Jewellery retailer talks about her strategy after completing an MBO.
Helen Dimmick walked away from an MD job at a global chain but that decision led her to owning her own business as she completed an MBO of retailer Green + Benz in August. Rachael Taylor travels to Chesterfield to meet the retailer and her team as they find themselves on the cusp of seismic change.
Five years ago Helen Dimmick’s career was all mapped out; she was on a path leading to her taking over as UK managing director at one of the world’s best-known jewellery brands, a dream position for most, but for Dimmick being homesick for the North was a stronger pull.
Leaving the lights of London and Tiffany & Co, where she had spent the past five years, behind, Dimmick relocated to her home town of Macclesfield and a job with the CMJ as a core executive.
“It was always the plan for me to become MD at Tiffany,” says Dimmick. “It was all there and all happening, but I wanted to go back North.”
Although Dimmick was ready to leave Tiffany for pastures new, she intended to take what she had learned there with her to the CMJ. “The organisation and integrity of Tiffany is incredible,” she says. “It is one of the most ethical businesses I’ve ever worked for; they are great with staff and the products. It is so well run and the training was excellent.”
At the CMJ she strove to bring “a bit of Tiffany magic to the members”. “I’m a good agent for change,” she says. “I felt it was my time to give back to retail, but also to grow my relationships with suppliers. I didn’t see it as stepping away."
Swapping a global jewellery brand for a buying group that was at the start of its evolution under chief executive Willie Hamilton was a huge change, but it was one that Dimmick truly embraced and she worked closely with Hamilton to bring about the many changes to the group that have come about in the past few years. Busy with a gigantic task at hand at the CMJ, Dimmick was less sure of making a leap when her next opportunity came knocking.
Jewellery retailer Green + Benz was being run by Shane Green and Julie Benz, its founders, at the time and had three stores, one in Chesterfield, Manchester and Sheffield, as well as a Pandora concept store in Sheffield. The pair were looking for a way out of the business without closing it down and identified Dimmick as a potential managing director who could eventually take on the business as her own. "Shane and Julie set up a great business but they wanted someone else that was a more strategic jewellery manager,” explains Dimmick.
When the offer was first presented to her, Dimmick shied away, but Benz and Green had also approached Hamilton before offering the job to Dimmick and it was he who convinced her that she was ready for the next step with a promise that if she didn’t like it then she could come back to the CMJ.
“Shane and Julie wanted out for a long time,” says Dimmick. "They knew someone had to come from outside the business and grow it. I understood jewellery and my background was corporate so I could handle the growth.”
While Dimmick says that she would never discredit the work that Benz and Green had done in building up the Green + Benz business, she felt that when she arrived it had lost its identity and she set about whipping it back into shape. She started work on her plans to turn the business around immediately and had some major successes early on.
One such seismic change was to lessen the retailer’s reliance on Pandora. The brand sells fantastically well at Green + Benz; to give an idea of the importance of the brand to the Green + Benz stores, the Chesterfield branch of Green + Benz sells more Pandora jewellery that its concept store. Therefore Dimmick’s plan to move reliance away from Pandora is not to be interpreted as her being negative about the brand, it is about a desire to return to Green + Benz’s roots of contemporary fine jewellery with a twist.
“We were becoming known as ‘that Pandora place’ and I felt that Green + Benz had lost its identity,” says Dimmick. “We went far too deep into Pandora. Pandora is wonderful but it’s about getting back to being a business that had an identity that could take it into the future.”
To achieve this shift, Dimmick worked hard to build up the diamond sales at the business, something she has achieved by instilling confidence in the staff to sell higher-value product, seeking out product that fits customer budgets, such as its range of platinum and diamond rings priced at less than £1,000, and generally pushing diamond product more in marketing material, window displays and in-store promotions. As a result diamond sales increased 21% on a rolling 12-month basis year on year.
But there is only so much you can do at a business when you are the managing director not the owner, and Dimmick’s plans were much more far reaching than her MD position allowed, so when on August 8 she signed off a deal that completed her management buyout of the business it kickstarted a period of accelerated change.
The MBO was greeted positively by Green + Benz staff and Dimmick recounts how she received hugely positive emails from her team, as well as others in the trade, when the announcement was made. “I have been overwhelmed by people’s enthusiasm, kindness and support,” she says.
With banks making it very tough to access funding, Dimmick had to seek elsewhere for financial support to secure the deal, and she found it in Alan Higgs, who she describes as “wise, sage and a lovely gentleman”.
The TH Baker chairman has a stake and is non-executive chairman at Green + Benz. Dimmick describes him as someone she can bounce ideas off, turn to for advice and even align the two businesses to bring benefits such as allowing staff to move between the two companies. While Higgs is an important advisor to Green + Benz, Dimmick says the relationship flows the other way too. “I want to help add a feminine touch to TH Baker,” she laughs.
The pair obviously have a close personal relationship as well as a business one, but at the end of the day Higgs is a qualified accountant and Dimmick says that his agreement to get involved with her business was all the sweeter for the fact that she knew he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t believe that the company was set up to succeed. “Alan looked at the figures and said that he would have said no the year before but this year he could see the turnaround and so could justify the investment,” she beams.
Dimmick brings with her something that is very unique to independent jewellery retail, and that is a big business lexicon. She doesn’t talk about staff guidelines she talks about mission statements and the Green + Benz experience. Throughout our conversation she also drops phrases such as high-trust management style, motivational analysis and behavioural-based interviewing.
This is the sort of talk that we are used to hearing deployed by the big multiples, but it is not often used by those running a four-store jewellery chain, where you will often find a more relaxed approach to company structure. But this highly structured and formal approach is helping her to strip Green + Benz down, identify what didn’t work and clearly build it up again stage by stage.
While Dimmick’s approach is clinical and methodical, the environment at the business is warm and collaborative. Something that was hugely important to Dimmick when she came into full control at Green + Benz was to pass some of that control back to the staff.
“It is about bringing that Tiffany model in, that structure and training, but it is also important to have the heart,” she says. “You want to be personal and professional at the same time; it’s a bit like parenting. I believe in empowerment so I allow them to get on with it.”
Some staff changes have been made under Dimmick’s leadership; all the staff managers have changed, some recruited from within the business and some from outside, such as Chesterfield’s manager Sarah Cannon who actually came from fast food chain McDonalds, an appointment facilitated by recruitment agency Jolyon Marshall. However the key task for Dimmick has been to get staff who were previously disengaged with the business engaged.
She has done this through motivational analysis. Staff are quizzed regularly about how engaged they feel with the business, about what they feel is important and what changes they would like to see. “When I first came hardly anyone was engaged with the business, now everyone is highly engaged,” she says. “Before, staff were being told what to do, not asked what they thought they should do."
A key part of this empowerment of staff has been asking, listening and then actioning on their behalf. This could be something as simple as responding to an idea to hand out Green + Benz balloons – an initiative suggested by Chesterfield store administrator Jennie Bradley that Dimmick says worked fantastically well, filling the town with its branding – or more complex, such as what product lines to buy in.
The feedback about the new management style from the team is hugely positive. Whereas previously staff describe a real divide emerging between staff and management and a negative atmosphere in the stores, they say that now this has completely meted away and describe the business as feeling “like a family again”, or so says Chesterfield sales assistant Chelsea Tromans.
The product offer has also been slowly changing at Green + Benz under Dimmick’s management. As well as bolstering diamond sales she has also brought a real focus on jewellery designers. The stores stock names such as Tomasz Donocik, Andrew Geoghegan, Fei Liu, Ungar & Ungar and Sarah Jordan and there are plans to add new brands such as SHO and Shaun Leane.
Dimmick says she has enjoyed the support of many suppliers to help her through this transitional phase, and she believes it was her time spent at the CMJ working with those suppliers that helped her to build up the kind of relationships that would allow for this to happen. “From my experience at the CMJ, it is not a them and us situation with retailers and suppliers, we are in it together,” she affirms.
Dimmick says she is now repaying the kindness of suppliers who helped her through that tricky time by placing solid orders. “I have just placed a massive investment in stock at IJL to get our offer where I want it to be,” she says.
With the staff and stock now in much better shape, Helen’s attention is turning towards the strengthening of the entire business. While her plans are very ambitious, she is not planning to take over the British Isles just yet. Instead, she says, it is about strengthening what she has to the best of her ability.
Plans afoot include the opening of a champagne bar in the Sheffield store in March, developing its repairs business, engaging more heavily with social networking and launching an e-commerce site. The list goes on.
“It’s about consolidating what we’ve got and facilitating potential growth,” she says. “More stores will happen at some point but I don’t want to run before I can walk.”
While Dimmick might have turned down a dream job in order to return to her roots in the North, it seems that the decision led her to an even better opportunity and a stronger standing in and understanding of the market. As Dimmick says: “Isn’t that the funny thing about fate?”
This article originally appeared in the October issue of Professional Jeweller. Click here to read it online.