Multiple by size, but a family-run, independent at heart, Beaverbrooks is a truly unique retail business, and one that has managed to survive on the high street for 99 years.
Celebrating a century in business is a significant milestone, and one the company won’t let go by without a celebration or two (or three, or more), but it’s also a time to reflect on how Beaverbrooks has come so far, and look at what is needed to withstand the future.
Here, managing director, Anna Blackburn, and chairman, Mark Adlestone, discuss the secret to Beaverbrooks’ success to date, and how it plans to thrive for another 100 years….
Professional Jeweller: How has business been for Beaverbrooks so far this?
Anna Blackburn: It’s been good. We have been happy with how business has been. June was definitely tougher, and we don’t often look for external factors, but I think we have had the unprecedented weather coupled with the World Cup and that definitely impacted footfall as people did a lot of experimental stuff rather than shopping, but generally the year has been good for us.
Mark Adlestone: It’s been a good solid year so far.
PJ: The last 12 months have been difficult for retailers across the board, what are the biggest challenges Beaverbrooks faces at the moment, and how are you overcoming them?
MA: We do have challenges but I don’t think the challenges are necessarily unique to us. I just feel like business is strong essentially. We have had a great year. The last four years have been strong, really since Anna has been chief exec, and we have actually performed well. Profits are strong and we are looking to maintain that again this year.
AB: There are continual challenges however, which I think we are all experiencing. The fact that costs are rising and margins are being squeezed, there are constant challenges, but we don’t see the challenges as a negative. We’ve just got to be ready and make sure we are stronger and continue to innovate.
MA: The challenge that we have as a business is that we have to remain relevant. Take Pandora for example, how did jewellers react to this new brand? That must have impacted all jewellers. But the question is, when these challenges come along, when there are disrupters in the marketplace like Pandora, how do we, a business that has been established for 99 years, adapt to that? And I think the key is in our people and – one of the things Anna has been very keen on – is collaboration. And it is through collaboration with all the key stakeholders within the business that we get a solution across the board. We are not working on the sidelines, we are working together to find the solution.
We care for our people and want to see them develop, but ultimately I think what they love about us is they have to step up to the plate themselves.”
AB: It is so important we have the right people in the room and that we are able to be agile, and everybody understands that we are working towards a common goal. It sounds very simple, but it’s key to what we do.
MA: I would say I have seen in our business over the last five years that significant improvement. Not saying that we were on the sidelines before, but we are definitely much more collaborative now. That means we get a more thorough solution in response because everybody has bought into it and moves forward with it. And that’s why we are confident when we come up against challenges. We don’t know what challenges are going to be thrown at us, we don’t know what Brexit is going to do, but we’ve got to be agile and we’ve got to adapt.
AB: Customers are going to go with their feet all the time and we are constantly evolving to what the customers want. One of the biggest challenges that we all face is the pace of change and the pace of technology, and I think you can almost be in denial that that’s happening but you’ve got to embrace it.
MA: Technology is a good example. We have absolutely embraced online. We’ve got a solution for our customers where they can choose to shop in store, or online, or on a mobile, or a laptop, or a combination of all those things.
PJ: Speaking of technology, how important is online to your business now?
MA: It’s growing every year. And it has effectively gone from zero percent eight years ago to a significant percentage of the business now.
AB: It’s really important for us, not only from the money that we take, but actually the exposure of the brand and driving customers into store. So we were saying before about collaboration, nowhere has it been more important than actually being understanding of that customer journey, and store teams being understanding of that as well because in a lot of businesses it can be seen as separate, whereas we definitely see it as part of the customer journey.
MA: As the owners and drivers of Beaverbrooks, we would say we don’t mind whether the customer buys online or in the store however, if you are in the store, you are going to mind. So we have got to find a way, and we have found a way, to get the stores and online to talk together and to be happy to work together for the benefit of the entire business.
AB: That has been a continual journey we have had to build on over a number of years and it’s done very well for us. Our web team actually see part of their role as driving customers into stores.
PJ: What would you say is the secret to Beaverbrooks’ success?
MA: It’s that ability to adapt to the challenges. To not be scared by change, and actually to embrace change. So at 99 years old we are still evolving. In many ways we are a very mature business and in some ways not. We are not mature in terms of e-commerce, we are not particularly mature in the south of England in terms of presence, so its evolution, change and open-mindedness.
AB: We also have real focuses in terms of how we do business and they have never changed. Our focus on our people is absolutely critical and the quality of our product is absolutely paramount to ensure we give them the right service. So while profitability has always been important, ultimately we aim to make sure we are a great employer and do right by our customers. Those things have never changed, and they are why I joined the business 20 years ago.
MA: As far as the culture is concerned, six months before Anna joined I introduced a mission statement. It was our first attempt of a vision — who are we? What do we stand for? What are we all about? Over time it has evolved and become ‘The Beaverbrooks Way’. And whilst the essence of it and the values don’t change, some of the words do change. Anna has done a lot of work in the last couple of years to refine The Beaverbrooks Way and bring it up to date. So we have values like passion and integrity, and a couple of new ones like trust and fairness. And these aren’t just words that have been picked out of the air, these are words that Anna has been working with our colleagues to say, ‘What does Beaverbrooks stand for?’ And then, ‘What do these words mean? What behaviours go along with it?’ Suppliers tell us they feel our staff are more engaged and that happens for a reason. So it’s about people feeling connected to the business and the purpose of the business, which is enriching lives, and feeling proud of what they do, feeling recognised and appreciated and all of those things, if you get those right, which we work very hard on, then people feel much more connected and want to work harder.
PJ: It’s true that the longevity of staff is not only good for the customers, but it’s also a positive for suppliers as well…
MA: We believe we need to treat our suppliers fairly and have a partnership with them. So when we talk about enriching lives, it is the lives of our customers, because we want that to be a brilliant experience; our colleagues, who we want to feel engaged; and our suppliers and communities. All those things need to work. For me, whilst I am motivated by success and by money, what absolutely drives me more than anything is how we make that money, then what we do with that and how we are with our people. Because ultimately I don’t believe people are going to remember how much money we took or how much profit we made, but I do believe they will remember how we made them feel and what a difference we made, and that’s what motivates Anna and I.
AB: When we talk about enriching lives, it’s all about relationships. The way we explain it to our people is we say it means we make a positive difference to the world. Full stop. And that’s through all those things Mark said, but I think one of the things when I became chief exec is, we had recently been through a bit of turmoil prior to that, and one of the pieces of feedback that came back is people didn’t necessarily feel listened to and my key driver for joining the business 20 years ago was I didn’t want to be a number in a cooperate world, and so that really hit home
MA: The irony was we always listened. Certainly in my time because I made sure we did, and I introduced focus groups back in 1996 when we had a relatively high labour turnover at the time. I wanted to understand why people were leaving, so I went out and asked people and I got a group of people together in Newcastle and did it all across the country and we continue to do focus groups to this day.
AB: I do between 12 and 14 a year.
MA: Where she just sits down and talks to our people and asks, ‘What can we do better?’ And they are open and honest because they trust that Anna won’t misuse the information.
AB: Which is why we added trust to our ways, and this is where balance comes in. I think as much as being a great workplace is fundamental to who we are, for me one of my biggest frustrations before I became chief exec was the fact that historically we had been in the Sunday Times Best Companies for 15 years, but despite being held up as this amazing workplace, we actually couldn’t prove that treating people right and being this great workplace really showed in the numbers. But, we both absolutely believed it should and it could, and what we have done now over the last four years is we have increased accountability in the business. So we might be a great place to work but we have a highly accountable culture and we expect a lot from people. And I think we’ve got that balance now.
MA: That’s a great point. A lot of people want to join us because they think we are a great workplace but that’s not enough. They have to perform as well. And there’s perhaps a misconception in about Beaverbrooks that maybe we are a little bit of a soft touch.
AB: I think that’s because we are family owned and are seen as a nice place to work, however it is not for everybody and we do have people uncomfortable with the performance.
PJ: How would you sum up how you engage and retain staff?
MA: I would say two things. We care for our people and that’s massive, we want to see them develop and we give them every support to do that, but ultimately, I think what they love about us is they have to step up to the plate themselves. We can’t do it for them. So it’s that culture of achieving that we have created as well. So it is the combination of caring and a culture of achievement.
PJ: Do you find it hard to engage and retain employees of different ages?
MA: No, not at all.
AB: What we are very good at doing is using the strength of our people. So if someone did an online training course and learnt from that, and then we have another colleague who prefers to sit down and talk it through, we may ask the colleague who learnt it digitally to sit down and talk it through with somebody else. We talk a lot about it not always having to be the manager, because you have so many different strengths in the store that you should use those strengths. We are all adults, everybody can learn, and when you have a mentality that we’ve all got to learn together, it doesn’t fall on one person.
PJ: What’s your focus for the second half of the year?
AB: For us it is not just about the second half of the year. We have a continual focus and we don’t switch. We adapt as we need to. Our focus towards Christmas won’t be any different to our focus in the first part of the year. I have been here 20 years and the reality is that in our industry we are here to buy fantastic products, sell it, and sell it well to customers to keep them coming back, and if you break it down really simply it is not rocket science. It’s about having the fundamentals absolutely right all of the time and it is that continual focus, and not necessarily looking for the next big thing all the time.
PJ: Have you pinpointed any areas for growth this side of Christmas?
MA: Yes. We’ve got the Omega boutique going in Stratford and we are also in the process of refitting our Bluewater store, which will have a joint Tag Heuer boutique, and we are refitting our store in Edinburgh as well.
AB: And in Preston we have a partnership with Whittles and that store is going to have a big extension next door to include a large Rolex area. So there’s a lot. For us it is not just about the number of stores, we look at our stores and they have to deliver and they have to add to the portfolio, so over the last few years we have really focused on strengthening the existing estate. And we have invested significantly. We have re-done a lot of the stores, there have been a number of stores that have had significant refits. So as well as looking at new opportunities, it is about strengthening what we have already got.
Even though we’ve been around next year 100 years, we are very dynamic, we are very forward looking and we are very competitive.”
MA: As far as the future is concerned, there’s been a significant change to the property market since 2008. We grew from about 30 stores in 1994, to 65 in 2008 — so more than doubled in 14 years. Since 2008 we grew by net five stores. So you can see it is a much slower growth. But that doesn’t faze us, because we are a super business, but we are not looking to become massive we are just looking to become stronger.
AB: And would we love to have more stores? Yes. But only if they are going to add to the portfolio.
MA: Between now and 2022 there are three stores that we can think of that we would want to open. So we are not looking for huge expansion, we are looking to strengthen.
AB: Because we are here for the long term it really is about strengthening. In the last four consecutive years we’ve hit record profits and sustained it, and for me that’s the ongoing biggest challenge. We are in a great place with our people, they are happier than ever. So the challenge for us now is to sustain those high levels of profits and keep the culture where it is in terms of an engagement point of view. So it’s about maintaining, growing and strengthening going forward, which we will definitely do.
PJ: How will you be celebrating your 100th anniversary?
MA: We are thinking about all sorts of things. We are thinking about product, customers, our people, our suppliers, and we are thinking about community — so all those touchpoints will be turbo charged in that year.
AB: So there’s a lot of plans in place, it is going to be a whole year of celebration.
PJ: Have you set any goals you want to achieve during the big milestone year?
AB: Yes there are. For me I see our 100th year as two things. I see it absolutely as a celebration of what’s gone, but also very much a time to look to the future. We have so much to celebrate and so many amazing talking points, I think it’s time we start talking more about all the things we are so good at. Even though we’ve been around next year 100 years, we are very dynamic, we are very forward looking and we are very competitive. This is our springboard into the future and we are excited.
PJ: Where would you like to see Beaverbrooks in 100 more years?
MA: For me you are talking about legacy. The question actually is how do we structure the business in a way that it is possible to be here in 100 years? It’s third generation now, and hopefully the next generation, my girls, will also take up the mark in their own time, but we’ve created a meritocracy in the meantime. So whilst the family ownership is important, it is not absolutely critical, what is critical is we have the right people running the business – like Anna – and those are people who have come through the system. So if we are still going to be around in 100 years we need to continue to evolve, change, take on the challenges, and be a meritocracy, to give us the best chance of having a business in another 100 years. I would love this business to create a legacy. I would love this business to be known for all the good things we do and the difference it’s made to the world around us. We see ourselves as different from the other multiples. We see ourselves as the size of a multiple and the heart of an independent, family business.