Q&A: Charles Burns on The Apprentice and his business plan

Charles Burns

It’s been one week since the nation watched Lord Sugar fire Charles Burns from The Apprentice, but the jewellery mogul is very confident his business will success without the British business magnate’s investment.

Here, Professional Jeweller catches up with Charles Burns to see why he entered the show, what he thought of his performance, and what business he was hoping to pitch to Lord Sugar…

Congratulations on being a contestant on The Apprentice, why did you apply to be on the show?

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Two reasons really. I have always been a fan of the show, I’ve watched it for 12 years now, and being the kind of entrepreneurial guy from selling sweets on the school bus, to anywhere I could find to make some money I would always try my hardest, and I suppose on the one hand I thought as everyone thinks, I can do better than these guys and girls, so I applied, and also I had a really good business idea that requires some investment, so it was a twofold thing.

How did you find the experience?

I really did enjoy the experience. It was difficult at first, I had just literally got married and moved into a new house in the last two months, so that was quite challenging, but meeting people from different kind of walks of life, different industries, and working with them, was interesting. And the challenge being that you are team mates one minute and then competing the next, so that throws up some interesting situations. And the tasks themselves are generally very interesting, they are kind of way outside of things I would do on a day to day basis, particularly grooming dogs and picking up dog poop. You learn a lot about yourself. You learn what you are good at compared to other people, and you realise maybe you were not as good as you thought you were, and those sort of things.

Have you watched the show back?

Yeah of course. One of the things people don’t realise is that I and the other candidates haven’t seen the show until it airs on TV. Obviously we have done the task, but as to what they will show is completely unknown to us until we watch it live. And when you think about how you’ve got a week’s worth of filming, and it is only showing half an hour of the task and half an hour of the boardroom, what you are seeing via what actually happened is somewhat different because they can’t get everything in that you have done. It is intriguing to me to watch it as a view.

How did you feel about how you were presented?

Generally, it is what it is. The thing which, now looking back on, I realise is that if you look at the last task where I got fired, whereas in normal business terms you would have two people working with you that are doing a really good job and you would let them do the job and let them carry on, in this process if you end up in the loosing team and you are project managing, you get accused of not doing enough, but in the real word that wouldn’t be the case. You would say, ‘actually no, you have delegated the right people and they did a good job and that’s good leadership. However, in The Apprentice, you need to be more communicative and say, ‘no I am doing this, I am doing that’. So for instance in the week I won, I wouldn’t say I did that purposely, I was trying to help the team out, but people took that the wrong way, so I stepped back a bit and almost didn’t take enough of those key roles, or I call them ‘hero moments’ – the things that will be shown in TV and come up in the boardroom, I didn’t have enough of those kind of moments, and the problem is when you get into the boardroom, if you have to have enough to stand behind and say, ‘this is what I actually did’. You are doing plenty of things, you are not sitting around doing nothing – but if you had more of a contributory input you would be delivering a pitch, or highlighting a sale you achieved.

What did you plan to do with Lord Sugar’s investment?

My family business up until a few years ago had around nine or ten stores, all the way from our flagship store which is still going today called Arthur Kays in the centre of Manchester, and that is 120 years old this year and that store is generally your pre-owned jewellery and watches, Rolex, and that calibre, to a store in Cheshire Oaks which was very Claire Accessories, so very thinly spread, and as with most businesses, particularly in the jewellery trade, cash flow is a massive problem, and basically when I came into the business to help kind of turn it around, one of the things I noticed is that cash flow is really critical, especially in the more traditional jewellers, and I realised there is a marketplace at the minute where your average – I wouldn’t call them investor, but average person – is trying to save up for a property, or they just have a few thousand pounds spare, they are earning very little interest, and you’ve got these businesses that could really do with financing, and if you could somehow bring them together and get both people to win, there would be a business there. And that’s kind of what the idea is. So the idea is you get, whether it be £100 people with a thousand pounds or a few people with a lot of money, and I say to those investors, or those savers, rather than getting poor returns in your bank account, why don’t I give you 10% return over the year and all of the money is kept within my fund as it were, and then use that money and go into the marketplace with my contacts and my understanding and buy watches – Rolex, Cartier, Omega – where the pre-owned is on you at good prices, and then confine those into carefully chosen retailers in different areas. As a bite size, TV-worthy explanation – I would say it is like a hedge fund for luxury watches – which it kind of is but it kind of isn’t at the same time. I am quite uniquely placed because I understand the problems independent jewellers have and I also understand what the investors are looking for. I am now looking for independent retailers across the UK who are interested in the idea of stocking high quality watch brands, through this concept.

 

In effect, the scheme, which Charles Burns stresses is perfectly legal, is designed to allow him to buy up huge volumes of brand new but unsold luxury watches using other people’s money from dealers and retailers across Europe. He will then’ place’ those watches with retailers in the UK. These retailers will not need to pay for the stock up-front, but only when they sell the watches.

Burns says the retailers will retain around 7% of the sale price for each watch.

Pressed by our sister publication WatchPro on the ethics of his plan, Mr Burns said: “It is completely legal. There is a highly liquid market for Rolexes in places like Italy, Greece and Spain and Rolex turns a blind eye. They make absurd margins, so this is fair game,” he said.

 

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