Michael Wainwright has been at the helm of Boodles since 1992 and has seen the brand grow into a renowned force in the jewellery industry across the UK over that near 27 year period. In conversation with WatchPro he outlines how British business has been, and continues to be, a major factor in the growth of the company and how its relationship with Patek Philippe has allowed for positive sales and strong growth throughout his tenure.
Being voted as the UK’s best independent luxury jeweller at the annual WatchPro Awards last November rounded off what was a good 2018 for Boodles. Just days after the event, the release of Boodles’ financial results for the year ended February 2018 confirmed its enduring strength in the fine jewellery and watch business.
Setting a new record for the family-run business, Boodles saw sales rise by 5.6% to £70.8m and allowed them to truly celebrate the company’s decision to open a new site in Manchester earlier in the year, something which had contributed to the success.
Additionally, despite business in Harrods being affected by a move into a temporary position within the Knightsbridge department store due to a major renovation in the Fine Jewellery space, top line sales were also maintained.
The company currently has nine boutiques in the UK, six of which stock Boodles’ only watch brand, Patek Philippe. The exclusivity of Patek Philippe at Boodles is something Michael Wainwright, director at the firm, thinks can set it aside from competitors. Commenting on the British market and what Patek has done for the Brand in the UK opposed to how it looks to potential overseas clientele, Mr Wainwright explains: “We’ve realised what we are good at, and what we are good at is servicing and creating relationships with British entrepreneurs. My brother is based in Liverpool and I am based down here, and our friends think we sell to clients from the Middle East, and Russia, but we don’t. We have several Middle Eastern clients, and a lot of American customers from the Savoy, but our life and blood is British entrepreneurs who have got or sold their own businesses. Masters of their own destiny.”
Selling mainly to British customers not only means Boodles is insulated from any peaks and troughs that the value of the pound has on tourist spending, it also sits well with Patek Philippe, which wants personal relationships between the brands, its retail partners and people that own its watches.
“The buzz word now is relationships. This is absolutely crucial,” says Mr Wainwright. “Our watch business is virtually unknown to Asians. If you look at Watches of Switzerland I think they are selling a lot more to overseas people, we sell a lot more to British people, which is why they [Patek Philippe] quite like giving us decent watches because they know they are going to British people,” he continues.
Having Patek Philippe behind the Boodles business is nothing but a good thing, helping it be consistently recognisable and preventing it from getting lost among a plethora of other high end retailers in both the watch and fine jewellery markets. It gives Boodles instant credibility to visitors to Britain, which despite having a focus on domestic business, is a customer base Mr Wainwright says he wants to see increase. “Someone who doesn’t know you from Timbuktu will see Patek Phillipe and then it puts you in a certain category,” Mr Wainwright suggests.
Arguably the most internationally-focused store in Britain is Harrods, where Boodles has a substantial presence in its jewellery room, but does not sell Patek Philippe there. Interestingly, even in Harrods it is more domestic customers that Boodles serves. “Harrods is international, but there are so many jewellers in Harrods that are not catering to British people whereas we are. Of course our long term aim is to up our international clientele, but we are rather unique in our British following so this is something we really play to as one of our strengths.”
Typically, if you look at the UK, it is effective for retailers to concentrate their time and efforts in the south east and mostly in and around London. However, if you ask Boodles, it is quite different. Yes, it is important to be successful in London with flagship locations like Bond Street where WatchPro and the Boodles director met, but the high-end sales in the Northeast are also important.
The reasoning for this, according to Mr Wainwright, is due to the “red hot” competition in London which is not so intense in the North. Boodles actually sells more high-end pieces in the North than they do in central London, he reveals.
“Do you think watch brands other than Rolex and Patek make any money for anyone? I don’t know. I am putting it out there.” Michael Wainwright
Because of this, it is important that each Boodles location is different and can, in turn, differentiate due to its geographical location and corresponding customer base. Even in different areas of the capital the retailer says it tends to see a younger population of people popping into store to browse whereas elsewhere, the customer is often older and will be looking at a more expensive item, such as a Patek Philippe wristwatch.
Mr Wainwright believes that the stores targeting different demographics in different parts of the country set them apart. “Our businesses are quite different from each other. We’ve got nine shops. They’ve all got their own personality in different ways. Essentially what we are doing and what we have in those shops is the same, but we will have far more high value in Harrods than we would have in the Royal Exchange [in the City of London] for example. In the Royal Exchange we don’t often sell anything over £40-50,000 as it tends to be younger people popping in. So those businesses our quite different from each other.
“Funnily enough we sell more high value things in the north of England than we do in the south, for the fact that there is no-one holding £100k, £200k, £500k stock like we do. If you are in Chester or Manchester and you want to spend that sort of money, no one carries that stock other than Boodles. If you want to go out this afternoon in London and spend a quarter of a million pounds on a piece of jewellery you could go to fifty places, the competition is red hot. Of course there are a lot more people wanting to buy those sort of things, but there are a lot more places people can go.”
The move into Manchester last year was a successful one for Boodles and has given the company a positive feeling looking ahead for the rest of 2019 and beyond. Mr Wainwright outlined the low rents and high value customers in the area as a positive for the company and helping it make money.
This confidence on the back of a new opening could therefore pave the way to more locations in the future, but this would come with considered and careful thought first, especially within current climate on the high street and there are no firm plans yet to announce.
A key consideration would be whether a new store could secure Patek Philippe, a kingmaker brand for any business in today’s market not only for its watch sales, but for the type of customers it could attract to spend money on jewellery. “Yes, it really is a game changer. It helps your jewellery business too and indeed it helps your watch business. We convert a lot of jewellery customers into watches and some watch customers into jewellery. People aren’t opening shops at the moment anyway. They are doing pop up shops. They are doing more events. Opening shops probably isn’t the wisest thing at the moment,” Mr Wainwright muses.
Speaking of the future, WatchPro wonders whether Boodles might take on any other watch brands, either from the big groups or from the top end, low volume independent watchmakers.
Mr Wainwright answers a question with a question. “Do you think watch brands other than Rolex and Patek make any money for anyone? I don’t know. I am putting it out there. There is absolutely no appetite from some of my co-directors to take on more watches. In fact, we told Rolex we didn’t want them in the 1990s. It would have been very off brand for us in the 90s and a huge security risk. We thought we could live without it. We are very focused on our own brand.”
It therefore seems that the future for Boodles will be defined by Patek Philippe, jewellery and capitalising on the existing UK markets while steadily building relationships with customers from around the world.
From its humble beginnings in Liverpool in 1798, through its time as Boodle and Dunthorne to becoming Boodles in 2004, the company is now, according to Michael Wainright, weighing up where to go next.
He says that throughout its time, Boodles has always been very reliant on marketing advertising and a strong staff workforce, describing how of the current 110-strong team, “we hardly lose anyone we don’t want to lose.”
On building the company for the future, Michael and his brothers previously had a five year plan that helped them set out goals and objectives for the future. But, in recent years they’ve have gone without this visionary plan and it is something they’re keen to get back. “We used to have a five year plan. We don’t have one of those at the moment and I think we are going to try and do one. I think it will be a good exercise for us to do that because it gets you thinking about your business beyond the next year. I mean it depends who you ask. My brother, who is 70, is thinking very much about today and next week, whereas James [Amos] is a very thoughtful chap and he’s thinking well into the future strategy wise, which I think is wise.”.