INTERVIEW: Stuart Laing on stars, stripes & sales

The Houlden Group’s CEO on building links with American brands.

The Houlden Group’s chief executive Stuart Laing says now is the time to embrace American jewellery brands, use watches to draw shoppers and begin planning for the future. He speaks to Kathryn Bishop.

The Houlden Group has long been regarded as the more traditional of the buying groups in the UK industry owing to its combination of high-end jewellery and watch retailers and curated approach to membership.

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The group has been established almost 40 years and presently has 36 members representing about 90 retail stores across the UK. Its chief executive Stuart Laing owns Laings of Glasgow and Robert Stewart, stores that boast an undeniable presence in Glasgow’s Argyle Arcade. In recent years Laing has passed many of his duties at a retail level to his daughter Wendy Laing and son in law Joe Walsh, who now oversee the day-to-day running of the stores. This has allowed Laing to spend more time focused on the development and direction of the Houlden Group in what have been some of the most challenging and changeable times in jewellery retail.

Some 18 months ago the Houlden Group put into action initiatives to refresh and modernise the group, resulting in reduced membership fees, wider membership criteria and more diversity in terms of suppliers. As a result brands including Andrew Geoghegan, Rachel Galley and John Rocha Jewellery joined the group as suppliers, while retailers including Identity the Jewellers, Whittles Jewellers and Terence Harper were welcomed to the fold.

At the group’s summer buying meeting in June Laing met with Professional Jeweller to discuss the past year, new developments and plans for the future of the Houlden Group.

“Purchases through the Houlden Group have increased by over 17% in the year to February 2013,” says Laing. “While the group’s retail turnover is estimated for the same period to be in the region of £200 million to £250 million.”

Houlden’s retail members have enjoyed a positive few months in terms of watch sales, something that Laing says helped to bolster sales figures during 2012. “There is little doubt that many if not most of us [retailers] have had a very good run on luxury watches, but we cannot allow our business to be dependant on that,” he states. “[Watch sales] are not going to come to an end but they will slow down, so we’re working with Houlden members to ensure they are chasing potential sales elsewhere.”

Laing describes how fashion and luxury watches can be used to bring shoppers in store. “We can use watches as magnets to attract jewellery sales,” he states. “For example, bridal is back and doing well in the US but we need to be working on that here in the UK, too.”

As a result Laing has an eye trained on several North American jewellery suppliers — firms he hopes will bring a point of difference to Houlden retail members. “We’re going to focus on nurturing our relationship with the Americans; it is amazing the number of American designers that we’re now embracing here in the UK.”

Earlier this summer as Laing visited the JCK jewellery trade show Luxury in Las Vegas, meeting several potential suppliers and new brands to work with through Houlden.

“I was very impressed with the show and was amazed at the number of American companies that knew about the Houlden Group,” he explains. “We get similar feedback when we go to BaselWorld but so many American firms said ‘We know about you, how do we get involved?’”

Laing believes that the UK market is beginning to embrace products that are typically more American in their style, partly due to the boom in demand for North American branded watches such as Michael Kors, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren. But this interest also extends to jewellery styles. “Our own brand of Canadian jewellery [Canada Star] has American-style settings,” he says. “So Houlden is reaching out to American suppliers and even some of the training we’re doing through the group is Americanised.”

As part of its drive to embrace North American brands Houlden Group welcomed Canadian diamond firm JSN chief executive Steve Reale to its summer buyers’ meeting. Reale and Laing have worked closely to bring Canada Star to the UK, exclusively for Houlden retail members. Reale flew all the way from Canada to present JSN’s latest products to a Houlden’s retail members. Similarly, Josef Fraiman of US company Merit Diamonds was invited to the group’s summer meeting to showcase Merit’s Juno Lucina collection of diamond-set push presents — jewellery designs created as gifts for new mothers. Laing believes that push presents have serious growth potential in the UK market, in particular in the year that marks the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child. “It’s a good sales opportunity and markets such as the States, South Africa and Australia have already embraced push presents,” he says.

The Houlden Group is known for its selective approach to retail membership and while it has opened up the criteria for membership in recent years, the group also appears to be playing its cards close to its chest with view to building membership numbers. For Laing, any more retail members joining the group will be to fill geographical gaps in Houlden’s reach. “We don’t rush to work with jewellers who are fairly close to our existing members and we don’t want to grow very much bigger than where we are just now,” he states. “We’re a very manageable community and while we’re not the biggest in numbers our overall retailer turnover is about £250 million [per annum] which I think makes us the third largest group outside of Aurum and Signet Group in the UK.”

Houlden has also created fresh support programs for 2013 including a business owners’ mentoring course designed with succession planning in mind and various training courses covering topics such as social media.

Laing wants Houlden members to take heed and pay close attention to their how their businesses are faring. “[The UK jewellery industry] had two big bankruptcies this year in Clive Ranger and Leslie Cass and while we’re not in that situation we want our members to be paying attention to sales by creating new opportunities,” he says. “It is also about us making sure that the businesses are aware of what Houlden can do for them because sometimes we need to do our bit to remind our members again.”

Looking ahead to 2014, Houlden Group will relocate its London meeting to the Hotel Russell in Bloomsbury, home to the Gem-A international conference in 2012, as it has outgrown the show space at the Connaught Rooms.

Laing also speaks of his own future as chief executive of the Houlden Group. “On a personal note I spend a lot of time working on Houlden now as Wendy and Joe are focused on Laings,” he says. “Obviously I’m not getting any younger but that day [when I stand down] is not on the horizon yet.”

Houlden has experienced new directions in recent years and while Laing is clear that its traditions, professionalism and luxury standing remains unchanged, Houlden Group is not afraid to be proactive in seeking new products and exciting sales opportunities for its retailers. With his eye trained on trends and new design concepts, Laing’s input is working hard to secure another 40 years for Houlden Group.

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



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