John Ball on a rescue plan for Brown & Newirth

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Director at British ring manufacturer on business after Abbeycrest.

It has been a tough year or two for Brown & Newirth as its parent company abbeycrest filed for administration and it lost a raft of key accounts due to mismanagement, but all that is about to change. Rachael Taylor meets with director John Ball to find out about his plan to get this Great British manufacturer back on track.

In tough times businesses can not afford to become complacent, and this simple rule is one that Brown & Newirth has had to learn the hard way in its 45th year of trading. And recent times have indeed been tough for the British wedding ring manufacturer.

Brown & Newirth, which was founded in 1967, has always enjoyed a solid business and in the past had become comfortable in its position as the go-to UK wedding ring manufacturer, but as that comfort led to complacency and it simply stopped talking to its customers – becoming what its current management refers to as “order takers” rather than new business chasers – it lost a sizeable chunk of its market share.

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Over the past 18 months the business has lost 40% of its turnover as its competitors stepped in to sweep up the jewellery retailers that decided to leave Brown & Newirth.

This wave of customer dissatisfaction was not the only trouble brewing at Brown & Newirth. As part of beleaguered jewellery group Abbeycrest Ltd, the subsidiary was being tainted by the financial failures of its parent company.

Abbeycrest had been in trouble for a number of years before filing for administration in February this year, and had long been playing a game of catch up with its financial backers before finally conceding defeat after a last-ditch attempt to raise funds by selling off its Thailand division failed.

While Brown & Newirth’s business had been in decline in the months before the administration, it had still been delivering a solid performance, unlike the main Abbeycrest business, so when the group hit the buffers it was no surprise that Brown & Newirth was immediately snapped up.

The manufacturing business and its assets were bought by Chrysus Trading, a Manchester-based investment advisor owned by entrepreneur Richard Hughes. Chrysus pumped £300,000 into Brown & Newirth and opened up shares in the business to the management team, which led to sales director John Ball and commercial director Sarah Robinson buying into the company. The new management team were initially trading under the name Chrysus Trading but as Professional Jeweller went to press it was in the process of reverting back to Brown & Newirth Ltd.

With the new management comes a new direction for Brown & Newirth, one designed to shatter the complacency that had hurt the business and get it back on track. Much of this change has been led by Ball, who joined the company in July after a stint working for watch and jewellery distributor DMJ and before that had spent seven years at jewellery company CW Sellors.

His strategy for Brown & Newirth, which he started to implement as soon as he joined the business, is not a complex manoeuvre. Instead it has simply been about rebuilding relationships that had fallen by the wayside when Brown & Newirth lost its way.

“When I came here we were on a trajectory of losing 40% of our turnover due to mismanagement of accounts,” explains Ball. “We had stopped talking to our customers, so the first thing we had to do was talk to our key accounts.”

During his career Ball has become a well-known face in the jewellery industry and has used this network of contacts and good relationships to bring retailers back onboard with Brown & Newirth. He has been constantly travelling in the months since taking on the directorship with the company, deploying a nationwide charm offensive to rebuild broken relationships.

Ball’s other strategy has been to reassess the pricing levels at the manufacturer. “Brown & Newirth’s prices were always much higher than the competition but now we’re market competitive,” he says. A major facet of this pricing restructure has been to stagger the prices depending on whether the ring is plain or fancy – something that the previous management had failed to do.

Previously prices were pretty much flat across the board, so Ball has now lowered the prices of plain bands and elevated the prices of rings that require more manpower to create. “My mindset is that if you get the plains business [through competitive prices] you’ll get the added value sales,” he says.

All of Brown & Newirth’s rings – other than a small selection of eternity rings that are highly diamond set – are handmade by its team of craftsmen in Hatfield, near London. Making jewellery in this way on British soil is of course more expensive, but Ball says that the benefits of dealing with a company based in the UK, the quality of its rings and the added selling point that its products are made in Britain make the extra price worth it.

“We’re still not the cheapest and we can’t chase the lowest price points, but we do push the British heritage,” says Ball. When pushed as to whether the Made in Britain tagline is enough to upsell a customer to a more expensive ring, Ball becomes pensive and retorts that it does, but only when combined with other factors. “Only about 4% [of consumers] care if it is made in Britain straight off or that we have a Union Jack on our branding,” he says. “But when you’ve got the service right, the quality right and the price right, then that’s when they care. And the trade certainly care more than they did three or four years ago as the value for money you get using overseas is not as good as you might think and it’s certainly not as flexible as working with a British-based company.”

This trio of attributes is not only important for Brown & Newirth to deliver to consumers, it is also vital that these three columns on which he is building Brown & Newirth are communicated to its retail customers and recent results would suggest that his efforts are starting to bear fruit as the business starts to turn a corner.

While Ball is not keen on self praise, a brief conversation with former Abbeycrest chief executive Simon Ashton – who is now acting as an adviser to Chrysus – about figures and when exactly Brown & Newirth’s trajectory stopped freefalling and began to rise again leads to the assumption that Ball has been a driving force.

When asked to pinpoint the moment of turnaround Ashton turns to Ball and asks “when was it you started?”. The tone is lighthearted but Ashton is clearly serious and goes on to say that the order book started to recover as soon as Ball arrived, but adds that it is only this month that the money will really start to hit the bank.

“I knew that it was building as I kept getting a lot of promises, but the real point of inflection was February,” says Ball. “I didn’t think we’d be in quite so good a position as we are right now.”

While Ball is keen to make out that his strategy and approach to getting Brown & Newirth back on track is a simple one, it is obvious from the number of hours he works and the miles he is clocking up in his company car that even though he is sticking to getting the basics right, it is a hard slog.

But the results speak for themselves; as well as winning back lost customers Brown & Newirth has also secured new business at both the independent and multiple retailer levels.

As well as recovering from a management style that lost Brown & Newirth business, the manufacturer has also had to deal with the process of going into administration and the loss of confidence that this could have brought, although this is a theory that Ball shakes off. He believes that the association with Abbeycrest or the question over the future of the company because of the financial trouble it was in was not responsible for the decline in sales or the subsequent increase since the management buyout.

Regardless of how the administration process made retailers feel, it has certainly put pressure on the manufacturer’s relationships with its suppliers in the jewellery trade as many were owed money by the company when it folded. But here, Ball’s charm offensive has worked wonders again. He claims that Brown & Newirth has “not lost one relationship” with a jewellery industry supplier as a result of the administration process and reveals the company is continuing to work with all of its previous suppliers, with some even reverting to credit terms already.

Brown & Newirth is in a better financial position than it expected to be at this stage in its recovery with a solid order book that means up to 4,000 rings can be travelling through the workshops each month. Ashton has plotted for the business to hit a turnover of £15 million by year three – 2012 being year one – and it is not a pie-in-the-sky figure judging by the current turnover of the business, which Brown & Newirth asked not to be published.

But as we mentioned at the opening of this article, complacency is a cancer for businesses and it is not an illness that Brown & Newirth plans to fall victim to again. Now that the basic foundations of the business have been put in place it is starting to push forward.

Brown & Newirth prides itself on the high quality of its products and the fact that a lot of work at its factory is done by hand, but that does not stop it looking into new technology. The company has recently installed some state-of-the-art laser engraving equipment that allows it to carry out complex engraving work such as engraving photographs onto metal. It is also looking into 3D laser engraving and into the possibility of working with ceramics.

“There is a huge amount we still do with our hands but we also want to be market leader in technology,” says Ball.

A website is scheduled for launch in the coming weeks that will give retailers access to Brown & Newirth’s entire range with live prices. The website can also be used by retailers as a tool for selling to consumers as the prices shown on the screen can be modified depending on the retailer’s markup to show final RRPs to shoppers. The company is also ploughing into a market that it has never really focused on before, despite being a wedding ring specialist – engagement rings. While it claims to control about 4% of the UK’s highly fragmented wedding ring market, its market share for engagement rings is much smaller and does not even account for a single percentage point; something that Brown & Newirth plans to change.

Other changes afoot include fresh point of sale material and display boxes and a new warranty card that Ball describes as “the biggest reason we shouldn’t lose out on any branded sales”. The card is given free to any consumer that buys a Brown & Newirth ring and it translates into three refinishes, one resize and one engraving. This strategy will not only give added value to consumers it should please retailers too as this will mean getting customers back in the shop to take advantage of the free servicing.

At a time when Britain is embracing homegrown talent – the mood for this once again highlighted this year with the advent of the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, following on from last year’s love affair with Kate and Wills – it is an ideal moment for Brown & Newirth to be relaunching as a reinvigorated company that still has British manufacturing at its heart. While times may well have been tough for the company as it has struggled to inspire confidence after a low few years, the business truly seems to have turned a corner now.

This article was taken from the April 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To view a digital version of this issue online click here.

 

 

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