CORDER’S COLUMN: Why Willie Hamilton should get a hero’s send-off by The CMJ

WatchPro managing editor Rob Corder.WatchPro managing editor Rob Corder.

Calls first started coming into WatchPro and stablemate Professional Jeweller two weeks ago about trouble at The Company Master Jewellers and its chief executive of the past decade, Willie Hamilton.

These types of rumours are commonplace ahead of the summer buying meeting, which takes place this weekend.

It is a bit like the weeks leading up to The Budget, when the chancellor of the exchequer is harangued by everybody with an axe to grind or a cause to promote. It happens every year like clockwork and newspapers publish every attack with glee.

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The grumblings we heard about The Company of Master Jewellers have been a little louder and more specific than usual about Mr Hamilton this year, but there was no reason to assume the controversial chief exec would not ride out the storm again.

We should have paid closer attention as Mr Hamilton’s resignation was announced by the CMJ board today.

The summer buying meeting is always a crucial time for The CMJ.

It is the first opportunity for members – suppliers and retailers – to come together after the financial report of the previous year is circulated, and there is usually something in there to aggravate the more excitable jewellers.

The mood music is a little different this year because these are tough times for independent high street jewellers, and every penny counts.

CMJ members have a financial stake in what is effectively a cooperative, so they scrutinise every line of the accounts for expenditure that might have been saved and returned to them in the form of their annual rebate.

This was an awkward time, therefore, to report that a bonus of £195,000 had been paid to an unnamed member of the management for “successfully negotiating significant supplier contracts over a number of years”.

It will not be this single issue that prompted the departure of Mr Hamilton, but we know it angered several CMJ members, because they told us so.

Bonuses often look jarring in isolation, and the financial report should have provided more information to explain why it was paid. But it is rare for a bonus to be paid out of the blue; it is normally a pre-agreed reward for hitting a pre-agreed target. If a member of the CMJ management hit a target, then the bonus was rightly paid.

Speaking specifically about Mr Hamilton, there is one supplier contract that he negotiated and maintained over many years, and for which CMJ members should be eternally thankful, and that is with Pandora.

The history of this negotiation is Mr Hamilton’s primary legacy and gift to many CMJ members, and it has been masterfully managed. At its peak, over three quarters of the value of jewellery and watches bought by The CMJ on behalf of its members was Pandora jewellery.

Pandora was promoted by Mr Hamilton to CMJ members way back in 2010 when it set up independently from Darren McCormick Jewellery, which introduced the brand to the UK.

When retailers said that silver was not precious enough to sell from a jeweller, The CMJ encouraged them to think again.

When questions about Pandora and the charm bracelet craze were asked, Mr Hamilton told members to stick with it.

Even when Pandora tightened its distribution and started insisting first on corner shop-in-shops and later for full franchise agreements for Pandora stores, The CMJ did not get cold feet.

CMJ member retailers that followed the advice of Pandora, which was robustly supported by The CMJ executive team led by Mr Hamilton, thrived during one of the toughest decades imaginable for high street jewellers.

A handful of CMJ members have become significant multiples since 2010 thanks to their Pandora franchises, and their subsequent investment in growing their own retail jeweller brands alongside them.

The group now has 158 members, representing over 400 individual shops across the UK and Ireland, with over 200 approved suppliers including some of the UK’s most successful high street jewellery and watch brands. This gives them a powerful voice in an industry that is increasingly dominated by the major multiples.

The modernisation of the industry was necessary, and CMJ members benefited from the advice of the executive team, and the information sharing between members that is a key tenet of the buying group.

As Mr Hamilton departs, I for one believe his tenure at The CMJ should be judged as a significant success. Pandora may need buying groups like The CMJ less these days, but the fact that members enjoyed the benefits of working with the Danish behemoth for so long should not be forgotten.

It is unclear whether Mr Hamilton will attend the summer buying meeting in Birmingham this weekend, but he should, and members should give him a rousing send-off towards his new career.

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