One man’s journey from college drop out to jewellery repairs mogul.
Maker Mends boss David Lewis has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, evolving from a college drop-out to the owner of one of Europe’s largest jewellery repairs businesses. He speaks to Rachael Taylor about pushing more aggressively into the market, buying a factory in the Far East and moving into the finished jewellery market.
When David Lewis was fired from his job as an apprentice, the company at which he was serving his time described him as having no interest in the jewellery trade, but 40 years on he runs the UK’s largest jewellery repairs workshop that plays an integral part in keeping the British jewellery trade functioning.
Rather than shy away from his “unsatisfactory” past, Lewis is proud of the day he was sacked and keeps the letter dismissing him in a frame in his office. However, on the day it happened on the 4th of August, 1975, he was less than pleased, as was his father when he returned home to tell him.
The reason for Lewis’s sacking from Hatton Garden jeweller JH Lucas was his lack of attendance at Sir John Cass University during his weekly day release; something that Lewis puts down to a miscommunication.
Day release was a mandatory part of Lewis’ apprenticeship at JH Lucas but the jewellery company which he describes as “very old fashioned” at the time had told him not to take any notice of college, which he interpreted, either through misunderstanding or perhaps a little mischief, as don’t go. Sir John Cass did not take too kindly to this truant attitude and told his employer that “he shows no interest at all in learning the trade”.
Shortly after this he was issued with his dismissal notice, but luckily for Lewis – who was truly devastated at the loss of his apprenticeship – JH Lucas had not followed procedures properly by failing to go through the National Union of Gold and Silver Allied Trades union, allowing Lewis to fight his way back in.
“I didn’t want to be sacked,” remembers Lewis. “I had been doing well at the workshop and when I told my Dad he asked if I wanted to go to the Union, and I said ‘yes, desperately’.”
After discussions JH Lucas not only brought him back into the fold but also put him with a new mentor, someone that Lewis describes as “a wheeler dealer that suited me fine”.
Lewis knuckled down and revelled in the education aspect of his apprenticeship. “It was really useful as they were actually interested in teaching apprentices – I got to spend four weeks making an 18ct gold eagle,” he says.
But at the same time that his jewellery making skill base was improving, his new wheeler dealer mentor had him running errands in his lunch breaks for extra money. “It allowed me to learn about the trade properly and find out where to buy from and get a reputation in the trade,” he says. “As long as you’re a good, honest person you can go a long way in the trade, and once you earn that [reputation] people start to give you diamonds and then you can wheel and deal.”
This taste of entrepreneurship was addictive for Lewis and by the time his apprenticeship finished he was already supplementing his £44 weekly wages with a sideline income of £50 made from making and selling jewellery on the side. “I became obsessed,” admits Lewis.
Realising that he was making decent money from this business part time, Lewis decided to push out on his own and set up his own jewellery repairs workshop – a facet of the business that he says suits his short attention span. He took space at the Clerkenwell Workshops in London – more than he needed as he had a mind even then to expand – and opened up the workshop on September 2, 1979, the day after his apprenticeship with JH Lucas finished.
The next few decades of Lewis’s story are characterised by what he describes as quiet, steady growth. Highlights include his sister Karen joining the business as a travelling rep in 1980, visiting jewellery retailers to introduce them to the outworker services that Lewis’s business – back then named David Lewis Manufacturing Jewellers – could provide; his first crack at multiple retail when the company became a Signet Group regional workshop in 1994; and a move to Southend.
The business then moved out to Essex – Laindon to be precise – where it is still situated today. At this point the business had 70 retailers using its service. Lewis was fairly happy with the size of his business and was certainly not in a position to grow it further alone, but just as fate would happen, along came Tony Stern who would soon become his business partner and help spur the company onto the next level.
Stern owned a gold refinery business and was interested in Lewis’s business model. The pair struck up a partnership in 1998 and with Stern’s financial backing Lewis took over a larger unit that was next door to his previous one and filled it with enough additional staff to increase his wages bill by £12,000 a month instantly. He also changed the name of the business from David Lewis Manufacturing Jewellers to Maker Mends, the name it currently goes by.
With increased capability Maker Mends set about hunting down new business and the first large account that it succeeded in catching was Argos. The deal was for Maker Mends to provide jewellery repairs for 100 of its shops. As the total Maker Mends customer base before this deal totted up to 70 shops, this agreement more than doubled its business in an instant.
The Maker Mends workshop in its current state can handle a huge amount of business. Lewis estimates that it works through 1,000 repairs a day with a customer base of 1,000 retailers and a multi-million pound turnover. It once even managed to restring 14,500 bracelets in 10 days, on top of its regular jobs, for a TV retailer that had been sold the incorrect product and needed a quick rescue plan.
The business works with independent retailers, chains such as Signet, F Hinds and Beaverbrooks, TV shopping channels such as QVC, designer jewellery brands and luxury department stores including Harrods. It is the fact that Maker Mends is providing a service rather than a product that allows it to work with such a diverse customer base, from Argos to Harrods, and the size of its workshop – which Lewis claims is the largest jewellery repairs centre in Europe with 60 full-time members of staff – allows it to take on a huge volume of repairs.
With such a diverse and full order book, and little in the way of direct competitors, you would imagine that Maker Mends would be happy with its lot, but the ever-ambitious Lewis is now embarking on yet another expansion plan.
Maker Mends has been somewhat in the background of the trade until now, working quietly, but now Lewis is pushing his company into the frontline with appearances at trade shows such as the CMJ buyers meeting in March and IJL in September. Lewis says that exhibiting at show is a relatively new concept for Maker Mends but that it is essential to the company’s plan to be “reasonably aggressive about promoting our services”.
It has also joined the CMJ as well as, more recently, the Houlden Group and is hoping to eat up market share that it has not already captured through these associations with the industry’s two buying groups.
“There is no way that a local jeweller has all the skills that they need and we can offer a solution to that,” he says.
As well as a jewellery repairs workshop Maker Mends also has a watch department staffed by a team that can repair both quartz and mechanical watches. Lewis says that the development of this department has sprung more from demand than from his desire to grow it.
“What we intended to do was the simple stuff and leave the mechanical to the old guys,” he explains. “But we couldn’t control that so we had to open up a proper watch department.”
Despite watches being a bit of a side project to the main jewellery repairs business, Lewis does admit that it gives his sales team a strong selling point. “It’s very difficult to go into a shop and say we do ring resizing because everybody does that but they do need watches,” he says.
Despite aggressive expansion plans, Lewis says that there is one area that he would never want to steal business away from, and in fact it is an area that he believes he can’t compete with.
“I don’t like going against craftsmen as you can’t compete with loyalty,” he says. “But if they are retiring then that is different.”
And as for other professional repairs businesses, Lewis claims that there are none in a position to compete as they are not of a scale than makes them a threat to Maker Mends. “I don’t see us as competing with the small guys any more,” he says. “No one is going to risk the investment to compete with us. Take trade shows, for example – for a small company to do a trade show for between £5,000 and £10,000 that might be a quarter of their profits, but we have the budgets to do it.”
While Maker Mends might be the biggest repairs player in the UK, it is starting to move into a territory unknown with the launch of its first unbranded fine jewellery collection.
The move into finished product has been the result of acquiring a factory in the Far East in March 2011. The factory was bought with the idea of creating jewellery to sell into the US market, where Maker Mends has recently set up business, based in the Agoura Hills in California. However, Lewis has since identified a gap in the market for the factory’s products in the UK and it is already in serious discussions with a multiple retailer interested in buying into the range.
The factory that Maker Mends has bought was an existing business and Lewis admits that he was sceptical at first when approached about the deal. “It was a guy from the industry that I was introduced to four years ago and he said that the quality [of the products the factory produced] was amazing but I thought that he was speaking rubbish,” he says. “But when I saw it I was amazed and ended up buying the company from him. We never bought it with the English market in mind.”
But the output of that factory will indeed now be pitched to the UK. While the products that the factory make are precious metals it has created trays of plated brass replicas for retailers to show their customers, so cutting down any initial investment that the shops have to make in the jewellery. Then if a shopper likes what they see and wants to buy the real thing the jewellery can be made to order in five to six weeks
Lewis admits that not all jewellers will warm to the idea of showing brass jewellery, but says that it is an option for those keeping a close eye on cash flow, and for those who want to have the real thing in store the finished products will also be available to buy in.
Lewis has come a long way since being sacked as an apprentice, using his determination and passion for the trade to pull himself up into one of the biggest players in the marker, albeit one that has stayed in the background until now.
The addition of finished product to his empire of repairs is another interesting step in the evolution of Maker Mends, and perhaps won’t be the last radical change that we are likely to see at the business.
As Lewis surmises: “On Dragon’s Den they always ask them what their business plan is, but we haven’t got a clue. We could get a call tomorrow and it could all change.”
This article was taken from the May 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read a digital version of this issue click here.