Sophie Fulford on taking over Winsor Bishop

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One MD’s story of taking over the family jewellery business.

Winsor Bishop in Norwich has gone through several reincarnations in its 175-year history and it is time for another as managing director Sophie Fulford steps up to take the helm. She speaks to Kathryn Bishop about the challenges she’s faced as she takes over the family business.

Winsor Bishop is a family-run jeweller that opened in 1834 as Pegler Brothers, and 175 years later it is still going strong thanks to the drive of current owners, the Croyden family. Robert Croyden took over the business under its new name Winsor Bishop 11 years ago, but in March the industry was shocked to learn that the respected businessman had passed away. While the loss was a devastating blow for the family and the company, it was not unexpected. Croyden knew he was ill and had begun to plan a succession, training up daughter Sophie Fulford to take over the family business.

When Fulford received the call from a business adviser, on behalf of her father, to ask whether she would move back to Norwich and join the business, she was enjoying a busy life outside of the jewellery industry as a luxury real estate executive and was less than eager to give it up on a whim. Retail was not a lifestyle unknown to Fulford – “I was giftwrapping in the shop at the age of eight helping out my Dad” – but it was one that she had not chosen to follow. Instead she had first moved to Newcastle to study psychology at university before moving to London to work for Monster.com and then housing group Hamptons International.

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“By 26 I had my own team and felt as though my career was getting somewhere,” she explains. “My dad had always talked about succession planning but at that time I hadn’t thought about joining the family business. I talked to my housemates and they said ‘this is your chance to get involved with the family, it’s a big opportunity’, so after some thought I packed my belongings and closed the door on my house in London.”

That winter Fulford worked on the shop floor at Winsor Bishop and describes the steep learning curve that comes with joining the business at the bottom of the ladder. “I arrived not knowing anyone and with zero knowledge about jewellery. I was working the Christmas shift from October to December, cleaning and polishing jewellery, listening and watching,” she explains.

By doing the more mundane jobs and shadowing others it allowed Fulford to grasp the basics and get a real insight into the business from an outsider’s perspective. “I learned that 99% of the people walking through your door are here because they are celebrating something and I realised that although every other industry says it, jewellery really is very personal,” she says.

As time passed, Fulford felt happy with her decision and started to consider her role more seriously. There was a necessity to build up her knowledge of jewellery quickly, but fully, so she went overseas to study at the Gemological Institute of America in California and spent a year completing its business management course.

On her return, Fulford went straight to Belfast to work at Lunns Jewellers for nine months. “My dad organised my time there with Peter Lunn, who opened his doors to me and said ‘you are here to learn’.”

It was Christmas, and she was thrown in at the deep end. “Lunns was open until 10pm most nights for six weeks up to Christmas. I was fully exposed, I got integrated into management and I wrote an eight-page business plan to take back to Winsor Bishop where I would return to be an associate director.”

Arriving in Norwich, flying high with her new business plan in hand, she was quickly grounded by her father. “Dad said to me ‘it’s far too detailed, any business plan should be written on the back of a fag packet – what you do now, what you want to do and how you’ll do it’. I came into the shop ready to make some changes but there was a feeling of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

But as Fulford has moved up from associate director to managing director, this has not been a philosophy she has chosen to keep and she set about tackling some difficult issues.

Firstly, she had to face up to some harsh truths. Winsor Bishop had, in Fulford’s opinion, a reputation for being “posh and stuffy” and it was not an image that was conducive to getting new shoppers through the door.

Fulford brought in a business consultant to carry out a customer survey to identify areas that the store could alter to make it more attractive. “We wanted to attract those who may have never been in here before because they’ve been daunted,” she explains.

Subtle changes were made, such as introducing music to the store to give it a more lively atmosphere, but the major shift was to make the way of working more informal. Today the company is more focused on the time it spends with its customers and Fulford says that her staff have enjoyed becoming a bit more relaxed in their approach to jewellery selling, although their training has actually increased with every member of staff being sent on JET training courses, even the security staff.

“We had to come out of our ways of selling, which were quite traditional. The change has been incredible and there is a lot of positive energy now.”

Not only is there a lot of new energy, the business has grown phenomenally since Fulford has taken over. In September last year Winsor Bishop sealed a deal to renovate the space next to its long-term premises, and today the shop spans from 39 to 43 London Street in Norwich, and Fulford strongly believes that it is the destination jewellery store in East Anglia.
With a flurry of achievements, it might seem success has come easily, but Fulford says it has been hard work. “It was an exceptional day for us [to open the extension],” she says. “It is a very important business move; we have had different landlords to deal with, not to mention that the building was a big mess when we first picked it up.”

Fulford says that the expansion – like the culture shift – has been about bringing new clients to the store and changing their perception of the retailer.

Winsor Bishop has also developed additional facets to its business under Fulford’s management. She is the founder of Rent Your Rocks, an innovative online service that allows consumers to rent jewellery for a short period of time, which has proved popular with brides. The venture has been featured in magazines including Vogue, Elle and InStyle and TV shows The X Factor and Gok’s Fashion Fix.

The Croydens also ran their own restaurant, Bishops, a sister project to the retail stores, which was sold in a managerial buyout in 2009. Proceeds from the sale were used to open a Pandora shop in the newly built Chapelfield shopping centre, which Fulford says has been a brilliant success.

“The Pandora store opened in November last year, the same week that I gave birth and we signed the deal to expand the premises on London Street,” she says with a look of incredulity.

Today the Pandora shop alone is operating on a turnover of £2.8 million. Fulford recruited her Pandora store manager Jess Whitfield after meeting her at a barbeque. She had a background in fashion and has flourished at the Pandora shop, and is now up for the brand’s store manager of the year gong.

Attracting and retaining quality staff is very important to Fulford and she has gone to great lengths to make Winsor Bishop a progressive place to work. She has ensured that progression is available for her teams by developing mid-level management at both the Pandora and Winsor Bishop stores. Heads of department have been created for jewellery and watches at Winsor Bishop, while individual staff members are each responsible for a different brand within the store, some handling budgets and all becoming ambassadors, training other staff members about their collections.

Winsor Bishop is mystery shopped each month to assess the continuing development of staff, the store and the sales techniques. “We did one recently just before opening the new shop and got a 98%. We will keep doing this, as we always have areas we can improve on.”

Looking ahead, the company is already underway with its Christmas marketing campaign, interestingly choosing not to use any imagery of jewellery to purposely build on Winsor Bishop’s branding instead. The theme for the stores is a mix of soft lilac and rich regal purple with touches of gold and the Christmas marketing is all about this branding. “We want this year to be about the store, our history,” explains Fulford.

For next year, she already has events lined up for the store’s numerous watch brands, including Patek Philippe, Rolex, Panerai and new arrival Hublot.

The company has also looked to emerging design, partnering with the local art college on a window display competition that led to Winsor Bishop coming second out of 38 entries with the help of a local student called Rachel Johnson. “She designed a simple concept for our engagement ring window. There were three wooden slats joined with rope, painted with three phrases: Love Her, Ask Her, Marry Her.”

Though Fulford says she looks forward to working more with students and young designers in the future, she is still tentative about stocking jewellery designers rather than larger, well-known brands. The majority of the fine jewellery the retailer sells is classic and unbranded – three stone diamond rings, sapphires, rubies and pearls. There are fine designs from Mikimoto, Georg Jensen and wedding and signet rings from Birmingham’s Charles Green.

Upstairs in the extended space into number 39, Winsor Bishop has increased its dedication to fashion-led jewellery brands such as Links of London, Missoma and Hoxton London, but Fulford says, despite being approached on a regular basis, there is not yet demand for independent jewellery designers.

“People joke that trends take two years to get up the A11 but I guess it is true in some ways. Rose gold, for example, is just starting to reach here.”

Fulford is a woman with a plan and a desire to make her company the best jeweller in Norwich – and beyond. As we talk, each time a customer enters the store she smiles broadly, says a warm hello and rises from her seat to offer them help if a staff member is not already doing so.

Winsor Bishop has enjoyed a boom in shoppers from overseas, something Fulford says is not only due to an increase in tourism in the city but also simply through people finding the store online and admiring its history, dedication to service and classic British identity.

“We have made a point of employing people with languages as we are starting to get a lot of international business,” she explains. To date, the company has staff who can speak eight languages including Greek, Albanian, Spanish, French, Japanese and Malay. The Asian market has been especially important to Winsor Bishop in recent years, and the company has noticed a rise in shoppers seeking good service and fine products while the pound has been weak.

“We’ve been very fortunate being in Norfolk that we can offer such a competitive and comprehensive range of brands, have 31 members of staff across our stores, have a growing business, an aftercare and repairs service and a legacy of more than 175 years,” says Fulford. “Darwin said those who evolve to be the best are not the strongest, fittest or fastest but those who can adapt to change.” And if there is one thing that Fulford can be proud of, it is her ability to show others that change can be good, exciting and a journey that she and all of Winsor Bishop are on together.

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