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THE BIG INTERVIEW: John Robinson of David M Robinson

John Robinson talks about his new London showroom, the post-pandemic boom and how Rolex’s certified pre-owned programme may transform the market.

There is a lot happening at David M Robinson. WatchPro sat down with MD John Robinson to talk new boutiques, expansions of existing showrooms and the importance of good partnerships.

WP: Can you tell us about the changes you have made recently to the showroom in Canary Wharf?

JR: In the middle of the pandemic, in June 2020, I went to have a look at Canary Wharf. They normally have 230,000 people passing through in a day, and on that day, they had 5% of that figure. I walked around and it was like a ghost town. It was really scary.

I met with the Canary Wharf retail management team — 20 yards away from each other, with sanitised hands and face masks on. I asked whether they would consider putting two units together for us because, despite the uncertainty, we believed in Canary Wharf and in the huge growth potential of it.

We worked out a deal. We got in touch with Rolex and they fully supported the new showroom — it’s five times the size of the old one and it’s an amazing space for customers. The back-office environment is superb and it’s going to give us the opportunity to keep on learning and developing. Within that store, we have a lot of experience, a lot of passion and a lot of drive and we love being part of the Canary Wharf community.

WP: You say that Canary Wharf was a ghost town in 2020. Since the pandemic most people have started working, at least part time, from home. How has the post-lockdown bounce-back been there?

JR: Well, the simple answer is that it really has bounced back. It’s an area that is spotlessly clean and well controlled and managed. People feel safe in Canary Wharf, which I know is an interesting adjective to use, but I understand it because I feel safe working there. They have just announced a new build of apartments — around 2,000 costing up to £2 million.

Plus, there are a lot of companies moving into the area. And of course, after many, many years of delays, the Elizabeth Line is up and running and is really something for us to be proud of. It means that people can get in and out of Canary Wharf and to the West End in 11 minutes. Let’s hope that the investment spreads to the north of the UK now — but that’s a topic for another day.

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David M Robinson’s expanded Canary Wharf showroom.

WP: Beyond Rolex and Patek Philippe, which brands are selling best in Canary Wharf today?

JR: One brand doing very well for us is Tudor and I’m very proud that it is an exclusive for us in Canary Wharf, as is Patek Philippe. From what we understand, there’s going to be a reduction in the number of Patek ADs in London. I don’t know the full extent but that is what we are hearing, so we are fortunate that they are pleased with our new space and we’ve got their support moving forward.

WP: And you have your fine jewellery in Canary Wharf as well?

JR: Yes, and it’s doing really well. Our jewellery sales across the company are up by over a third. We have a lim­ited time to grab people’s attention in Canary Wharf, to sit them down, relax and see what we have to offer. There aren’t many places where you can get a bespoke product made and people do like to put their personality on pieces now. So yes, I’m thrilled for the team and I’m pleased for the bounce-back of Canary Wharf because it’s such a vital part of our economy.

WP: You are opening a boutique inside the new Peninsula London Hotel in Belgravia. What can you tell us about that?

JR: Back in the day, I used to fly out to Hong Kong for trade shows. I would inevitably end up in some awful hotel. I would walk past the Peninsula and I had this dream that one day I’d be able to afford a night there. Then one day it happened and I read about its history and I watched the green Rolls Royces come in and out. It had the best view from the top of the hotel and a restaurant designed by Philippe Starck. It was simply fabulous.

Anyway, when I realised that the Peninsula was coming to London, I got in touch, not really knowing whether or not they would be receptive. We have some friends who are in luxury hospitality who helped us pitch the idea with the powers that be in Hong Kong.  We submitted some plans and started to liaise with the head of global real estate in Hong Kong.

Obviously, we couldn’t meet during lockdown, but when she came over to London just after, we got together. And I have to say that their dealings with us as a prospective tenant, and now a tenant, have been great. They have a true long-term approach.

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How the new boutique in the Peninsula Hotel will look.

It opens in the summer, and the bar on the roof alone is worth a visit. There’s a particular view of London looking across Buckingham Palace Gardens and Wellington Arch. You can see Big Ben and the London Eye, and the Shard and Canary Wharf in the distance.

The Peninsula will really elevate the top end of the London hotel hospitality sector. It’s opening in partnership with Grosvenor and apparently, they waited 30 years for the site to become available. It’s going to be a great addition to the city.

WP: We have all heard the cautionary tales of jewellers and luxury retailers opening in hotels there’s a virtual graveyard full of headstones. What’s going to be different about this one?

JR: There are no guarantees. I think it was Woody Allen who said that 80% of success in life is in showing up. We’re really quick learners and I think that we’re all trying to make the hotel as successful as possible. We want to be able to bring some of the companies and celebrities that we work with into the mix and to give them a great experience.

And I think if we as a company work with our partners to make the London watch and jewellery cake bigger, then hopefully at the end of the day, we might be able to have our slice of the cake as well.

We already have a lot of customers within London, as well as many clients in the North West who have homes there. Plus, we will be working hard to make sure that people see us as a destination based on the environment — 98% of all the guests arrive by car into this beautiful courtyard and we’ve never had a business that’s got such a wonderful food and beverage operation on its doorstep.

If our team is good and our offer is good, and we’re putting something unique in front of people, then I think they will find their way to us if. And passion and enthusiasm also count for a lot.

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The Peninsula boutique will sell curated pre-owned pieces as well as new.

WP: What brands are you planning on having in the Peninsula boutique?

JR: The DMR jewellery brand and a curated range of pre-owned pieces as well, as some of our customers want to reduce their collections. We might be talking about 20, 30 or 40 pieces in what is quite a large showroom, so the emphasis will always be on DMR pieces and continuing the success of the high jewellery collections that we’re working on.

WP: Two things stand out about you, John. One is that you’re humble and generous. The other is that, in the best possible way, you see opportunities others may miss. The Canary Wharf expansion and Peninsula development during lockdown are great examples. Is this something you’re conscious of?

JR: I think all good retailers are opportunistic — it’s a relative term. I have two good friends in James Timpson of Timpson’s and Simon Arora of B&M and they take opportunism to a different level. We see it as another chance to keep on learning. Was it opportunistic expanding in Canary Wharf? Perhaps. But we’re big believers in Canary Wharf, we want it to work. It’s important for London, It’s important for the UK economy.

And don’t forget, we are up against some really good competition everywhere we are — there’s Beaverbrooks, Bucherer, Boodles and Watches of Switzerland, and they’re all good companies, with great management.

They’ve been around a lot longer than us and they can perhaps afford a few more mistakes, so, we need to bring something else to the party. And if we can do it through engagement, great teams, passion, commitment, caring, kindness, then that sits comfortably with me. I don’t see that as opportunistic because that’s us being what we are.

There is no ego involved in our decision-making. I think the time was right for us to open in the West End. We’ve been looking for a while and the pandemic obviously changed the landscape a little bit. We couldn’t afford to be on Bond Street, so we have to cut our cloth. But it’s very difficult just to stand still in business.

I’ve got a team of people that I work with who believe they can do it. I listen to them constantly. If people thought that we couldn’t do it and we’d bitten off more than we could chew, we might think again. The watch market is changing rapidly and we knew we had to march towards the gun fire or just walk away.

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Liverpool ONE’s Omega boutique.

We decided with the Swatch Group to open an Omega boutique in Liverpool One. It’s next to Apple, Zara and John Lewis and that’s quite an interesting environment. But I think we have found a way to make it work well and it is a great success.

We then wanted to try and do something with TAG Heuer in Liverpool. And so, we have a boutique just along the road from the Omega store, which will open in the autumn and we intend to make it spectacular. It’s probably one of the biggest boutiques that TAG Heuer will do in the UK. Marks & Spencer is opening behind us in Liverpool One in June or July and that will move the dial in that development again.

WP: And you have just opened a Tudor boutique in Manchester as well.

JR: Yes, in St Anne’s Square. That now becomes one of seven or eight standalone boutiques in Manchester city centre. So, from a regional point of view, there is perhaps some cumulative attraction for luxury clients. We are very positive about it. Opportunistic it might be, but I’m aware of the fact if we don’t do it, there are lots of other people that will. We’re grateful for the opportunity to try to deliver an amazing experience and we learn more every day about how to do it.

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Inside Manchester’s Tudor boutique.

What has astounded us with the Omega boutique, is the ability to pull people into Liverpool as part of a luxury shopping experience. We bring people in from Anglesey, Ambleside and Alderley Edge. We have a chauffeur driven car permanently available and the managers can call on that service to bring the clients in. We are always questioning whether we can add to that luxury journey? I think we can.

There is a ladder of horology and you have to make sure that people are enthusiastic about all the price points. Everybody’s on a journey and somebody buying a TAG Heuer today might become a Patek enthusiast in 20 years’ time. You need to show that purchasing a wristwatch is more than just buying a tool to tell the time. And the feedback we get from clients is that they are genuinely grateful for what we do and the insight we offer.

WP: Speaking of climbing that horological ladder, as an Omega AD, did you see a rise in interest in the Speedmaster with the launch of the MoonSwatch last year?

JR: There was definitely an uplift. We had lots of people coming into the Omega boutique trying to buy one and had to explain to them that it was the right company, but the wrong showroom. However, it did allow us to engage in dialogue and share some insights. And yes, we did manage to sell more Moonwatches on the back of the MoonSwatch collaboration.

I think it’s been great for generating noise in the industry. We’ve got a whole new group of people out there now who want to have something on their wrist. And for us, as an industry, it bodes very well. Anything that gets people talking is good — and if this converts them into watch lovers and buyers, all the better.

WP: Talking about Liverpool and Manchester, do you think brands are taking more interest regionally since the pandemic and the lack of international travel to London?

JR: I can’t speak for the brands, but I think that there are some good strong retailers in interesting cities and everybody has upped their game. I think the level of service in regional cities in the UK warrants further investment.

The luxury sector is really important in any city — we can invite people into Liverpool One for example and sometimes we put them up in hotel for the night or send a car for them, and before you know it, the restaurants get a little bit busier and then they want to watch the football or visit the museums and all sorts of things can come out of that visit.

It’s probably a function of what happened in the pandemic. Travel is still a nightmare — of the last 15 train journeys I have taken to London, only one got in on time. But the real elephant in the room is what happens with the VAT rebate scheme. I don’t think we know yet what the full impact is going to be.

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The David M Robinson champagne bar at Liverpool ONE.

WP: Will it be more about which brands are going to be the most affected? Because if you’re talking about brands with restricted allocation, then people possibly won’t take that trip to Paris to try to buy a Rolex or Patek. But they may well make that trip for a high-end IWC that’s more widely available.

JR: Yes, that might be the case. As a company, we’ve always concentrated on looking after our loyal local clients and we never really had the skill set to go after the international market with guides and that kind of thing, so we’ve really never had a big overseas business as such.

But I do think that the luxury industry in the UK should not be isolated by government policy preventing economic activity. We need to make people welcome because if we don’t, other European cities will. We need to make sure that, even if we don’t have the rebate scheme, we are still attractive to people.

You know, we have had some customers who come in and spend a lot of time with us learning about specific watches and then go and pick them up in an airport — bringing them back to us to be sized. At the moment, the UK is not on a level playing field.

I have been traveling a lot in France, Switzerland and Italy recently and I have wandered into some boutiques. Out of seven or eight visits, I don’t think I’ve even been offered a chair, let alone a watch.

If I compare that to the UK, the vast majority of the retailers have raised standards hugely because we really do want to look after our clients. I don’t think the government recognises that, whether you’re a manufacturer, retailer or distributor, there’s a huge amount of economic activity around us and we need luxury to trigger economic activity in the UK.

WP: It does seem a crazy time to be strapping somebody’s hands behind their back in order to operate. But you prove as well as anybody, that you can take price sensitivity out of the equation if you do your job well. And I’m sure that’s central to your success. 

JR: You know, I think you should just treat people how you’d like to be treated. I tell all my staff to imagine customers as family friends or as relatives. We may lack some specific skill sets but we have honesty, kindness and trustworthiness in our DNA.

WP: How do you handle new customers who come in and want to get onto a waiting list for one of the rarer watches?

JR: I don’t think there is a stock answer to that question because as an AD for some great brands all we can do is treat everybody equally. We encourage people to sit down and have some refreshments and we try to engage in a good dialogue.

In a lot of cases, people have read articles or they’ve seen things on Instagram, which are often absolutely untrue. So, we can share insights and some of the frustrations that exist and most of the time we get to the next stage with the clients, or we at least leave them with a good impression of the industry.

There is no magic drawer full of 5711s so we work very hard at making sure our colleagues understand what people’s expectations are and how to manage disappointments. And we try to be honest and truthful because ultimately, if you’re always honest, you never have to remember anything you may have said. If the quality of our advice and its delivery is first rate, then we have the opportunity of continuing a relationship. We’re certainly not perfect.

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The exterior of the Canary Wharf showroom.

The number of times that people become aggressive or are not nice to us is increasing, but that often points to the real reason behind their interest. It’s very easy to get cynical and we really try not to be.

Somebody could come in and at first glance appear to be flipper but I’m pleased to say that nine times out of ten, there is a genuine interest, and that’s partly because of the way the sector is covered now. The level of branding and marketing in the industry today is absolutely first rate and it is a pleasure to witness.

We are always delighted to see new people walking into a luxury showroom and I think most people are pretty genuine — especially if they’re going to go on the journey and actually step foot inside a boutique, which can be pretty intimidating with the security guards and so on. We’re trying to break that down, but there are times where we have to explain that for whatever reason, we don’t have the product people want.

WP: The UK has an earned reputation for being one of the cleanest markets in the world in terms of doing everything possible to avoid flippers. Personally, I don’t think there are as many ‘professional’ flippers as people think.

JR: No, I don’t think so. I think the problem is diminishing and I think in the UK both the brands and the AD network deserve credit for the way they have handled it.

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The exterior of the Liverpool ONE Omega boutique.

WP: And there is a big difference between flipping and simply buying, selling and trading as part of collecting. There’s this idea that if you want to trade then you can’t be real watch lover, but surely its part of the hobby you buy and you sell?

JR: There are people out there who have collected an amazing portfolio of watches and look at their collections and think there might be one or two pieces that they don’t wear as often as they used to and decide to liquidate and declutter.

I think there are four parts of the watch market. There’s obviously the new, the second-hand part, the auctioneering side, and then there’s also a fourth market which is watches being handed on from generation to generation.

As an asset class, we would never advise anybody to go wholesale into watches, but as a diversified part of their portfolio for some people, it’s a fun area to be in and the pricing is actually pretty transparent.

WP: Looking at your financial results, you were going great guns at around the £30 million mark. And then suddenly in 2022, you were at the £50 million mark. It was an incredible year and part of that has to do with the price on the secondary markets.

JR: People want the best in class and the way modern technology works, they easily find out what the best is. If the price differential between your dream watch and something else is only 25%, then many people will stretch themselves. Retailers around the country have benefited from that, but we also went through a period during covid when our sales were 5% of what they were the previous quarter and that’s a scary place to be.

It did bounce back, but there were no guarantees at the time and when you go three months without much revenue and you’re still paying your bills and paying all your creditors, it’s really scary. Maybe some people look back in a different way, but I didn’t enjoy it. I think we learned a lot from it and I hope people are a little bit kinder now.

Ultimately it was my job to get my colleagues through covid safely. And that’s what we did. The tide has risen for much of luxury and our little boat rose on that tide too.

WP: Obviously, everything froze completely in March 2020. But since then, it’s been a golden period for the luxury watch industry. Swiss watch export figures for this year are at CHF 25 billion and we have all asked why that is. People were spending time at home and had savings building up, but I think maybe the biggest difference was that we had time to stop and plan long-term. I think we’ll probably go to CHF 30 billion and that was unimaginable in 2019. 

JR: From our perspective, I think what changed was people’s perception of risk. When times are hard, you find out the value of your watch when you try to sell it, not when you buy it. It’s the same with cars and other asset classes. And I think people discovered the financial value of their Rolex was perhaps a bit more than they thought it was.

Others realised that when you can’t travel and you’re at home, it’s good to have something nice to put on and look at. And the cost per wear of a watch is so much more economical than other forms of luxury. You wear a designer dress maybe 20 times and then you have to find a way to turn it into cash. It’s a completely different proposition with watches.

The increased profits for us have all gone back into the refits and getting our estate to be the best it can be. We invested hugely in a system called Salesforce because we want to make sure that we’re at the forefront of the digitalisation of retail.

The reward for doing well is the opportunity to do more. And I think that most retailers have chosen to fix their roof whilst the sun is shining.

WP: I think that’s been appreciated by the brands in the past couple of years in a way that it might not have been before. And that may be why we’re seeing more monobrand stores because they want to work with people who have expertise and experience in retail rather than sell direct to consumer.

JR: I think you’re right. I’ve got a few friends in online retail and during the pandemic, their numbers were going through the roof and they’ve been surprised by how much physical retail has bounced back. But I think it’s because of the level of service and attention to detail that you experience in a really good boutique in the UK.

Lawyers and accountants are brilliant at charging by the minute. We don’t live in that world. We are in the business of curating not processing. We have to realise that the customer that is in front of us for the first time today, might turn out to be the best customer we’ve ever had.

I don’t see too many other industries going as far as ours to look after the client.

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Manchester’s Tudor boutique.

WP: And I imagine it is paramount to look after your team and make sure they are equipped to give expert advice and build relationships with the customers?

JR: The most important customers of a retail brand are the people who work within that brand. And when I look around at the companies that we deal with, particularly Rolex, LVMH and Swatch Group, they are exemplary — that’s why they’re the world’s leading brands. People work for them because they have a great product and put some joie de vivre into life.

We are in an industry where we see people who, generally speaking, want to celebrate and mark an occasion — the birth of a child, a promotion, a graduation, a marriage. How lucky are we to work in that environment?

My mum and dad started this business 50 years ago in a small workshop in the backstreets of Liverpool. Their day one thinking was that you are only as good as how the last customer to walk out of the door feels about you.

So, we’ve always had a drive to over-deliver. And I’m really lucky to work with amazing people. We value them and listen to opinions and, in return, they bring all the qualities we expect — brilliance, generosity and kindness.

I’m here to look after my colleagues in any way I can. They can rest assured that the company cares. So we’ve been super flexible on working from home, added bonuses for this winter’s fuel bills and we pay bonuses up to 50% of excellent salaries. We don’t struggle for CVs.

WP: That has to come from the top.

JR: People have been like that with me over the years and it’s how people should be, isn’t it?

WP: With the current financial uncertainty and secondary market prices going down, what are you seeing happening on the ground in the primary market?

JR: Let’s exclude Rolex and Patek as they are slightly different cases. When it comes to the other brands, I think everybody would recognise that no one sails in a straight line. So, it would be impossible to maintain the momentum that’s been in place for the past two or three years and I’m sure that there’s going to be a pause for thought in that regard.

We’re in a strange place because it looks like there’s a lot of negativity around, but actually, when you talk to people in the business, there are very few who are full of doom and gloom.

As a company, we’ve never felt sorry for ourselves. We try to control the controllable and not worry about the rest. It’s interesting, we are apparently in recession, but try and book a business class flight and you’re going to struggle.

If you want to check into a nice hotel in the Lake District, or a restaurant in London, you’ve got to get your reservation in quickly. And I saw a figure in the Sunday Times a couple of months ago that said in the next decade, £325 billion worth of property in the UK is going to pass from one generation to another. There’s evidently a lot of money out there still.

I think people are more diligent about their decision-making and not just looking for something that might hold its value, but rather something that they will enjoy every day and pass on to their kids. So that’s the world we operate in. And we’re not going to downgrade anything that we do as a business in terms of training and looking after our clients. We’re going to keep our foot flat down because that’s the only thing that we know.

WP: People are definitely still spending. I look at the queues for Starbucks when I’m walking to the office every day and those queues are as long as ever. 

JR: We use that analogy a lot. You do the maths — £5 a day, £25 a week, £100 a month, £1,200 a year. But I also understand that that cup of coffee plays a really important part in people’s lives. And it means that people are out in communities and talking to each other and engaging and seeing that it’s not a scary world out there.

We do a lot of work with the OnSide Youth Zones. If you put into the poorest communities a place where kids feel safe to talk to people and have something to do and can get a bit of guidance, then great things can happen.

So, if we do that as retailers — taking kids to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic or the Tate Gallery, or we can get them to contribute to Alder Hey hospital — it can only be positive. You don’t need too many people to contribute before the world starts to be a better place, despite what the politicians tell us.

We did an event with Rolex last year in Liverpool Cathedral for 250 guests in black tie enjoying five courses, with our partners at The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and several of their musicians playing live for our guests. A great time was had by all, but I was pleased to hear that several new supporters got in touch with the Philharmonic following the event, so ultimately our community benefits again from luxury.

WP: Are these community outreach projects that you do as a business?

JR: Yes, we are founding patrons of the OnSide Youth Zones. We’re starting to build them in London now. They cost £7 million to build and every community should have one. I think we have around 3,000 kids a week going into the Zones now, plus 300 mentors involved, enabling the kids to do a range of activities in a completely safe space for them.

In the areas where they operate, anti-social behaviour falls off a cliff. The police are delighted and the kids are getting fed and are more engaged in school. It’s positive after positive after positive.

Sometimes to change things for the better, all you need to do is give people a cup of coffee or a bite to eat or just listen to them. We have to play our part as retailers and everybody that works in our organisation has got a heart and cares about something, and it’s just a privilege to work with them.

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