The business that has become Leonard Dews was first conceived as an idea in the cauldron of battle that was Cairo during World War I and went on to become one of the biggest watch and jewellery multiples in the country by the time its current owner Michael Hyman joined his father in the 1960s. But family circumstances in the 70s, health scares more recently and a fatal falling out with Rolex have knocked the business back on its heels many times in the past 50 years. Now operating from a single showroom close to Blackpool’s North Pier, the modern day Leonard Dews is expanding again with the creation of a Patek Philippe shop in shop and the addition of a fine jewellery room in a next door unit. It’s impossible not to compare the rise, fall and rise again of the company to the roller coaster of Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, as Rob Corder discovered in conversation with owner Michael Hyman and general manager Gabrielle McNamara.
WatchPro: Take me back to the early 20th century when it all began for your family’s business.
Michael Hyman: The Isle of Man store is where it all began. My Dad got the idea of going into the jewellery trade during the First World War, when he was stationed in Cairo during the war and afterwards until 1923. He was born in Liverpool in 1899 and returned to the city after the war.
My Dad and his brothers went to the Isle of Man in 1923 because they could not stand the deprivation in Liverpool after the war. The whole family went with them and they set up a little shop.
Two years later in 1925 that business got the opportunity to open a second shop in Blackpool. They came over to the North Pier on a paddle steamer and set up shop — literally a little kiosk with a box topped with a bit of velvet — and they started pitching watches. A year later they took a lease on a corner unit and grew from there.
One of my Dad’s watchmakers was John Harwood, who invented the first self-winding watch while they were working on trying to create a waterproof and dust-proof watch.
My Dad died in 1977 about 10 years after I had joined the business in 1968. As often happens with family businesses there was a mess over shares being fought over by different family members that took years to sort out.
WatchPro: When was the heyday, and what did the business look like at that time?
Michael Hyman: The best years were during my father’s time in the 1960s. Leonard Dews came to Blackpool in 1877, and we bought it in 1959. That grew and grew until the mid-1980s. We traded under three names: Hyman, Leonard Dews and Wilkins in the Isle of Mann. We bought the business that became Wilkins in 1929, and it had shops in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Jersey and the Isle of Man. My father and uncle decided to change some of the shops to the Wilkins name because they thought Hyman sounded too Jewish and there was a lot of antisemitism around at the time, especially in the Isle of Man.
At one point they owned seven properties, half of Strand Street (the main shopping street in Douglas on the Isle of Man). What they would do is take their profits at the end of each season and buy freeholds.
WatchPro: What did the business look like when you joined in 1968 and when you took over completely in 1977?
Michael Hyman: When my Dad died in ’77, the business was really struggling. We were specialising in costume jewellery and inexpensive watches at the time. The watches we sold were Rotary, Accurist, Limit, Buler; we were like an upmarket H. Samuel. Samuels, us and Beaverbrooks were all trading at the same sort of level. Beaverbrooks, the Adlestones, Michael Brown, Sydney and Percy and my family were all close. My uncle married Mark Adlestone’s grandmother in the 1950s, and I have remained great friends with Mark.
In the 1960s, we were the fourth largest retailer of Rotary watches, which was very much ‘the brand’ at the time. We imported from Germany and around the world, directly from manufacturers rather than wholesalers in this country. We had our own wholesale company. We had an office in New York before the war. My Dad could not read and write when he left school but he had an amazing gift for know what would sell. He was entirely self-taught and built a business that provided a living for him and all of his brothers.
As I came into the business, the brothers all wanted to get their money out of it and had no heirs. The business became fragmented until my father started buying them out. He would have to sell freehold after freehold to raise the money to buy out his brothers so that by the end of the 1980s we had to rebuild from that point where we had just two remaining shops in Blackpool and the Isle of Man.
WatchPro: Dare I say your family history sounds more dramatic than your business history.
Michael Hyman: It has been a very interesting journey through ups and downs, and you can’t learn that, you have to experience it. It is hard for me to write down my experience of picking the business up from its boot straps, being knocked down again and then finding another way.
Gabrielle McNamara: One thing people will always say about you is that whenever something goes wrong or does not work out, Michael will always find a way of turning it into a positive and moving forward. That is what I was first told and people have told me it many times since.
WatchPro: When you talk about the business in the 1970s, when you were effectively the H. Samuel of Blackpool, then fast forward to today and you are the destination retailer for Patek Philippe and many other luxury watches for most of Lancashire. Something has clearly gone right over the past 40 years.
Michael Hyman: You need to have passion and belief. You need to have a vision and trust your instincts. If the hairs on the back of my neck are prickling and standing up, I know there is something wrong. I remember in 1990, a guy walked into the shop and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up like they have never done before or since. On a Friday morning at 11am he came into the shop and held us up with a shotgun. After that robbery, it took me six to eight weeks to get my head around it, but after that I decided we had to make the best of the situation and make it work.
So, armed with the money that we got from the insurance pay out, we started again. That was a turning point for the business because we told ourselves we were going to transform things. I met Tim Hallett, and he supported me on the diamonds side. I joined the Houlden Group in 1988, but parted ways in 2017. Even after that we proved ourselves to be resilient again.
The Christmas after we were robbed at gunpoint we ran a marketing campaign; it was the back page of the Gazette for four Fridays that featured a series of conversations about why the gunman chose to rob us. It was brilliant because it basically said that we were the only shop worth robbing. It was a brilliant campaign; tongue in cheek, and it worked.
WatchPro: How quickly did things develop from mass market to the luxury end of the market you serve today?
Michael Hyman: We were mainly diamonds but we got TAG Heuer, Omega, Cartier, Ebel and others. It was a good line up. We were fortunate to get all of those brands involved in the next 12-18 months, and the business went from strength-to-strength. We got Rolex in 2011, although it obviously went wrong at the end [in 2017] because I was gullible and got sucked in.
It was a terrible time even leading up to that point. I had been trying to sell the business before the problem with Rolex, and the reason I put it up for sale was that my two managers and I could not agree on the future direction. I’d had prostate cancer and could not deal with the disagreements. They were resistant to me bringing Gabrielle in and promoting her.
When Gabrielle walked through the door, I made up my mind within 5 minutes that I wanted her to come and work for me. Neil agreed but Barry was less convinced. I had to convince my team that Gabrielle was essential for the future of the business. At the time I was going in for the operation to remove my prostate. I didn’t know when I would be back. It could have been six week, it could have been eight. I said I needed somebody to look after our marketing and I believed in Gabrielle.
Later, when I told them I wanted Gabrielle to become general manager, the plan was accepted but tensions grew. It was hell, and it went on for four years. I told my accountant at the time that I was not enjoying it and the situation was going to drive me into an early grave. All I was getting was aggression over buying, budgets, everything. It was absolute hell.
When we lost Rolex from the Isle of Man and Blackpool, the sale of the business fell through. We had a closing down sale [at the Isle of Man store]. It was brilliant. We did £170k on the first day, £270k on the second. Karl Massey helped with that sale, supporting us with organisation and marketing. His team was fabulous, we had people queueing around the block.
With the proceeds of that closing down sale, we had a fresh start in Blackpool with Gabrielle in charge of the business. We knew it was going to be tough without Rolex, but we knew we could make it work. Now, 12 months down the line, things have fallen into place.
Gabrielle McNamara: We had to get people back on side after they found out that the business was going to be sold. I would not have had a job with a new owner so people were uncomfortable. They thought that if the business had been put up for sale once, it could happen again.
Michael Hyman: We had to start from scratch and rebuild confidence that I believe in the business, that I want to do it, that I want to get up in the morning and come to work.
WatchPro: If I was a fly on the all at the beginning of 2017, would it have been clear that it was just the two of you brainstorming about how to take the business forward?
Gabrielle McNamara: I was still at the Isle of Man store until the end of February, 2017. Ever since it has pretty much been Michael and I. Barry left in June last year.
WatchPro: Do you have a five year plan, or do you not think that far ahead?
Michael Hyman: It is interesting you ask that. I meet every eight weeks with a group of other business people from the North West and we mentor each other to an extent. We got to talking about five year plans.
Gabrielle McNamara: Yes, I remember, you had that meeting and then phoned me almost straight afterwards and asked me to come up with a five year plan.
Michael Hyman: The next time I went to a meeting I showed them the five year plan. They knew I had not written it because it was so eloquent and well-presented. Their advice was that if Gabrielle had come up with the plan, then she needs to own it.
Gabrielle McNamara: It took a long time for things to settle down [after the sale of the business fell through and Isle of Man closed]. We had to bring a lot of stock from there into Blackpool. We had to sort out Rolex. It took a while to get things onto an even keel. We had to get the staff back on board and settled. We had to look at everything in detail, find out where savings could be made and where the wastage was. We looked at everything from gas bills to what was in the stationery cupboard.
WatchPro: Was the future of the entire business in jeopardy 18 months ago, or was there sufficient cash and solid enough trading so that you knew it could and would survive?
Michael Hyman: If I had continued with the Isle of Man and Blackpool as it was, even with Rolex, then we would have needed to make some serious decisions about the Isle of Man. The problem with that store, and we only found this out when we told people we were closing, was that the island was in decline. What happened on the Isle of Man is the opposite to what has been happened in Jersey. In Jersey they have attracted new businesses and wealthy residents. The Isle of Man is going the other way and losing prosperity. We were investing more and more into stock, but the turnover was staying the same.
Gabrielle McNamara: It was hard work. The population was declining and we were surviving with a couple of wealthy clients who were masking the underlying problems.
Michael Hyman: I don’t really think that 18 months ago we could have envisaged how far we could have come in this time. If we still had Rolex we could not be doing what we are doing now with next door [turning it into a bridal and fine jewellery room], because Rolex would have said it needed to be turned into a Rolex shop. We would have questioned the huge investment and the financials of that.
WatchPro: What is the difference with Patek Philippe? Surely they are pretty demanding as well?
Michael Hyman: It is a totally different mentality. You can speak to them. I am so grateful to them for allowing us to invest in the brand. Mark Hearn has instilled that same ethos that comes from the top with Thierry Stern. They come and see us three or four times per year and listen to what we need, what our customers need. They know exactly what is w`0hat. They support us. If Mark says he will do something, it will happen.
Gabrielle McNamara: We have a client that is obsessed with Patek Philippe and always goes into the Bond Street salon when he is in London. They know him there and give him 5-star treatment, but they would never sell him a watch because they know he is a Leonard Dews client. The client is loyal to us, we are loyal to him, Patek Philippe is loyal to us and we are loyal to them.
WatchPro: Tell me about the plans for the whole premises when you expand into the next door unit.
Michael Hyman: The total retail area now is 1850 square feet and we will be adding about 40% for the diamond and fine jewellery room. I have said that we want a service point and a bar. We want a wedding ring area and a diamond area. Fope are going in. We are creating a lovely relaxed area with sofas and coffee table. We want it to have the feeling of a modern hotel.
Gabrielle McNamara: The watch side of the shop is traditional with the Patek area. It can be quite intimidating, which is why we want to create this hotel style out of sight of the branded watch area. It is for a younger market and we want to catch them at their first purchase when they are buying an engagement ring.
Michael Hyman: The other thing we are doing with the fine jewellery is produce our own jewellery collections. We have hired our own jewellery designer to create that as a point of difference. She will create clear collections with their own identities and target customers.
Gabrielle McNamara: A lot of jewellers expand by taking on watch brands, and cater to them. By doing the fine jewellery room we are setting ourselves apart. What we are planning on doing with our own jewellery collections is to take references and influences from Blackpool, so things like the ballroom, dance, art deco; those sort of things. It won’t be so gimmicky that it only works for people in Blackpool, it will just take influences from the town and the North West.
There are going to be other changes as well. We are going to have a new logo, we are going to have new advertising, new stationery, new boxes. This is all being worked on and people will see the new Leonard Dews for 2019 rolling out from this September.