BenchPro meets Beaulagh Brooks, director of education at jewellery-making hub Centrepunch, to discover her plans for instilling confidence in new graduates and supporting the jewellery trade from the ground up.
Having watched countless students come and go during her 20-year tenure as a higher education jewellery and silversmithing lecturer, Beaulagh Brooks began to lament the lack of support for graduates, who were somehow expected to leave the relatively safe confines of university and make it in the jewellery industry single-handedly.
Determined to make a difference, Brooks and her husband Clive launched a concept company in 2012, designed to offer continual professional development, training, mentoring and support to emerging designer-makers and established practitioners.
It wasn’t until the Easter of 2013, after months of branding and development, that Brooks’ concept of a jewellery hub turned into Centrepunch, with its own dedicated workshop space in West Norwood, South London.
“I am passionate about supporting the industry from the ground up,” explains Brooks, while surrounded by the noise of bench work in-progress. “I have seen many talented graduates get to the end of their studies, ready to launch what could be the next big thing, only to discover there are very few affordable support services out there for them. Many just fell by the wayside.”
SHAKE IT OFF
As director of education at Centrepunch, Brooks believes the hardest thing is shaking graduates out of their ingrained student mind-sets, and reminding those who come through it’s doors that it is not an extension of their studies. “The minute new members sign up they have to come for an initial safety induction, but we’re very clear that this is simply because they are expected to operate autonomously, develop their own brand, and throw off that whole student cloak they’ve carried for at least three maybe four years on their undergraduate or even postgraduate courses.”
To ensure members – especially new graduates – arrive with the right attitude, Brooks admits she’s very careful with the terminology used on a day-to-day basis. “For example, we don’t have tutorials, but we do offer mentoring sessions and services that are very business focused.”
Brooks admits that Centrepunch’s main aim is to instil confidence; readily accepting that her four walls are only likely to offer a temporary home for designer-makers who naturally aspire to have their own personal studio space. Even though it’s sad to see someone go, Brooks takes this as a sign that the centre is achieving its aim of preparing industry-ready jewellers.
There are three tiers to the Centrepunch business model that go beyond its basic function as a workspace for practitioners: training, mentoring and support.
The training arm of the enterprise consists of short courses, masterclasses and bespoke sessions across areas such as creative hammerwork, stone setting, etching and enamelling. “Fundamentally, we offer continual professional development and training, giving members the chance to polish up their skills and develop new ones,” explains Brooks. “This training is open to anyone; whether they are new to the industry, graduates or professionals.”
Mentoring, he second strand to the business, includes portfolio surgeries, business advice, accounting tips and more general careers advice. Finally, the support element incorporates bench space and studio space that can be rented on a daily or monthly basis from £25 and £150 respectively.
Additionally, Brooks uses her extensive network of industry contacts to make useful introductions, enabling conversations to take place beyond her knowledge base, and beyond the walls of Centrepunch, in areas like design licensing, brand management and social media.
Brooks admits that her current prices are likely to increase, but explains she will continue to ensure her fees are affordable so members can grow their businesses. “There is nothing in particular that helps to keep our costs down. It’s just our desire to not want to raise prices. We are not in this just to raise money on the back of individuals, obviously we have bills, costs and salaries to pay but we’re not in the business of being greedy.”
Despite its infancy as a company, Centrepunch has made strides in developing a bursary scheme for young graduates with the support of Lambeth Borough Council. Officially launched in April 2014, the initiative has welcomed 10 emerging designer-makers who will benefit from their own dedicated bench space, as well as training courses, including a five-week business module taught by Judy Head, founder of Hatton Garden-based marketing company Head Creative.
“Lambeth Borough Council’s main caveat was to ensure we were bringing new business to the borough, which is exactly what we’ve done,” adds Brooks. “The council has a fund of money put aside to develop projects that benefit the community. We made a point of getting to know local councillors when we were looking at purchasing the [Centrepunch] space, and we saw that Lambeth has a progressive attitude to art and design initiatives.”
This relationship has led to a fully-funded scheme that teaches practitioners things they’re rarely taught at university, such as how to develop a business plan, conduct market research and ensure a viable cash flow projection. “It is not just a case of ‘here’s a bench go and make some stuff to sell’; we want them to go out of this [bursary] scheme feeling ready to be the director of their own brands.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
“Our location in West Norwood definitely has a different vibe,” Brooks muses, as she glances out of Centrepunch’s wide windows and onto the leafy green beyond. This relaxed atmosphere comes with its challenges, however, as it is removed from the central London crackle of activity. She continues: “It takes 10 minutes on the bus from Brixton station to reach us. Usually when people visit they begin to realise we’re not in the middle of nowhere, and that the extra minutes on their journey are worth it.” Encouraging people to try the route, rather than analyse it on a London tube map, is something Brooks works hard to achieve, but she is optimistic that Centrepunch’s appeal will win out on the transport-phobes.
Just like Centrepunch’s members, Brooks is in charge of her own start-up business that needs constant monitoring, financial planning and management. Fortunately, Brooks has an eye on the future and hopes to see franchised Centrepunch spaces, where individuals or groups run their own fully-branded operations, in the next five to seven years.
Joking that she wants Centrepunch to be like the “Costa Coffee of jewellery training”, Brooks explains: “It may well be that there are independent hubs out there already who perhaps aren’t getting the exposure they deserve. Perhaps buying into a brand where they can share resources, synonymous with what we’re doing, is the way forward for them.”
In terms of numbers, Brooks admits membership has been in “fits and starts”, with graduates tending to sign-up in the autumn months after a restful summer post-graduation. “We have already signed-up 12 new members in the past few weeks, but we can go the entire summer and only see 12 people sign up to access the space.”
With this in mind, have the realities of the UK jewellery trade put a dampener on Brooks’ plans for a franchise-model business? “We’ve definitely doubled numbers in the past year, so we are hoping things will continue to pick up,” she replies optimistically. “But we are never at a point where we are at capacity, so there is room for more people to join. It might be that there isn’t demand for more centres like this in the next few years, it might take 10 years.”
As a start-up business aiming to help other start-up businesses, it’s clear Centrepunch isn’t necessarily leading a journey towards success but taking the same journey with its members. As Brooks admits, finding out what the industry wants and needs is her top priority, and for this reason she’s always ready to pick up the phone, concluding: “We are very happy to hear from people who have questions or need advice…We will never charge for the answer.”
This feature was taken from the second issue of BenchPro magazine. To read the issue in full online following the November issue of Professional Jeweller, click here.