Four years after buying his family business Stoner is making his mark.
When Jonathan Stoner took over his family business four years ago, he didn’t just inherit it, he bought it from his father, a move designed to make him work harder. Now with new plans afoot, he speaks with Kathryn Bishop about developing the Phillip Stoner chain.
Phillip Stoner’s main Leeds’ store sits comfortably in a beautifully maintained Victorian arcade, home to high-end fashion boutiques and shoppers sipping skinny lattes as they talk through their latest designer purchases.
But behind the diamonds that glitter in the store’s ceiling-high glass windows something is stirring, because this Northeast jewellery retail chain is undergoing a makeover, thanks to its dynamic managing director Jonathan Stoner.
Four years ago Stoner took over the company’s retail chain from his father Phillip, including a store in Halifax and two locations in Leeds, as well as a workshop and full head office.
But this was not a straightforward case of inheritance, as Stoner took it upon himself to buy the company rather than simply being handed the keys.
“I’ve been involved in the business since I was 16 years old and started here as an apprentice with dad,” explains Stoner. “I spent about five or six years on the bench, studied gemmology and diamond grading, moved into the retail side, then a management position and then after becoming a director I took the company over.”
But why purchase? “I think to myself would I be doing what I’m doing now if it was handed to me? Probably not, I wouldn’t have had the drive. When I bought the business that was a huge commitment, buying from my father, but it was a decision I made because sometimes I think when you inherit a business or it’s passed on, I’m not sure if you always appreciate it as much but when it’s your own money the financial commitment really helps drive you.”
Stoner says that he put everything on the line to take over the company, but was lucky as at the time “the banks were still talking,” but says the shop opened just as the recession began which has spurred him to work even harder. He is now on the shopfloor every Saturday, available for staff to call seven days a week and says “I want to be there, in the store, I want to feel everything”.
Last year, Stoner opened a store in Manchester’s Spinningfields, a district boasting luxury stores such as Mulberry and Emporio Armani. In a space with high glass frontage, clean lines, a modern interior and sharp campaign imagery, the look was sharp and a departure from the retailer’s other stores. Stoner says this look is set to be emulated across the Victoria Quarter shop in Leeds, but this is not a decision that has been taken lightly.
“We’d been going more than 30 years with Halifax, our oldest store space,” he explains. “We noticed that the Halifax lease was coming to an end and at the same time the unit next door to us here in Leeds became available and suddenly I had a decision to make.”
Stoner questioned whether or not to make the investment but found that the location next door had a basement space available to develop, which he realised would be perfect for the workshop. “I realised I could knock through into [the Leeds arcade store], meaning I could bring the workshop over from Halifax and have everything housed here in Leeds,” he explains.
But for Stoner, with the Halifax store and the head office “basically the heartbeat of the business”, it was also a choice that would edit the company’s history. “It was a big decision to let Halifax go but my thinking was if I could bring all of the strongest aspects of the business into the strongest location, it seemed the right move to do.”
The benefits, Stoner argues, include having the jewellery workshop technicians and makers on site, meaning they are there to talk customers through the technicalities of a design, can resize a ring or reset a diamond while the customer waits. “If you have a couple browsing during the day we can offer to get that ring on her finger the same day,” says Stoner. “People find it really, really interesting that they can be involved in the process, choosing stones, setting and if need be they can watch the ring being made.”
With the Halifax lease sold to a different jewellery retailer, and a weight off Stoner’s mind – he dubs it the best decision he’s ever made – his focus is now very much on the Leeds’ expansion. Work is due to begin this month and should be finished by September, meaning the store will have a grace period before the Christmas rush should anything need to be altered or attended to.
“These changes will allow the Phillip Stoner branding to become much stronger with the same lifestyle images used in the Manchester store and a focus on us as a brand. There won’t be a sea of jewellery in the windows, more of a waterfall-style display, while our pricing will offer more information.”
Four or so years ago the company made a decision to sell only D colour diamonds, something that Stoner says it has had to readdress as the economy has changed.
Presently about 95% of the retailers’ diamond rings are set with certified stones, with certificates from the GIA or IGI. “You pay a bit more for it but the way the diamond market is going the stones are not getting cheaper and by having good quality, certificated stones it is added value and peace of mind for a shopper. It really makes a difference to the theatre of selling a diamond if you can present a certificate too.”
While the majority of Phillip Stoner’s product is in-house-made diamond and gemstone jewellery it also sells collections from Ti Sento and Chimento, and has an edited selection of second-hand Rolex watches, but in the main avoids working with large brands. This has been a conscious decision by Stoner, who says he hopes to retain the company’s independence and ability to push in different routes, without brands dictating the amount of window or shop space they have.
But September’s relaunch will bring new brands to the store, with the arrival of jewellery from local fine jeweller Andrew Geoghegan and fashion-led silver ranges from Rachel Galley.
“It’s a fantastic PR story,” says Stoner, in reference to the arrival of Geoghegan’s colourful jewellery collections. “There’s a story between a Leeds independent jeweller working with a Leeds designer so we’ll tie it all together with an evening showcase party for the new store for Andrew and for Rachel’s work, which we selected to add some fun to what we’re doing.”
The retailer is also one of a handful of leading UK independents to work with the Portfolio of Fine Diamonds initiative, as reported on in last month’s Professional Jeweller magazine. This has allowed Stoner to have some varying price points in his collection and has also paved the way for a range of new marketing initiatives that includes an advert running on the back of three buses driving around Leeds.
“It’s subliminal marketing but people are seeing our adverts as they step off the train in the station, or while they walking or driving and the bus in front of them,” explains Stoner. “And we get feedback from it, people come in and say ‘Oh I heard your advert on the radio’, and the website hits also jump when we run the campaigns.”
Though Stoner questioned whether buses and luxury diamond jewellery are aligned, he’s been able to select the routes that the advert appears on, tailoring it to city clientele and those who are shopping and working in central Leeds, rather than those sat on the bus itself. “We always just try to do things a bit different rather than just putting an advert in Cheshire Life magazine, for example.”
Looking ahead Stoner is ready to continue the success the company enjoyed in H1 this year. It is already up 30% on last year, something Stoner says he’d be “chuffed to bits” to maintain through the Christmas period.
“We’ve got some big figures ahead to do, but the year so far has been great and we have some exciting new brands and a different look so it will have an effect and create interest,” he says. “If you know business and know can make one pound into two then you don’t have to know everything about jewellery, just get the fundamentals right.”
Name-checking sources of inspiration as Keith Gill of Robert Gatward and Kyron Keogh and Grant Mitchell of ROX, Stoner says it is the enthusiasm for the business that drives a company forward. And being in as diverse and evolving city as Leeds has no doubt inspired Stoner to push things forward; only recently was the city selected by Prestons of Bolton for the opening of its franchised standalone Rolex boutique, which is the first outside of London in the UK.
“Leeds is a great place,” says Stoner. “Outside London you have Manchester and Leeds as the big cities and it’s still all evolving and building. I often think about what else I’d like to do here and each year for the past three years I’ve thought ‘no more’ but I’ve ended up doing something. I already have agents talking to me about other places and opportunities and I’ll certainly keep an eye out, if the right deal or location came along.”
While Stoner recognises that the recession has not been easy for many businesses, he puts Phillip Stoner’s ability to adapt down to hard work and seizing opportunities, even when they have been harder to get. “We still have a long way to go,” he says. “We’ve only been here four years and other [jewellers] nearby have been here 70 years, so it will still take some time.”
But, as he surveys the comfortable lounge space in the upstairs of the Leeds’ store, Stoner appears a man who, while proud of his moves to date, is always ready for that next big project. “I can’t just stand still,” he smiles.
This article was taken from the August 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To see a digital version of the issue click here.