo, because in her eyes, he was an absolute rock star.

Little did she know, in Germany, he really is a rock star. In essence, Mr Sabo is the brand’s ‘Rebel at Heart’ man. Edgy and creative with a rock and roll vibe.

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Not only does he appear on the country’s version of Children in Need, own the Ice Tigers hockey team and travel by private jet (complete with Thomas Sabo branding), he’s put his hometown Lauf an der Pegnitz on the map by opening a new, international and highly modern company head office in the East Nuremberg town.

It is here, in the new head quarters, which houses 490 employees, that I meet Mr Sabo and have the honour of interviewing the man behind one of the UK’s most successful fashion jewellery brands.

Thomas Sabo was founded in 1984 and soon became one of the leading global jewellery brands. Rooted in a mission to create a product that delights and fascinates people, Mr Sabo has taken the brand from strength to strength in partnership with creative director Susanne Kölbli (who joined Mr Sabo on his venture in 1992).

At present, the business co-operates with 2,800 trade partners worldwide, as well as airlines, cruise ships and airport destinations. And, it certainly hasn’t peaked yet.

For 2017 the focus is on taking Thomas Sabo to the next level. In the UK, this means ensuring the brand is presented as “best in class” across all of its channels.

The UK Market
Outside of its hometown, Germany, the UK is Thomas Sabo’s biggest market and one that continues to grow. While Mr Sabo did worry sales would fall after the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, he reveals this decision has not hurt the business so far.

However, the company is aware that the marketplace for branded jewellery has become much more challenging in the UK and, as a business, Thomas Sabo is now working on analysing its wholesale partners in order to become stronger over time.

“The focus is on quality points of sale, driving up the average transaction value of Thomas Sabo product lines and working with partners who share our vision of Thomas Sabo being an anchor brand in store and online,” explains Thomas Sabo founder, managing director and chairman, Mr Sabo. “This is and will continue to be a long term project and vision.”

The company wants to ensure it is working with the best partners to be able to drive the business forward. For Thomas Sabo, this does not necessarily mean opening up lots of new accounts, but rather focusing on the retail partners who really want to work with them and support the brand both in store and online.

“I think for the industry it’s really challenging at the moment, especially in multi-brand stores,” Mr Sabo says. “It is really important to have the right customer segmentations and it is really important for the markets to select the right product lines for their shops, and really maintain the collections very well.”

He continues: “Wholesale will be [over the next 12 months] driven through a customer segmentation programme that ensures each partner has a commercial and fully rounded approach to Thomas Sabo and that they present a focussed, but wide enough range, in line with our turnover and presentation expectation. We need to ensure the full story of what Thomas Sabo has to offer is being told across the UK.

Similarly in digital we will look to online partners who enable us to reach core demographic customer groups and who again respect and add value to our brand ethos.”

Online Oracles
In the UK, a large chunk of the brand’s business comes from online, not just from the Thomas Sabo website, but from its wholesale partners’ e-tail stores too. It is an area that continues to grow and the brand’s wholesale director, Nick Callegari, recently told Professional Jeweller that it is increasingly becoming a more important part of the business from a wholesale point of view as well. Therefore, when it comes to the brand analysing and refocusing next year online will be a big area of concentration.

In the light of the internet’s importance, Thomas Sabo has a dedicated digital manager in the UK who works with the brand’s wholesale partners from a visual and SEO point of view to use online as a really valuable leverage.
For Thomas Sabo, the segmentation of the wholesale side of the business is just as much about what a store can do for the brand, as it is what the brand can do for the store.

Thomas Sabo wants to work closely with retailers and identify how both businesses can work together to drive the industry forward.
Part of driving the business forward will be making sure online stores showcase the brand and its offering clearly, while elsewhere it will be about how the brand is presented and sold in store. A large part will also be about making sure the right product is in the right places. This will be done through the brand understanding each wholesale partners’ business better.

For the concept store side of the business this year, Thomas Sabo will be looking for opportunities to open up stores in places where the brand is currently underrepresented. However, talking to Mr Sabo about all of the businesses retail arms, it is clear he is looking to quality rather than quantity this year.

Mr Sabo is also not interested in entering a price war despite concerns in the industry at the moment following the weaker pound and the price of the Euro since the referendum result was announced. Rather than making any hasty decisions, Mr Sabo will watch the market closely and see what happens over the next few months. At the moment the plan is to stay strong and not react or get drawn into something which can damage and dilute the brand values.

“This is what we have decided,” shares Mr Sabo. “We are really going for our creativity, which we have much more of than many other brands, so I think business is healthy going forward and it is very important to remain on track and on goal in the mainstream.”

A Global Brand
Looking beyond the UK, from a global perspective the Asian and US markets are going to be significant for the brand going forward. Mr Sabo has recognised these two markets as missing pieces of the global Thomas Sabo puzzle and will be working to develop the wholesale and retail distribution in these areas over the upcoming months.

In the Asian Pacific regions, Thomas Sabo has opened up seven new retail stores in China over the past six months, and will be opening another six over the coming months. In addition to this, from spring the brand will start business with a strong partner in Korea.

“Last year saw remarkable business developments in the Asian Pacific regions, with a dedicated focus on mainland China,” explains Mr Sabo. “It is very important to expand in different regions and what we are doing at the moment in Asia for example, for us that is very important. We are looking forward to moving in the US market and that’s the next steps for us.”

In America Thomas Sabo recently opened its first flagship store in a Westfield site in New York. Going ahead, the company will be looking to grow in the US market and create a stronger brand presence stateside.

The Next 12 Months
As we enter into 2017, Thomas Sabo has some big plans and great products to bring to market. The new SS17 is very unique and offers a variety of pieces from delicate skull designs to XXL bead bracelets, lion motifs and statement earrings.

“It is very important when we want to complete a new collection, to create more pieces for consumers to express themselves,” Mr Sabo says of the new range. “I think it is a much more grown up collection then we’ve made before. It’s really big statement pieces, so people can express themselves.”

Elsewhere the brand will also be looking at how it can drive the men’s jewellery category and make more out of its ‘Rebel at Heart’ collection. Like how Thomas Sabo started displaying it watches in a separate window, and saw some fantastic results such as new customers uncovering the brand for the very first time, the company is looking at how it can display the men’s jewellery range to make it easier for men to discover.

The company believes if it gets the men’s market right, and can make it more comfortable for male customers to shop the brand, this is another area where the business can work with its retail partners to really drive sales.

When asked how he measures the businesses success, Mr Sabo replies: “I observe the market and the industry as well as study and monitor the figures and business development of Thomas Sabo. On more general terms, we are fostering and investing heavily into brand awareness, brand services and develop targeted – even market specific – distribution models as well as marketing and communication activities, in order to increase the relevance of the brand amongst partners but also customers. “

He concludes: “The UK is our number one export market and we will be continuing to nurture this success through our retail and wholesale channels maintaining Thomas Sabo at the forefront of the design led branded jewellery sector in the UK.”

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