INTERVIEW: Steve Bennett, TGGC

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The CEO talks new brands, European expansion and 189% sales growth.

It has been a busy 18 months at The Genuine Gemstone Company (TGGC), with a number of business awards won and several new brands launched, including Gemporia and NowSeen. Its chief executive Steve Bennett discusses international expansion, standalone store openings and why he’s far from the typical company owner.

“I was trekking to the North Pole for two weeks and not once did I ask how business was,” states The Genuine Gemstone Company’s (TGGC) chief executive Steve Bennett, recollecting his phone conversations with his wife and business partner Sarah Bennett during a recent charitable adventure.

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While that might not sound like the words of an award-winning jewellery industry chief executive, they certainly provide clarity on the personality of Bennett, who has lead his jewellery company to great success over the past decade, including consecutive accolades placing TGGC first and sixth in The Sunday Times’ Fast Track 100 list, and the launch of new brands under the TGGC umbrella, including jewellery retail sites Gemporia and NowSeen. The company has also made a push into the US market through Rocks TV, a shopping channel that airs from its studio in Birmingham.

“We’ve grown a lot in the past year,” says Bennett. “We have just under 500 employees in the UK now, with 30 people working in our IT team, which is our biggest area of growth. Similarly, we are massively growing the number of people we have in India as we start to cut more and more of our own stones.”

It’s not just staff numbers that have grown at the business — according to the 2013 edition of The Sunday Times Fast Track 100, TGGC achieved impressive sales growth of 189% in the year 2012 to 2013, with sales totalling about £83.7 million, up from 2009 to 2010 sales of £3.5 million.

More recently, in the autumn of 2013, the company launched two e-commerce jewellery sites within a fortnight of one another, commencing with Gemporia, a retail and jewellery auction site targeting 30- to 40-somethings, and fashion-led site NowSeen, which is seeking to win customers in their late teens onwards, with silver and gemstone stack rings, stud earrings and pendants priced upwards of £8.

Bennett reveals Gemporia was an instant hit, while NowSeen has some nurturing ahead of it, launching too late to win last year’s Christmas shoppers. NowSeen’s enticingly low price points have also been a challenge for Bennett and his team, with feedback from market research showing products are perhaps priced too low – though as Bennett points out, this is simply owing to the business being vertically integrated. “Our USP is that we own a gemstone mining company and a gemstone cutting house, so we are completely mine-to-market. For example, we can put a nice Tanzanite in a gold ring and sell it through Gemporia for £70 when it would be £400 elsewhere.”

The story of TGGC dates back to 1988, when Bennett was part of a family-run IT company, which was one of the first firms to transact a credit card payment online. Part of this business was sold to Argos in 2000, which allowed Bennett to merge business with a long-term interest of his: minerals and gemstones.

He went on to launch TGGC, creating Gems TV in 2004, offering British viewers a chance to buy gem-set jewellery as showcased via TV shows. Bennett explains that the platform allowed the company to make the best of promoting gemstones to the wider public. “If we were just selling diamonds then the internet would be more important, but with coloured stones it’s about the story, and TV gives you time and a nice environment to tell the whole story,” he says. “On TV I can spend 30 minutes talking about Tanzanite and the benefits and how its pleochroic and a zoisite — it’s harder to do that over the web.”

While TV shopping for gemstone jewellery is now widespread – in the US alone, Bennett says Rocks TV competes against more than nine jewellery and gemstone channels – the company is already making strides into the future. It is working with TV manufacturers such as Samsung, Toshiba and Hitachi to create smart TV platforms, where viewers can watch the channel and purchase jewellery using their remote controls to create, in his own words “a new shopping experience.”

But as brands are regularly told, a bricks-and-mortar store is often the best way to reach consumers, and this is something that, after 10 years, Bennett is ready to tackle. And like all of his business plans, he has big ambitions. “I’ve just got back from the North Pole, where I did a lot of thinking and realised stores are needed for the public to see our jewellery and to support the Rocks TV business in the US; if the US customers realise we’re a retail store in the UK [it adds kudos].”

While Bennett says plans are still in their infancy, he hints at a strategy to establish concession spaces in well-known UK department stores, name-checking the likes of Harrods, Liberty and Harvey Nichols as dream locations. These British luxury stalwarts are admired for their sleek jewellery departments and international clientele, but for now Bennett says TGGC’s immediate focus will be TV and digital channels.

Having launched Rocks TV in the US 18 months ago, the channel now reaches 40 million households in the US, and Bennett believes the company’s British roots are a large selling point. “We play on our Britishness 100%; we have a red telephone box on the studio that we take calls from and have presenters with plummy accents and images of Buckingham Palace in the background,” he reveals. And it’s a formula that’s working, making Rocks TV is an ever-growing facet of the TGGC business.

The company plans to push its digital shopping channels into more countries; the Australian market is already catered for by TGGC, so next up it plans to create Spanish, German, Mandarin and Hindi-speaking jewellery channels.

There is little doubt that Bennett and the TGGC team will be busy in the months ahead, with bricks-and-mortar stores and concessions in the pipeline, along with global growth. Mulling over potential sales growth, Bennett says: “We aim for 20% annual growth these days, which you could say is still quite aggressive.” As a person however, aggressive appears to be far from Bennett’s persona, enough so that supporting charitable causes has become a large part of his daily work. As his opening statement shows, he’s confident enough to leave the business in the hands of managers and family members to embark upon charity projects such the recent trek to the North Pole and the company’s group effort to cycle more than 17,500 miles for The Colourful Life foundation, raising almost £200,000 from the two challenges alone.

The next challenge for TGGC will be to maintain growth and new ventures. Does Bennett want to keep hitting big figures in terms of turnover? “I’m a strange CEO,” he admits. “I don’t focus on the figures because I have the belief that as long as you give the customer what they want, the figures will look after themselves. The accountants work out our turnover. The customer coming back is what counts.”

The Genuine Gemstone Company Facts and History
2004: Bennett launches Gems TV
2008: TGGC founded by Bennett, his wife Sarah and brother John
2010: Gems TV bought back by TGGC for £3m; TGGC launches JewelleryMaker, a TV channel for people making their own designs
2011: Gem Collector website launch
2012: Launches Rocks TV, a US shopping channel. Reported annual sales growth of 245.3%, hitting £54.5m; awarded first place in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 2012
2013: Launches The Lounge, the first web-only auction room; launches Gemporia and NowSeen; wins Retailer of the Year at the BJA Awards 2013; placed sixth on The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 2013

A New Venture: Equal World
Steve Bennett last month launched a new initiative called Equal World, operating, in his own words, like a not-for-profit Not On The High Street, offering goods made by artisans and communities around the world. The money from all Equal World sales will go directly back to the makers, and the initiative has already won the support of Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Equal World will initially trade via Sky TV and the web, offering a variety of products made by socially-disadvantaged communities, including handbags, perfumes and Masai clothing. According to Bennett, Equal World should help TGGC’s annual charity donations surpass the £1 million mark.

This interview was taken from the June issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.

Tags : gemporiaGems TVnowseen.comonline jewellery salesSteve Bennetttggcthe genuine gemstone company
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