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THE BIG INTERVIEW: CMJ boss on taking the helm during unprecedented times

Emmet Cummins

After a year without a managing director, the UK and Ireland’s largest jewellery buying group, the Company of Master Jewellers, has now welcomed Emmet Cummins to the role.

Cummins is an experienced business leader with a proven track record of successfully devising and delivering business strategies. He joins the Company of Master Jewellers from the Watches of Switzerland Group, where he worked for almost ten years, most recently as group head of business Services.

As the new managing director takes the reins during a challenging time for the buying group’s members and the wider trade, Professional Jeweller editor, Stacey Hailes, gets to know the new man in charge and finds out how he plans to help the industry navigate through the global pandemic.

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What attracted you to the role of heading up the CMJ?
A few things really. I wanted to stay in the industry. They say you either last 10 minutes or you stay for a lifetime and it’s starting to look like I am the falling into the latter. I do enjoy this industry and I love the product and how aspirational it is to all of us as consumers. I have always had the greatest of respect and admiration for independent businesses. All of them at some point started out as little ‘acorns’ and it is impressive to see the ‘oak trees’ they have blossomed into and how they often feature as part of the cornerstones of their individual communities — especially jewellery retailers, where customers can be associated for many generations. That said, every market is highly competitive and even independents can benefit from a group approach. I’ve worked with buying groups before when I managed grocery convenience retailers back in my Bass Brewers days, so I understand the purpose and ethos a great group should have for its members. You put all that together with the fact the CMJ has been supporting independent jewellers for 40 years now, is the largest across the UK and Ireland and is highly respected, and I suspect it becomes clear why this opportunity was very appealing to me.

How has your previous position(s) at the Watches of Switzerland Group prepared you for leading a jewellery buying group?
EC: The WOS Group is a fantastic business and I was fortunate to have been part of the management team that drove the success the Group has seen over the past 10 years or so. During that time I worked under two CEO’s, both very different in approach and style, and observing and learning from them how they each led the business has played a huge part in forming the leadership style I will seek to apply within the CMJ. Equally, I was fortunate to have reported directly to the Group COO and operations director at differing times and learnt from them how to successfully drive a group strategy into the divisions I was accountable for. Obviously, my time at WOS Group gave me the necessary understanding and insights of this industry, the market, the product and consumer trends, what works and what doesn’t work as well. As I continue my learning and understanding of the CMJ and the independent retail market, this at least is one area that is less alien to me. Of course the CMJ at its very core is fundamentally about providing a service to its members. At the WOS Group I was accountable for the Business Services Division and with that, the management of B2B partnerships. I would like to think this has placed me in a relatively strong position when it comes to best serving and managing the CMJ membership and engaging with wider industry bodies.

Last year the buying group introduced Growth & Learning Network events across the country. This year these have had to take place virtually.

How have you spent your first days and weeks in the role?
It hasn’t been your typical introduction to a new business. I’ve yet to set foot inside our company offices nor have I met any of the CMJ team in the flesh. Thank God for Zoom! It really has allowed me to engage with the team and the membership as much as could be expected. The current situation means the normal service we would offer is very much parked, and instead the first few weeks were very much supporting the members on matters such as the Government financial support schemes, the ins and outs of the furlough process, and we have served to be a central point for PPE equipment and for coordinating the best lockdown easing approach. So my time has been balanced very much between spending time learning about the Group but equally leading the CMJ team to do all it can to adapt to what the members need right now. So I’m also on the front line with the CMJ team doing all I can to support the members on the matters just listed.

You’ve joined at a very challenging time for independent jewellers, what advice are you giving your retail members at the moment?
The advice to our retail members right now is that communication, networking and remaining tight knit as a group is more paramount that ever. Our role is to provide them with the information and guidance they’ll need to know how best to re-open when the lockdown eases to non-essential retail. The progress and clarity that has been achieved simply because the membership are engaged, asking questions of their fellow members and discussing various options, has been tremendous. The CMJ’s objective is to identify from these engagements those areas where we can support the most and those that will make the most significant difference, such as the sourcing of PPE providers for example. All this support was born out of the WhatsApp Groups, the webinars, the Growth & Learning sessions and the other communication channels we have in place. Maintaining this level of communication is key, especially as the climate changes almost on a weekly basis.

What are you finding retail members most require from a buying group right now?
This has changed on a weekly basis since the lockdown commenced. Guidance on grants and loans quickly became about furlough insights, which moved onto PPE sourcing and then to marketing materials that support the initial re-opening as well as social distancing guidance for staff and customers. These are all still relevant to some degree right now but the most pressing matters centre around how suppliers and retailers can best work together and on some understanding of what the Government will actually allow to open if the June 15 date goes ahead. The CMJ are seeking to establish if the Government will have regional considerations or even if there will be different approach to high street and shopping malls. We are also monitoring the trade performances of other countries where lockdown easing has already commenced. This gives retailers in the CMJ Group some indication of what they can expect and therefore plan for from a staff, product or social distancing perspective.

And what are suppliers asking of the CMJ?
EC: Suppliers are naturally keen to have their products purchased and back on display in stores. They do of course completely understand the predicament the retail market faces. However, so many of them are pro-actively willing to support retailers by any manner of means so that they collectively return to some form of normality as soon as possible. They are keen to understand how best to engage with retailers, how best to present their product and how we can establish a roadmap which sets out some resemblance of a plan to ensure the key trading time of Christmas is considered and prepared for in sufficient time. The CMJ is co-ordinating Growth and Learning virtual meetings between both retailers and suppliers so that these key areas are discussed and resolved.

The CMJ has equipped jewellers with a free ‘return to work’ package.

When this issue lands, stores will be (hopefully) close to reopening, what challenges do you think jewellers will face when this time comes?
The uncertainty of how consumers will behave must be the biggest challenge. Will they come out? Will they want to spend? Stores will be prepared physically for the reopening. All the necessary social distancing elements will be in place. However, until the level of footfall starts to take shape, the challenge will be knowing how to rota staff sufficiently, whether revenue will warrant desirable opening times and even the ability to purchase stock. Monitoring the consumer activity in other countries where reopening has already commenced gives some indication but really no one has that crystal ball at this stage. All we can do is monitor it daily and react and adapt accordingly.

What advice would you give jewellers as they prepare to open their doors?
These retailers are the best at what they do. There’s very little advice I could give them on that front. And I think that’s it, they’ve got to go do what they’re brilliant at, selling watches and jewellery and servicing the needs of this consumer. They know they need to trade through this recession and they have planned and prepared best they can for this. They know they’ll need tried and tested product and perhaps the addition of some new and exciting lines as well if that’s appropriate. They know they’ll need to assess the situation daily. They will never have had to weather a storm quite like this one, but they will all have certainly had to overcome difficult times. Their entrepreneurial mindset gives them every chance they can come through this one as well. The CMJ will do everything we can to support their individual and collective needs so that we all make it through to what I suspect will be a new normal for some time to come.

How do you think the trade in general can best weather this current storm?
I believe the independent jewellery trade can best come through, at least the next phase of this storm, by considering what consumers will be keen to have when they venture back onto the high street. They’ll want to know it is safe to enter the premises, that you have considered their health and wellbeing. That people will be keen to support local businesses perhaps now more than ever, understanding that this has been a devastating situation for everyone. There will be a desire amongst consumers to thank those that helped them during this period and the jewellery is a great gift to give to show their appreciation. Repairs/ batteries must also be a consideration. And perhaps amongst couples the humbling realisation that our relatively vulnerable existence means expressing our appreciation and love for each other needs to be noted and marked. It is possible we’ll see a spike in proposals of marriage. Tapping into these initial consumer needs and others I’m sure I haven’t thought of, will start to build the tailwind needed to begin the process of steadying the ship.

The Autumn Trade Show has been cancelled due to Covid-19.

What will the CMJ do to replace the physical Autumn Trade Event?
That’s still to be decided but it very close to the top of our priority list right now. We absolutely understand the importance of providing suppliers the platform to present their brands and products and for retailers to determine what will best serve their business to channel through this difficult time and in the not so distant future, optimize the first Christmas this side of the pandemic. A number of options are tabled and being considered and our intention right now is that an ‘event’ of some description will happen as soon as it’s feasible to do so. It is very much one step at a time at the moment. Asking a retailer who is contemplating what it will look like when they re-open, what staffing they might require etc to take time to also attend such a supplier event is difficult to answer right now. But we will get there.

What’s your first impressions of the CMJ?
I am extremely impressed. The CMJ team are fantastic, they really are. The speed at which they adapted when this all started is highly commendable. Whether that was the Board providing financial support straight off in paying the members retro early, the accounts team stepping up their support and coordinating payment terms between the retailers and members or the membership team who have implemented a range of media which means we can all remain in contact. Others have learnt the intricacies of the world of PPE and others have found ways of sourcing support and marketing materials in manner not done before. The Board now meets weekly as opposed to monthly so that the leadership group remains fully up to speed on how the Group is supporting the members. That in itself has pulled on our executive support structure and the coordination of actions and minutes has literally quadrupled. The point in all of this is that everyone has stepped up and the level of conscientiousness and determination to be the best support we can be has been humbling.

Pandemic aside, do you have any goals and visions for the CMJ this year?
I have a good idea where the CMJ needs to focus in the medium to longer term future, but none of this has been discussed as a Board or even as a team right now. I am still learning the business and the market so I’ve nothing concrete formed right now. The strategy and plan that was in place before I started is perfectly sufficient and this will remain in place. I aim to have the goals and vision I would like the CMJ to take established this calendar year but right now it is less relevant. The goal and vision right now is to support our members and even the wider watches and jewellery industry to get back on their feet, their businesses open and to encourage customers to re-engage with our retailers .

Tags : big interviewCMJCompany of Master Jewellers
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The author Stacey Hailes

Editor, Professional Jeweller

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