INTERVIEW: Peter Mooney, Continental Jewellery

His big plans for the UK arm of the diamond jewellery manufacturer.

Following the death of his father, Peter Mooney is stepping up to take control of the UK subsidiary of Chinese jewellery manufacturer Continental Jeweller, a business that his father has built up over the past 22 years. He talks to Rachael Taylor about his plans for the future and stepping out of his father’s shadow.

The first thing that you need to know about Peter J Mooney is that he does not own his own business, and neither did his father, Peter A Mooney, before him.

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As some people in the trade have made this mistake in the past, it is a clarification that he is quick to point out early into our conversation. "It must be hard for retailers coming to a show and looking around and trying to work out who is a wholesaler and who is a manufacturer," he notes. "Some people do think that we are a wholesaler and buy from China but we’re not, we’re a wholly owned subsidiary, a kind of sales and service office rather than an [independent] company, which keeps prices low."

If Mooney was indeed the proprietor of such a business it would mean he would have to own his own gold and diamond mines, cutting facilities, design team, factory, global distribution network. As he says, he certainly does not, but Continental Jewellery – the company that he has been working on behalf of for the past 10 years – does, and was in fact one of the first fully integrated jewellery companies in China capable of mining, manufacturing and marketing their goods all round the world.

Continental Jewellery’s parent company Continental Holdings is a family-run limited company with an annual turnover that hit HK$955.7 million (£81.9m) in 2012, a figure that was up on the previous year’s levels, and delivered profits of HK$214.9 million (£18.4m), up from HK$33.4 million (£2.9m) in 2011.

The company was founded in 1975 and has since grown to become a jewellery superpower with a diamond mine in South Africa, gold mines in Australia and China, three Chinese jewellery factories, three Chinese diamond trading and cutting factories and a head office in Hong Kong that can deliver jewellery design services, stone sourcing, manufacture, marketing and distribution. It also has an extensive retail portfolio and licensing business.

As such, Continental Holdings is very much a global business and the company has sales offices in Hong Kong, Canada, New York, Spain and the UK, which is of course how the Mooneys enter the equation; delivering Continental’s unbranded jewellery and jewellery brand Kissing Diamonds to retailers in the UK as direct agents rather than wholesalers, which means that the prices are, according to Mooney, unbeatable.

While Continental is evidently a multinational company of some scale and size, it is easy to see why the Mooneys’ involvement could be misconstrued with a father and son team working on a small-scale exclusive basis. Mooney senior started out in the trade in more than 35 years ago, following a stint in the brewing industry, and while working for another company within the trade he was approached by Continental and asked to work for the Chinese company as a distributor. He accepted, but back then the attitudes to Chinese design and manufacture were very different to what they are now.

"Continental was one of the first Chinese [jewellery] companies to come to the UK, and there was a bit of a stigma before but my father did a really good job and that stigma is completely gone," says Mooney. "The quality is there and now there is a minimum wage in China. [Being from China] is now a selling point for our unbranded jewellery, as if you buy from us its comes straight from the factory [so that offers lower prices]."

Despite the initial uphill start, Mooney senior stuck with Continental and ran the company up until the end of last year when he passed away following an illness. His son describes him as a huge personality within the trade, adding that Mooney senior made work his life and had fun doing so, regularly wining and dining his clients, with who he had built up a strong rapport and even stronger friendships.

"He was a good guy, everyone liked him," remembers Mooney. "He was a big character, always laughing and joking. That’s why people bought from him. He might have come across as laid back but he was very strict and he worked hard, and it was his life, though he did have lots of good times [with clients] in nice restaurants with good wine."

Mooney jokes that he has "already promised the directors that my expenses will be much lower", but is well aware that he has some big shoes to fill, and while he plans to make some changes to the business he will continue the good work that his father did while alive.

As we have mentioned, Mooney is not stepping up to the plate fresh; he has been with the company, working alongside and learning from his father, for the past 10 years and put himself through some intensive training before joining his father.

Mooney went to university straight after school but his heart was not in business studies. What he did find fascinating, however, was a more real-life approach to learning that transported him from Beaverbrooks in Sollihull to the shores of Carlsbad in California.

Making good use of his father’s friendships with retailers, Mooney was put out into the real world to get a taste of retail before dedicating his career to the service of it. He started off with a 12-month placement at a Beaverbrooks’s brand within the Touchwood shopping centre in Sollihull, which at the time was a brand new store, then a six-month stint at Rudells in Harborne followed by a further half-year job at Weirs in Dublin.

Mooney describes each of these retailers as giving him wholly different, but enjoyable and useful, experiences. Beaverbrooks gave him a "good grounding and training in a quick-moving brand new store", while Ruddells was "a slower moving but very high end store" and Weirs was "more like a department store".

And for the final piece in his education jigsaw, Mooney headed off to sunnier climes to do a graduate gemmology course. It was a life enriching experience in many ways for an impressionable young man, and while, as any 22-year-old would do, he spent a lot of time on the beach learning how to surf, he also spent what he describes as "an informative but intense" time learning the intricacies of diamonds and coloured stones.

As well as broadening his personal horizons and getting his gem knowledge up to scratch, Mooney also describes this as an important professional networking time for him, as many of the sons and daughters of UK retailers were also enjoying similar experiences, and many of those trainee gemmologists are now, like him, taking the next step up in their family businesses.

"Our age group – late 20s, early 30s – seems to be in the middle of a generational takeover," says Mooney. "The sons and daughters are now in more influential roles. Five years ago if I had this role it might be a bit more challenging, but now [a lot of the buyers or owners] have done the same course as me, have the same sort of background as I do."

When it comes to talking about what Mooney wants to do to move the company forward in the UK, he is very firm in his statement that he does not want to discredit any of the work his father did, but he does want to move some things in a fresh direction.

First off, Mooney is increasing the sales staff. Before his father passed away, Mooney senior handled the multiple retailer accounts while his son serviced all of the independent retailers single handedly. With new responsibilities, this is not a structure that Mooney can continue, so hence forth he will take over the multiple retailer accounts and his new team of salespeople will divide the regions between them.

Another focus for Continental going forward will be trade shows in the UK. Outside of Houlden Group and CMJ buying meetings, Continental did not exhibit at any UK trade shows, although the UK division travelled extensively covering many international shows including shows in Vicenza, Inhorgenta, Bangkok Gems & Jewelry Fair and BaselWorld.

This UK trade show strategy was kickstarted by Mooney in September last year when he took Continental diamond jewellery brand Kissing Diamonds to trade exhibition IJL in London. The show proved to be a success for the brand, which has been sold in the UK for the past 15 years, with Mooney signing up 10 new accounts. He then followed this up with The Jewellery Show in Birmingham in February, which he described as more of a marketing exercise that he believes will lead to deals in the future. He is set to return to IJL with Kissing Diamonds and is mulling over a return to The Jewellery Show, adding that he is also considering taking Continental as its own company to the shows also.

The plan to exhibit at more shows is part of a general plot to raise the profile of Continental, as well as his own profile, in the trade, as Mooney feels that what the company does is probably not fully understood. And when he gets his message across Mooney is hoping that it will help him to achieve his goals of increasing his retail network. While he will still aim to offer exclusive terms to retail partners, he feels that there is certainly room for growth. "One thing that my father could have done is to sell to more people, but he kept it small as he liked it that way," says Mooney. "He didn’t let [Continental] have more than one retailer per city and he’d want to come to you [rather than do trade shows]. My father concentrated on that a lot but it meant we didn’t really grow. Lots more retailers are buying wholesale from China now so we have to be more proactive – do marketing, have more bodies on the road, gain a higher exposure. I’m not putting down what my father did but it’s different now. We used to just sit around and wait for phone calls as we were one of the first [Chinese companies] here but now there is so much competition we have to offer something different."

While these are some very finite plans, Mooney says that his takeover of the UK arm of Continental will be a more general revitalising of the company as a younger generation takes over; something that is in line with the Continental Hong Kong office, which has just introduced a younger design team with knowledge of the UK market.

In a letter sent out to customers about the passing of Mooney senior and Mooney junior’s plans to step up into the role, the line from Continental director Victor Chan was that it was very much business as usual, but in fact it could be that business is in fact changing, as it should, with a new generation at the helm and some fresh ideas on how to bridge the gap between Chinese manufacture and British retail, and a little bit of Brum charm thrown in to smooth the way.

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




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