INTERVIEW: Michael Gardens on reviving Ortak

When Orkney-based jewellery manufacturer and brand Ortak went into administration in April 2013 its illustrious history, enviable customer base and design portfolio was left hanging in the balance. Fortunately, Michael Gardens and his business partner Alison Firth stepped in, reviving the name and channelling the brand into Ortak 2.0. Sarah Louise Jordan finds out more.

When chatting to Ortak managing director Michael Gardens it’s hard not to rely on labels to pinpoint the business he purchased and the company he now spearheads.

‘The original Ortak’, ‘the old Ortak’, ‘Ortak 2.0’, and ‘the new incarnation of Ortak’ may make conducting an interview slightly easier, but they don’t accurately explain the all-new atmosphere and attitude that Gardens has instilled in company.

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The name ‘Ortak’ was first thrust onto the UK jewellery trade in the late 1960s and it eventually developed into a successful company with a £7 million turnover. However, by 2012 the company was reporting heavy losses and it went into administration in April 2013, losing its network of 15 stores in the process.

In January 2014, sale of the business in its entirety was deemed unlikely by its administrator and restructuring partner, which led to a plan to sell off its component parts to the highest bidders. And those component parts were impressive, including trademarks, a 10,000 strong design and master portfolio, an ecommerce site and trademarks, plus a customer database of 25,000.

Yet, after months of negativity the unpredictable happened: Ortak was purchased and launched back onto the market just 12 months after it went into administration. But this was a new Ortak, granted with the same name and designs, but with a different team in the driving seat.

That driver is Michael Gardens, who alongside Alison Firth has established Ortak as a refreshed and revived company specialising in commercial silver and enamel jewellery both at a wholesale level and in-store at its Kirkwall premises.

Like any new businessman, Gardens had to know when to push for change and when to accept that the ‘old ways’ were probably best. As for the former, he quickly turned his attention to developing the manufacturing side of his operation with the help of a Highland and Islands Enterprise grant.

He admits: “We are now manufacturing back to full-strength and we’ve invested a lot of money in new machinery for casting and a new milling machine — the full works.”

In terms of the latter, some of Gardens’ decisions were easy, including rehiring some of the brilliant craftsmen and women who had been employed by Ortak in the past. He jokes: “Practically everybody has relations [in Orkney] who have at some point worked for Ortak.” Of course, there are some benefits to buying the IP rights of a brand with such a long history in the jewellery trade; the first being instant recognition. Gardens explains: “I would say Scotland-wide the brand name is very strong, especially considering there were 15 shops in total operating under the name. So, what’s happened to us now is wholesale has boomed and rather than being in one shop [in a certain area] we might now be in 30 all in the same area, so that’s had a big impact on us.”

This ability to grow the brand’s recognition without the restrictions of an established store network has certainly helped, but it’s the World Wide Web that has significantly boosted the prospects of Ortak in recent months. Gardens slightly revamped the Ortak website in 2014 to ensure it provided the most accurate and accessible platform for his regional agents — a necessity considering the back catalogue of nearly 40,000 lines, which are all available to order.

Gardens adds: “One of our main investments has been in creating a database and production management system, which enables us to make everything from the back catalogue. Now what we’re trying to do is make pieces, get them all photographed and get them onto the trade website.”

In August 2014, Gardens opened a refreshed Ortak store in Kirkwall but quite literally missed the 72 boats that ferried tourists to Orkney that season. He muses: “If you look at that in terms of footfall that’s probably a couple of hundred thousand people that we didn’t see, if you were in a big city it would be the same as the run-up to Christmas. But on this island we get eight weeks of summertime and that’s when we see more people than ever.” The new store operates under the slogan ‘Made in Orkney’, which is directly reflected in the additional products it stocks by The Orkney Crafts Association — a collective of local skilled artisans who make their wares on the island.

Also salvaged from the remnants of the old Ortak is a selection of masters for the historic Royal Palaces, English Heritage and Scottish Heritage, with Gardens noting: “We have pieces sitting here that people haven’t seen them for decades, so they need to come back to life.”

With all this focus on manufacturing and reviving archived designs, it’s easy to forget that Ortak is having considerable success in terms of wholesale accounts and sales. Gardens’ business partner Alison Firth comments: “Ortak now has three agents on the road and its business is growing. Agents are also exploring business in some of the cities where there were previously Ortak shops, as clients are now looking to stock the products again.”

With over 300 stockists already secured, Gardens believes the figures will only grow, especially in those areas that used to directly compete with an Ortak bricks-and-mortar establishment. He is also optimistic about reviving the brand’s American customer base, which was once strong under the brand’s previous owners and had lucrative links to QVC in the 1990s. He explains: “All ties were broken with America, so now we need to start again. Obviously, the web means we’re accessible worldwide and when looking at analytics we can see that a lot of our sales are abroad.”

As for the rest of 2015, Gardens is keen to promote his company’s enamel colourways, which, when applied to each of the 40,000 lines available, can take the number of different pieces on offer to somewhere in the region of 200- 250,000. “We have just taken on 3,000 new [enamel] colours to build a library, and we’re going to be able to do lots of bespoke colour work,” Gardens adds. After a positive showing at Scotland’s Trade Fair in Glasgow in January, and a successful trip to Jewellery & Watch Birmingham in February, Gardens now admits: “Our aim is to get organised and get to International Jewellery London to that we can show some jewellery there.”

Firth also echoes this positivity and reflects on how much support there is out there for the Ortak name. “The response we received in Glasgow was very good, everyone we spoke with was delighted to see Ortak back in business, and some old customers were happy as they are now able to re-stock their cabinets with our lovely new products.” Overall, it’s easy to presume, from an outside perspective at least, that Ortak has just carried on as before. But peel back the layers and it’s clear the business has taken on a new focus, with fresh ambitions and different aims for the future.

As Gardens admits: “We really do think of the business as something new and we don’t dwell on the past. The problems that they [Ortak] had in the past aren’t our problems and we can’t get ourselves into the same situation as long as we stay focused.”

This feature appeared in the March issue of Professional Jeweller. Read it here.




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