WatchPro’s Rob Corder spoke to Neil Dunwell, managing director of Dunwell Jewellers on the Isle of Man in early February, just days after the island allowed non-essential retail to reopen, becoming the only part of the UK at the time where jewellers could trade from their stores. Having steered the business through one of its most tumultuous years, Mr Dunwell is now looking forward to slowing down and easing into retirement.
WatchPro: How long have you been open since your lockdown?
Neil Dunwell: We closed when Covid hit on 23 March, and we didn’t reopen until 26 May. So we were closed for two months really.
I think the Isle of Man’s government did pretty well from the off by closing the borders straight away. We had something like 22 deaths, most in old people’s homes. They dealt with it pretty quickly, and we went many, many days without any further Covid outbreaks.
WatchPro: Have you been open since 26 May until now?
Neil Dunwell: We went into lockdown again on 4 January because Covid hit us again. It was just a matter of somebody bringing it over. There were about a dozen cases suddenly from nowhere.
The government again closed the borders, and we went into a circuit-breaker lockdown for four weeks. We then reopened again on Monday 1 February. It’s all back to normal here really. Everything’s open and carrying on.
WatchPro: What has it been like on the island? Have you felt free to go about your daily lives?
Neil Dunwell: We have been free because for the majority of last year, from 26 May onwards, pubs and restaurants were open and we were able to live a totally normal life.
The only thing we weren’t able to do was go anywhere else. If you did leave the island you had to self-quarantine for 14 days on coming back.
Most people just stayed put and we were fortunate enough we could go about our lives, going to restaurants and enjoying life. We’ve been very lucky. I think we’re all very proud of what our government has done.
WatchPro: What’s it like for you there tuning into the news coming from the UK?
Neil Dunwell: It is weird. The conversation we are having umpteen times a day with customers is how lucky we are that we haven’t got this over here.
We’re not having to live the life that people in the rest of the UK are. We’re all thanking our lucky stars that we’re here because it’s one of the few safe havens in the world.
WatchPro: Are you usually very dependent on tourism?
Neil Dunwell: The Isle of Man is a pretty expensive place to visit. People can go to Spain for less money so we don’t benefit greatly from tourism.
I do think though, and I think this is where my business has to look to the future, there is some fantastic press the Isle of Man has been getting of late.
There’s going to be an increase in people wanting to live or visit here, so I reckon the increasing population is very much a thing of the future due to this Covid crisis.
WatchPro: Are there tax advantages in the Isle of Man?
Neil Dunwell: Well, I think we pay less tax than in the rest of the UK. VAT is the same. People do confuse us with the Channel Islands. But yes, we do pay less tax on earnings.
There are benefits but that can be tempered with the fact we pay more for produce – meat, cheese, milk. On the luxury front, though, a watch in my window is the same as it is in Manchester or Liverpool.
WatchPro: How’s trading been this past year?
Neil Dunwell: It’s incredible because we’ve literally done exactly the same amount of business as we did the previous year, even with three months less trading.
Our trading year goes from February 1 to Jan 31 and we’ve done exactly the same amount of business but with three months less trade, when we’ve been closed.
Our September-November period was double the previous year, and not to say that 2019 was poor as we had a great Christmas, but we beat it convincingly.
That may be because people are scared to buy our products online because they want to try it on. It’s all due to the fact we’re an island and we have found a lot of new customers too.
We still try to do business when we’re closed. There’s still birthdays and anniversaries going on, so people have still bought stuff. We’ve done our best.
WatchPro: How did you conduct business in the January lock down?
Neil Dunwell: People just emailed me, saying ‘Neil, it’s my wife’s birthday…’ or whatever, and asked for a pair of earrings. I think it’s good PR that me and the team have been out in our cars delivering repairs and products, so business was still happening.
WatchPro: Being a small island, how well do you know your clients?
Neil Dunwell: 84,000 isn’t a lot of people, and I think we’re the only high-value jeweller on the island. That sounds a bit snobbish and I don’t mean it that way, but the other one was Charles Alexander and they closed due to retirement last January.
So if somebody wants that something a little bit more special then they know where to come, and they have found us because there’s nowhere else. And they’ll say buying a diamond ring isn’t as easy over the internet. It does happen, but it’s nice to touch it and see it.
I think the community is pretty tight and people do talk around the dinner table and Dunwell Jewellers is recommended. People do put our name forward. We have captured a lot more new clientele through the Covid crisis, so it means a lot more business for the future.
WatchPro: Are you the only one selling big brands on the island?
Neil Dunwell: We have an H Samuel nearby but we’ve got nothing else really.
We’re the only one with international watch brands like Bremont, Tag Heuer, Longines, and the business only started in 2015.
When you’re a brand new jewellery business it’s easy to get the best jewellery but it’s not easy to get the very best watch brands if you’ve got no history with them, so that was awkward right from the beginning – going to Baselworld and trying to impress brands with your vision of what your shop is going to be about.
That wasn’t easy. Now we’ve been trading for a few years more brands can see what we’re about, so we’ve recently got more brands onboard.
WatchPro: Seems like you’re positioned to move up the watch ranks?
Neil Dunwell: I was 20 years on the island selling watches. I was with Wilkins for 19 years on the Isle of Man. That was a Rolex and Omega store.
When they closed it down it was up to me to take the baton and make something new of it. The wonderful thing about Wilkins at that time, was it was as good a jeweller as it was a watch shop, even though it had Rolex, Omega, all the big brands, a large amount of its turnover was jewellery.
Usually if you’ve got those brands it would be more like 80% of your turnover would be the watches.
When I opened Dunwells I knew I could only get the watch brands that would come to me. I knew it wouldn’t be Rolex or Omega, because I have no history, so I worked with what I had.
But the one thing I could do was make sure I had the jewellery as good as it ever was with Wilkins to make sure I still had that turnover.
My thought process has always been that first and foremost we’re always a jewellers, and the watches will look after themselves and nothing has been truer.
The watch brands have looked after themselves. Some have fallen by the wayside but most have come up trumps.
WatchPro: You’re more hands-off these days?
Neil Dunwell: The business is doing well and I’ve got a smashing team who’ve been with me for many years. They know how I work and how I think. It’s nice to be able to pass over responsibility but still oversee it. I still keep in touch with them daily and go in two days a week.
I’ll slowly walk away from it altogether one day. But for now it’s nice to just spend a little bit less time in the shop and gather my thoughts away from the shop. We’ve got a good future and the team are all very good. Onwards and upwards.