How COO Victoria McKay is changing the face of the organisation.
London Diamond Bourse has long been shrouded in mystery, operating behind the necessary closed doors and security required by its members. The arrival of Victoria McKay, its recently-promoted chief operating officer, is helping to change the face of the Bourse, promoting its relevance and the services it provides for the UK jewellery industry.
Back in the 1940s, a group of diamond merchants that fled Belgium during its Nazi invasion found themselves in London, some managing to bring their diamond stock with them, with tales of stones that had been sewn into the very garments they had on their backs in order to carry them safely across borders.
These gentlemen assembled in what was then Mrs Cohen’s Cafe on the corner Greville Street in Hatton Garden; no grand location or highly secure building, but there, as a group, they decided to form a diamond trading floor in London. And so the London Diamond Bourse was born.
Today, some 74 years later, the London Diamond Bourse still operates in Hatton Garden, but has established a full-time trading floor with the much-respected Harry Levy at the helm as president.
For many of those working in the industry, the functions and services of the Bourse remain somewhat mysterious. The traditions, close family ties and quiet working practices of its members paint a picture of a quaint old boys club, where membership comes through recommendation with a code of morals and values that dictate business practices. Today, the latter remains exact, but the London Diamond Bourse is entering a new era, with internal growth and mounting relevance for today’s industry, thanks due to the first chief operating officer in its history, Victoria McKay.
ONE DAY IN OCTOBER
In October 2012, McKay accepted the role of operations manager at the London Diamond Bourse, stepping into a business unlike anywhere she had worked before. “Back then, the Bourse had a very closed-door policy that I now understand was due to the stringent requirements to join, coupled with the need to protect the members’ security,” McKay says, recalling her first impressions of the Bourse. “There was little communication with the media or the industry in general and the Bourse members were happy to rely on trusted, long-standing members to sustain the organisation.”
McKay describes falling into a world of tradition that she had not expected, with quirks of the business that she had to get to know – and fast. Firstly, there was the Bourse’s trading floor. Where you might imagine lots of shouting, phones ringing and bidding for stones, the reality was a hushed room of up to fifty people who, while diverse, acted as a solid community.
“They were friendly but inquisitive and the people I came across took me by surprise,” McKay says. “My previous firm had a culture so different. In the Bourse no one shouted about the last deal, there was a flat structure and a board made up of volunteers who took no payment for the work they do.” McKay says it was refreshing to be working for an organisation that provided a service to the industry but charged as little as possible for it, and did not expect her to deliver dividends to a board or shareholders.
One of McKay’s first tasks was to address how the Bourse was viewed by the wider industry. “Outside the Bourse, I was met by many perceptions of what it did, but there didn’t seem to be a clear message in the public or industry domain of who we are and what we stand for,” she recalls. This surprised McKay, who admits that the situation was not helped by the Bourse being one step behind in terms of technology and interaction with the public, especially in the digital realm. “The Bourse’s Council of Management recognised that we had some catching up to do with the modern world in order to reveal who we are and how integral we are to the industry,” she explains.
One day, McKay came across a large file of paperwork that only confirmed just what the Bourse does – or could do – for the UK industry. The papers in question related to the Bourse’s status as a Foreign Commonwealth Office approved trade organisation, a title that means the Bourse is recognised as a regulator and mouthpiece of the diamond trade in the UK.
“Even though we had our humble beginnings as a private members club for diamond dealers, the Bourse had quietly evolved yet it had not used its voice of marketed this information at all; the Bourse had remained quietly in the background and never shouted about the credentials of the organisation,” she explains. “I suddenly realised that we are to the UK diamond industry what the National Association of Estate Agents is to the property industry or the Financial Conduct Authority to the financial sector.”
Indeed, the Bourse is essentially a go-to for anyone seeking diamonds in the UK jewellery industry, whether a large company or a small designer. It is the only accredited trade organisation for the UK diamond trade and, through its traditions and global standing, provides customers with the assurance that buying a stone or jewellery from a member of the London Diamond Bourse means that they are purchasing goods from a vetted professional who adheres to the Kimberley Process and is accountable to the industry for their business dealings and product.
Having also tasked herself with bringing more members to the organisation, McKay realised that it was time to go back to basics and modernise the most fundamental elements of the organisation. “If I had wanted to maintain the status quo of the Bourse I could have done so by maintaining the existing system” she says. “But the immediate needs of the Bourse were fairly simple.”
WORKING FOR THE MEMBERS
Starting from scratch, McKay set about getting to know the members of the London Diamond Bourse, treating every enquiry and every interaction as a learning experience until she felt it was time to discuss with Levy the route in which he wanted the Bourse to head.
Under the guidance of the Council of Management and the Bourse’s executive committee, McKay set to changing the very way in which the organisation is run – no mean feat, having stepped into the shoes of a predecessor who had held the role of 30 years. Beginning with changes such as computerising the Bourse’s records, McKay has also improved the organisation’s tech capabilities, not only within its infrastructure but also in its communications with its members, providing digital updates that also reach the worldwide diamond industry, jewellers and the trade press.
McKay has also established dedicated London Diamond Bourse email addresses for members, something she believes will help to communicate trust, uniformity and modernity.
“The long term aim of this is to provide our members with a valuable service that helps them to run their business and be more profitable because they are a member of the Bourse,” she says.
Then there is marketing, something that is so essential to jewellery businesses today but near-fresh territory for the Bourse. This year will be dedicated to building brand awareness for the organisation and has involved the unveiling of a new website in January 2014 under the guidance of McKay.
The remainder of the year will also bring about an entirely new initiative for the Bourse – an online diamond trading platform. Members will be able to list the type of stones they have in stock, and can trade directly with clients all over the world, with live updates of availability provided on screen.
Thereafter, the Bourse will begin a process of handpicking industry members that it would like to invite to apply to be part of the organisation, who it feels would benefit from being members of the Bourse.
COMING INTO THE FOLD
Along with the modernisation of the Bourse’s daily functions, its management has also been refreshed. McKay was promoted to chief operating officer in January this year, becoming not only the first COO, but the first female to hold a senior role within the London organisation.
“In the earlier months of my arrival, Harry Levy and I had sat in his office where he told me that he would like to see the Bourse as the trade epicentre of the UK,” she explains. “His aspiration for the Bourse was to be able to take on a C-level executive and expand the Bourse to the benefit of the members. For me, this appealed to the romantic notion that I would work as hard as I could to help make that happen, but I didn’t think it would be me that would end up as chief operating officer.”
The Council of Management’s decision to promote McKay to chief operating officer was a unanimous one. “I was touched to find out that it was a unanimous board decision and accepted without a second thought,” she smiles. “The staff have been fantastic at the Bourse [since my arrival] and they have coped brilliantly with not only getting used to me, but all the new things I ask of them. As a result, we have achieved about five years of progress in 15 months.”
McKay is not the only new body at the Bourse; there are plans to build its membership in 2014 and beyond. While potential members will have to undergo concrete checks with regards to their suitability – and are evaluated by all current members before being accepted into the Bourse – the organisation is hoping to increase and edit its member selection by introducing two new categories for members: associate and affiliate members.
These memberships will allow jewellery designers, company heads or retailers nationwide to join the Bourse and be in the loop with the developments taking place in the diamond industry, with a specified amount of access to the Bourse without coming onto the trading floor itself. “If the applicant can prove they are established and of good standing, working in a directly diamond-related field we will consider their application,” McKay explains. “Beyond this, the wider industry will have the benefit that they are dealing with someone who has subscribed to a code of conduct, which will mean that their clients will know that they have integrity and knowledge about the products sold, and that all deals are done honestly during and after any sale made. This can only enhance sales.”
For McKay, the Bourse is no longer about being behind closed doors and dealing quietly with the needs of the industry, instead she believes now is its time to sparkle and show the wider industry that, 74 years since it was founded, the London Diamond Bourse is more relevant than ever in serving the UK diamond and jewellery trade.
This feature was taken from the March issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.