INTERVIEW: Julian Rotstein on building Ti Sento

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The IBB Amsterdam boss on his journey to the top.

Ti Sento might be a relatively new player in the UK but this year it is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Rachael Taylor travels to IBB Amsterdam’s HQ in Holland to talk to charismatic founder Julian Rotstein about building a brand from scratch and rising to challenges in the UK market.

There is a certain steely determination at the core of Julian Rotstein that is not immediately visible on the surface. When you first meet this hugely charismatic and colourful personality he whips you into his world of humorous jibes peppered with his warm, genuine laugh and it is hard for his love of life and beauty not to rub off.

But it has been a tough journey to the top for the boss of IBB Amsterdam; one that has included being forced to take part in a civil war in his home country of South Africa, setting up his business in Amsterdam – a town that was alien to him when he first arrived – and in recent years dealing with a crippling neurological disease that can leave him unable to talk or move some days.

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Despite these hurdles IBB Amsterdam has grown immensely since it was founded in 1993 and now acts as distributor for a huge variety of watch and jewellery brands, including Guess, Fope, Frederique Constant and Gc, but perhaps Rotstein’s biggest challenge, and triumph, to date has been Ti Sento Milano, a fashion-led silver and synthetic gemstone jewellery brand.

The brand – which in fact has nothing to do with Milan, other than a theoretical alignment with the fashion-forward values of the Italian city – was a concept created completely from scratch by Rotstein and his team.

After working with fine jewellery and diamonds for many years, Rotstein wanted to work with silver, but had the idea to present it as a luxury product. This is a concept that jewellers are very familiar with in 2013 but a decade ago, when precious metals prices were more affordable, it was a laughable concept; although it was in fact tears that brought Ti Sento to life.

“Exactly 10 years ago on my birthday [November 27] I was standing in front of an aeroplane ready to board and I called my daughter, and she was crying,” recalls Rotstein. “I said ‘Why are you crying?’ and she told me it was because it was my birthday. I said ‘Who cares?’ and she said ‘I care, I made a drawing for you’.”

This emotional exchange led to a sleepless night on the plane for Rotstein, during which he got to thinking about what it was that his company, which specialised in fine jewellery and diamonds at the time, wasn’t doing that it could be. It soon became clear to him that silver was the answer.

“At IBB Amsterdam we look nice, we dress fashionably, so I thought if we do silver people are going to buy from us," he says. "But silver is cheap and tacky, so what if happens if we took [the Italian fine brand we were distributing] Leo Pizzo and swap the diamonds for CZs and the gold for silver. I wrote a business plan on the plane.”

Rotstein took this half-baked idea back to the office to speak to his team. After a whirr of collaborative thinking, Ti Sento was born, and swiftly. After his initial sleepless night in November 2002, the jewellery was on the market in Holland by March 2003.

“We brought fashion into jewellery,” says Rotstein. “A few people were fashionable in gold – Pomellato, Bulgari, Chopard – but in silver there was not much fashion. Not everybody can afford gold jewellery, and silver was very affordable at the time. We treat the brand like fine jewellery. We were one of the first to do this and it has made us. We gave the cool factor and the affordability at a quality that the jeweller could understand.”

A major break for Ti Sento came when Rotstein was able to secure a stand for the brand at BaselWorld, at the very last minute. “It was my ultimate dream," laughs Rotstein, who even now is incredulous at this stroke of good luck that came so early in the brand’s history. "It was impossible to get a good stand but we got it. Us, an itsy bitsy brand.”

From there Ti Sento blossomed internationally. It signed up distributors and agents for various countries and opened a flagship store for the brand in Vienna, an outlet that has been highly successful, turning over about €1 million (£630,000) a year from a 60sqm floorspace. And soon Rotstein made his play for the UK.

Rotstein knew little about the UK market, but with a little help from Ken Lindow of Lindow’s Jewellers in the Lake District and Stuart Laing of Laings in Glasgow, Ti Sento started its journey to join our high streets.

Lindow discovered the brand at BaselWorld and became an unofficial ambassador “dragging Englishmen over to the Ti Sento stand", according to Rotstein, who jokes that now Lindow’s sells so much Ti Sento that “he must be selling it to sheep”.

Laing was a little trickier to entice, but once Rotstein had tracked him down he gave the retailer and chief executive of Houlden Group a few pieces of Ti Sento to give to his wife with the line “if she takes it, you know you have a hit on your hands”. Mrs Laing did indeed take it and so Ti Sento was welcomed into the fold of the Houlden buying group and Laing encouraged other top-end retailers to consider it.

Ti Sento started its push into the UK market in earnest in November 2008 when former Hearts on Fire sales director Judith Wade took over the running of the brand in the UK, and Rotstein explains that she had quite a job at hand. “We had made a mess," he admits. "We didn’t know who we were opening [accounts with]. You have to do the work that Judith does [on the ground in the UK]. She had a lot of clearing up to do. Act international but think local, that’s the way to work.”

Wade describes it as a tumultuous time during which doors were opening and closing for the brand. Plus six months into her new job she was hit with a major setback when jewellery buying group Consortia went into liquidation, losing Ti Sento, which had joined the group as a supplier, a lot of money in the process. But in 2011 business really picked up and Ti Sento opened 111 doors, something Wade describes as “extraordinary”.

Ti Sento’s success did not go unnoticed, particularly among competitors, which fought to regain the initiative throughout 2012. This arguably led to the loss of between 50 and 60 doors for Ti Sento, according to IBB Amsterdam’s estimates.

As an international player, Ti Sento can make up any ground lost in the UK in other markets, but Rotstein says he regrets that certain outlets appear closed to his company for the sake of those jewellers rather than his brand.

“We are very lucky to have the whole world to play in, but the [UK] jewellers have just their store," he says. "If we miss 50 stores in the UK we can open 50 in India, but jewellers can’t.”

To date Rotstein has been fairly relaxed about the competition in his sector, and while he admits that he would prefer to take the path of least resistance, he says he is ready to listen to his Ti Sento retailers in the UK and tackle the market in a more aggressive manner than last year. But he is clear to point out that while he might up the ante, he is still at heart a very liberal and relaxed personality.

“The Dutch are a very liberal people,” he says, in reference to the city he works in and how it inspires him. “You can buy drugs here, you can be any religion you want; that’s the freedom of the Netherlands. You’re exceptionally free. [Our UK retailers] would like us to be much more aggressive but you can’t change your DNA. ”

While Rotstein says that he will do everything in his power to support the retailers that have invested in his brand, he is looking for more organic ways to accelerate the growth of Ti Sento in the UK such as opening mono-brand stores.

Ti Sento has already struck a deal with a UK retailer that is preparing to open two such stores in the UK this year. The retailer, which could not be named as Professional Jeweller went to press due to contractual issues, had planned to open the stores before Christmas but when an ideal location could not be found in time the plans were put on hold.

Rotstein says that when these stores open this year it will be a very proud moment for him, although he adds that retail is not a side of the business that IBB Amsterdam itself wants to get involved with. While it has Ti Sento shops in Vienna and Amsterdam he says that these have been used as a testing ground for the company so that it can better assist retailers to sell Ti Sento, and that the standalone Ti Sento stores in the UK will be wholly run by those retailers and treated as just another stockist. The stores will not be run on a franchise model, although Rotstein admits that he will “meddle with how the store looks”.

While Rotstein is possibly as far away from an aggressive businessman stereotype as you can get, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t ready to do what it takes to make Ti Sento thrive in the UK. As he says: “We see our brands like a child. First they are in their mother’s arms getting milk,then they can take a few steps. Ti Sento in the UK is taking a few steps. It’s not out of kindergarten yet, but that just shows how much it still has to grow. We might not be aggressive, but we’re certainly hungry.”

This interview was taken from the February issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read the issue in full online, click here.

 

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