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THE BIG INTERVIEW: David M Robinson delivers Michelin-star service

John Robinson – Portrait

Entering David M Robinson’s refurbished and extended Manchester showroom is like walking into a Four Seasons hotel with Michelin-starred levels of service and attention to detail.

Housing a Rolex boutique, Tudor and IWC stations and wide open spaces for the company’s high end jewellery, it is clear the business has taken a less is more approach to interior design. It also makes space for personal service in VIP suites or exclusive customer events.

Managing director John Robinson and his team are like concierges, maître d’s, goldsmiths, horologists and shopkeepers rolled into one, as Rob Corder discovered on a visit to the recently re-opened store for this month’s Big Interview.

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WatchPro: David M Robinson is marking its 50th anniversary this year. Tell me how it all began and the journey the business and your family have been on.

John Robinson: My father David started the business. He had left school at 14. He was good at art and quite dexterous and his art teacher helped him get a job working for a dental technician, shaping and moulding bits of metal. He then made the switch to jewellery, working at the bench. Having learnt his trade, he and my mum, who had some money set aside for their wedding, decided instead to set up their own workshop repairing pieces and manufacturing rings for other retailers. He quickly gained a loyal following and won the De Beers International Diamond Award twice in three years for his designs, which certainly helped the business grow.

He decided to open his first shop in 1969 on North John Street in Liverpool with around £300’s worth of stock. That was the start of the retail business and it has all grown from there. To this day, the workshops have been at the heart of everything we do. That is a USP that we want to keep. We like the idea of being able to take a sketch from a customer for any piece of jewellery and make it. The workshops and creating pieces remain very much in our DNA.

More shops followed in Chester, another one in Liverpool, Manchester, Southport, Altrincham and London. The business has just grown organically by making and selling beautiful jewellery. Watches started to percolate into the mix in the 1990s with a few agencies and that side of the business has evolved over the years to the level of the brand partnerships we have today. We have made plenty of mistakes over the years, but I think family businesses attract some great people and we certainly couldn’t have grown without those individuals and teams.

WatchPro: You make it sound like developing from a small workshop to a network of highly prestigious stores selling the finest jewellery and watches was as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. But it takes serious business skill on top of creative and technical artistry to grow from nothing to a £30 million, plus, company.

John Robinson: Yes it does. We press on every day. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. But we always learn. Workshops and design are a very creative part of our business. Everything we generate goes back in into the business, into stock, into training. We have always grown through word of mouth. We also really like being the underdogs. That is an ethos that remains in the company. We do genuinely love what we do, that helps. You can’t do it alone, you need great suppliers, customers and everyone in DMR goes the extra mile for their customers.

Here in Manchester we are sandwiched amongst the biggest retailers along with a proliferation of other major multiple jewellers and independent boutiques. We like the idea of fighting for our share of the market and looking after our customers.

You need courage and confidence in what you do. I doubt a story like ours could be replicated in today’s market because of the sheer cost of obtaining prime city centre locations, the cost of the staff, the equipment, the stock. I do not know how a young jewellery designer could get a foothold and get started today.

 

 

WatchPro: You mentioned moving into watches in the 1990s. Was that part of a wider strategy of working with powerful brands, and did you do that across watches and jewellery?

John Robinson: We have always made our own jewellery collections; that is something we have worked really hard on and is part of our DNA. We have our own bridal lines with significant diamond rings and we also design fine jewellery collections with earrings, necklaces and rings, which we have given names to like Hopscotch, Honeycomb, Cloud Nine and Lunar that fit within a particular design style and have their own stories behind them.

With watches, I remember TAG Heuer coming along with burst of energy and their connection between sport and watches with their chronographs. There was a real buzz about it and the management of the brands in Switzerland became more professional. I guess we have been lucky to ride on the back of the way those brands have emerged. The story of LVMH, of Patek Philippe, Rolex and Omega is simply amazing in the last 20 years or so.

WatchPro: What effect did the shift into watches have on you at the time?

John Robinson: By the end of the 1990s, we were working with more watch brands and we were trading up all the time. As we started working with more recognised brands, the lower end brands would drop off the radar. I am an admirer of Beaverbrooks, and it is very difficult to compete with a retailer that is as well-run as they are at those lower price points. Those brands were also not right for the types of customers we had on the jewellery side.

At one stage we had seven Rolex accounts along with accounts with Omega, Cartier, Breitling, Ebel, TAG Heuer and Longines. When we acquired Burrells in Canary Wharf, London, they had over a dozen brands in their showroom, which is not a huge showroom. Over a period of time we acquired some brands and lost others. Looking back now, I would say we navigated those waters pretty well. I recall someone in the trade saying you have to choose and commit, you really can’t run with them all. There isn’t the space.

It is not always easy. You can sometimes work with a brand for 10-15 years and then they open a boutique right next to you. That is a bit of a kick in the teeth, but you have to understand that the brands make these decisions for the right reasons. We accept that if they feel the need to go that route, it is probably because we or others have not represented them in the way they would like.

WatchPro: You are right next door to Ernest Jones, which has opened an Omega and a Cartier boutique. There is Breitling boutique within 30 yards of your front door and a Tag Heuer store. Are those the sort of opportunities you considered and turned down?

John Robinson: The honest answer is that we probably could not have afforded to do them at the time. There is not a lot of ego involved in our business. Sometimes opportunities land with you at the right time, sometimes they do not. The Northwest is a very competitive market. If I was the customer, I would go to the Tag Heuer Boutique for the offer and the choice over a retailer stocking 40 pieces. There has been something of a land grab in the last ten years and it’s not easy as the independent against well run and funded multiples.

When you write the cheques with your own money, you can’t afford too many mistakes or to do everything you’d like to. You must compromise.

 

David M Robinson on St Anne’s square in Manchester, one of the most competitive city centres in the country for luxury watch retailers.

 

WatchPro: You have Patek Philippe in some of your other boutiques. Did you ever have the brand here in Manchester?

John Robinson: No, there are already two Patek accounts here. There were three Rolex accounts, and now there are two. As you point out, there is a lot of competition.

Evidently the big brands are consolidating accounts in the best locations and the best environments and a point I would like to make is that I think the brands have been entirely equitable about their decisions. It must at times be very difficult for them to achieve a balance between proactive independents that are prepared to come in and make the investment, and working with their multiple partners. To a large degree they do a sterling job with that. We have had numerous brands change their distribution and sometimes you just have to crack on if you can’t afford to meet their requirements.

WatchPro: The strength of Rolex, Patek Philippe is that they do not have all their eggs in one basket with the multiples. They are genuine partners so that an owner of an independent like DMR can invest the enormous amount of money that has clearly gone into this showroom — with Rolex as the anchor brand — without fear they will open up right opposite you.

John Robinson: The key word is trust. We trust Rolex implicitly, and I hope they trust us the same way. I have to take my hat off to the way both Rolex and Patek Philippe are run. Patek Philippe was not the same company 20 years ago that it is today. Mark Hearn and his team have done a sterling job. The investment they have made in the brand has been huge.

WatchPro: And made the UK one of the biggest markets in the world for Patek Philippe, I believe.

John Robinson: Absolutely. It’s the reward for doing the right thing, for loyalty, for high standards and patience. And it is the same with Rolex. You only have to walk around Rolex’s UK service centre to see the level of investment in watchmakers, training, and equipment. How could you not enjoy working with what Forbes magazine ranks as the world’s most reputable brand?

We are genuinely proud of the partnerships we have and when we get the opportunity to tell the story of not only of their product but of Rolex’s philanthropic and mentoring programmes, I think that is something they could push a little bit more. Rolex is a leader in this regard.

WatchPro: There is some cynicism around and you may be right that Rolex should do more to publicise its charitable work. The danger is that the group’s charitable status and ownership structure [a family trust] just looks like a way to be tax efficient and secretive.

John Robinson: You could argue that Google, Amazon and Starbucks are more creative with their tax arrangements! Ultimately, the UK Government gets its fair share of the VAT from Rolex and Patek Philippe sales. In Rolex, I see a brand that has the opportunity to both give back and make the world a better place – and it does. Our role as the retailers is to offer the luxury experience and let the customers immerse themselves in the brand journey.

On the back of the brands coming to British retailers with concrete plans, vision and foresight, I think that we have the best luxury watch stores in the world. I was in Venice last week and there were 16 watches in the Rolex window. When I walk into Patek Philippe in Heritage (Kowloon) in Hong Kong, there are maybe 20 pieces in the entire shop. People do not even get off their seats to welcome customers. I see the same thing in New York and across the UAE.

When people walk into a good independent in the UK, I think they get a really warm welcome, and we should be proud of our well-trained staff. The same is true for the multiples. When you look at what Brian Duffy and Tony Broderick have done with Watches of Switzerland, or David Coleridge at DM London [now Bucherer], it’s the same. There is theatre, there are super-trained staff. We are part of a sector that is British retail at its very best, and better than anywhere in the world.

 

 

WatchPro: What do you do at DMR to keep pace or stay ahead in such a competitive market?

John Robinson: I think we do a disproportionate amount of training and engagement with the brands. All the teams are trained by the brands and to see the level of enthusiasm and confidence that has permeated through our colleagues after the Rolex or Patek Philippe training is powerful.

We operate an in house training programme and the company pays for any team members who want to undertake the FGA or Retail Jewellery Diploma courses. Most importantly at DMR we try to get everyone in the company to Baselworld. We have taken over 100 colleagues over the years and when they come back they are literally buzzing with excitement. In this fabulous industry of ours it’s great to hear — even from the newest recruits on the shop floor say to our clients, “Well, I was actually at BaselWorld last week and the new product looked amazing”. The trips to Basel usually mean we take 30 to 40 room nights at the hotels there.

We look after our colleagues. This is our fiftieth anniversary and one of the things we were able to do this year was to give everybody in DMR, private medical insurance and the day off on their birthdays. We continue to pay way above industry standards. The average bonus at John Lewis last year was 2-3%. Our average bonus was 22% and we have people that have made considerably more than that because they are simply wonderful. Culture beats strategy.

WatchPro: It always looks to me when I see you together at events like the WatchPro Awards that Patek Philippe dealers are a real band of brothers. Is that to do with the way the network is managed territorially so that you are not fighting over the same customers?

John Robinson: You are right to use the band of brothers expression to a degree because Patek Philippe and Rolex make you feel part of a family. Whenever I meet the directors of those companies, I always come away with the feeling that they are absolutely earnest about the direction they want the business to go in. In this day and age, it is nice to hear brands share their vision. Standards are high and customers get a uniform story across the country. Trust abounds. Their focus is on wanting their brands to be even better in 20 or 50 years, not just increasing sales in the short term.

We are collectively up against the grey market and in a way it is perverse how the market has changed. Ten years ago the grey market would undercut the authorised retailer on price. Then it went to a phase when there was parity of prices, but the grey market offered instant access to products that retailers did not have. Nowadays, there is a premium in the grey or second hand market for certain watches.

That means that customers can walk out of a store with a watch and sell it at a greater profit than the retailer made from selling that watch. I do not know too many industries where that is the case. We need all the AD’s to be on the same page and in the UK they are trying to get the right product onto the right customers.

 

 

WatchPro: How does it feel when you send a Daytona on its way knowing that it could sell immediately for £10,000 more than you just got for it?

John Robinson: We are very considered about the type of customer that gets that product. I do not say that in a glib or arrogant way. We really do our homework and we are diligent about it.

The likelihood is that it will not go to somebody that has just walked into the store and we know nothing about. When we have customers that have spent a lot of money with us, when they are local and loyal customers, when they come to our events, when they recommend us to their friends, when they come to us for servicing, they are the sort of customers we want to share the journey and exceptional products with.

We have a very high percentage of sales to locals. That is something we are fastidious about. We do not want to see watches walk out of the showroom into other markets that we will never see again. In retail we need to make relationships work over the long term.

WatchPro: You want to see that same customer walk back into the store in six months wearing the wristwatch.

John Robinson: Absolutely, wearing and enjoying! and we hope to see him buying a pair of Hopscotch earrings for his wife. We like the idea of customers coming back because their son or daughter has just graduated and they want to buy them a watch or jewellery to mark and celebrate the occasion.

To give you an idea [of how demand for key watches is affecting the business] at our Canary Wharf store, we take forty to fifty calls per day inquiring about what you at WatchPro are calling “unicorn watches”.

We have worked it out that we spend 80 hours per month answering phones for people simply ringing up. Some of those could be from customers with genuine issues, and we have to give everybody the same time and polite answers. We try to steer the conversation towards the range and the choice. Sometimes we can encourage people to come in and see us but they can be very abrupt when told that we have not got the product they want. It has an impact on how we run our business and our aim is to be as fair and equitable as possible with everybody that walks through our doors. In the Christian sense of the word, we treat people as we would want to be treated.

WatchPro: There was an interesting interview with Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern earlier this year, and he talked about not increasing production of steel watches because he wants to always maintain a reputation for luxury premium products. As an authorised dealer for Rolex and Patek Philippe, if you could choose, would you want these brands to divert production away from precious metal DayDates, DateJusts or Calatravas and into more steel Daytonas, Submariners, GMTs, Daytonas and Aquanauts?

John Robinson: The reality is that any authorised dealer is going to receive a very small quantity of Nautilus or Aquanaut in a year. We do not build our business around that. On occasion it would be nice to get a few more pieces for our customers who might have a big birthday or anniversary coming up. It can be difficult when we cannot satisfy a customer we have a great long term relationship with.

But I would not want to be the first port of call for anybody that just wanted to make a fast buck flipping one of these watches. Patek Philippe has a wonderful range and they understand the market implicitly. The entire industry is trying to achieve a balance of perception, choice and range – and availability. They cannot just turn on a tap.

WatchPro: That is understood, but I remember talking to Charlie Pragnell and he made the point that great customers can come in for these dream watches as a gift for an important occasion in their lives. When they cannot get them, they might just go and buy a Porsche or a luxury cruise instead.

John Robinson: That is a valid point. We as a business tend to concentrate on things we can control. Patek Philippe, Rolex and one or two other brands are very earnest about how they want to develop their businesses and I would not want to see them try to be something they are not. Clearly, making a watch is not a case of just throwing a switch and upping the numbers. Our job is to make the idea of a 3 or 5 carat diamond ring seem like a viable and desirable alternative.

There is also a part of human nature that we want something we cannot have and I’m grateful for the demand for such desirable references.

 

David M Robinson in Canary Wharf, London.

 

WatchPro: Scarcity and demand outstripping supply can be great for a brand and retailers.

John Robinson: Provenance, scarcity and authenticity are the key triumvirate and we really do endeavour to get the right product to the right people. It is not an easy balance. And it’s fluid.
As an industry, I think that wider point about customers spending money on other luxury goods instead of watches is a real issue. We all have a responsibility as an industry to keep growing the size of the cake and making horology an attractive choice; not just wearing a nice watch but enjoying the journey and the lifestyle that goes with it.

WatchPro: DMR is competing with the major multiples and every independent authorised dealer in the world for allocations, and I assume that feeds into the sort of investment you make into beautiful stores like we are sitting in here in Manchester?

John Robinson: The best things in life are give and take. The brands are very fair and recognise the investment we make in the physical space, training staff, marketing, events for customers. If I was in their shoes, I would work with the most passionate and proactive partners. Some other countries have AD’s who do not operate at the same level but that is not our concern. We just put as much energy into our business as possible.

Within a two week period at DMR, we have taken customers to the Patek Philippe travel time event in Oxfordshire. We have our golf day next week at Sunningdale with 100 people going. We have 30 people being entertained with Rolex at the PGA at Wentworth. We have a dinner for 100 people here in Manchester with Patek Philippe. We have an event in Canary Wharf for 100 people. This year we have taken people over to Geneva to visit Patek Philippe, we take customers to Wimbledon, to the golf, to football and cricket. We have staff away training, we have the Vicenza Oro show to attend. This is luxury after all and it’s based on experiences as well as the product itself.

WatchPro: Is that all at your expense or shared with the brands?

John Robinson: Often, entirely at our expense, sometimes shared. There are hundreds of occasions when we entertain people. It makes it fun and interesting. Customers genuinely appreciate the level of care we take and the level of gifting. We have an in-house event team that has organised 38 events this year. That is like organising 38 weddings. We make sure that every single element of a client visit is scrutinised. When we invite a client to an event, we gather around 70 pieces of information about that client to ensure the experience is perfect. And we think there is still a long way to go.

 

 

WatchPro: This store in Manchester completed its refurb over the summer. Tell me about how you approached it and what you have achieved.

John Robinson: First and foremost, we want this store to be about the DMR brand. As jewellers, we wanted to create an environment where we can show our jewellery collections to customers. After that, Rolex is our key partner here. We had a key opportunity here in Manchester, the second city in the UK, where we could create a supercharged destination. Because we have this space on the lower ground floor, we have created a Rolex service area. We have a substantial workshop where people can see us working on their watches and jewellery.

Plus, we have this ultra-luxury private space, right in the heart of the city, where people can come in and relax and enjoy themselves. In our first week after re-opening we hosted over 250 guests over four days of private lunches and dinners, the space here lets us flex and the kitchens operate with three chefs and five servers who are here all week.

WatchPro: I feel like I am in a Ritz Carlton in this VIP meeting and event space.

John Robinson: Thank you! We have taken a lot of our cues from the hotel industry. Whether that is the drinks — we get in people’s favourite champagne or wines — a sushi menu, cars sent to people to bring them to store, hundreds of hotel nights, meals out, theatre tickets, football tickets. It is a full concierge service.

We fight against some brands currently thinking they can sell watches online. For that customer the first experience they have of that watch is when it slides through a letter box and hits their door mat. We believe people still crave that experience of human interaction and kindness, and that is what we deliver. To help us, we want to think like 5-star hotels – at the Four Seasons for example, a receptionist has to be able to note five things about a guest’s lifestyle to share with their colleagues.

 

 

WatchPro: For the benefit of people that have not been here, you have 5000 square feet across the ground floor and lower ground reached down a marble staircase under a stunning chandelier. You have three brands: IWC, Tudor and the Rolex boutique, and it feels like 70% of the space is DMR as a jeweller, with almost no visual references to the brands. There is far more space dedicated to your jewellery collections or to private meeting spaces and the workshop than to the watch brands. What is your thinking behind that choice?

John Robinson: We enjoy the juxtaposition of our exclusive jewellery collections with the watch brands because somebody coming in today to look at a Rolex DateJust might also be interested in looking at our jewellery collections. We love it if customers go on a journey with us – for jewellery or for watches.

WatchPro: I think this might be the lowest density of product that I have ever seen in any jewellery or watch store I have visited, not just here, but anywhere in the world. It feels to me like the equivalent of a three Michelin starred restaurant.

John Robinson: French composer Claude Debussy once said, “Music is the space between the notes.” I think he was right. If we look at where our customer base is from, we are as likely now to have a relatively local customer from Alderley Edge in Cheshire or Ambleside in The Lakes, as we are from Hong Kong who has come over to watch City or Liverpool, or a businessperson here for a conference. Everyone is busy! We believe in the power of relationships, and I hope we have created an environment where we can start and build wonderful relationships. Ultimately, it’s only appropriate from our perspective that this DMR showroom allows them to relax and breathe and enjoy the journey.

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Rob Corder

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