Retail Species – The establishment – Michael Wainwright of Boodles

The Person: Michael Wainwright

The Company: Boodles

The Job Title: Joint managing director

So, I’m guessing that running a family jewellery business means a lot of tantrums and tiaras? Boodles is certainly overrun with Wainwrights. Michael Wainwright’s brother Nicholas is the other managing director, his nephew Jody Wainwright is the diamond expert and another nephew James Amos also works there as a director. The brothers’ father, Anthony Wainwright, ran the company from 1945 till 1992.

Doesn’t  that cramp his style? Not so as you’d notice. Nicholas is based in the company’s northern sites (Chester, Manchester and Liverpool – where the company began) and Michael down in London. He says decisions are made on the phone and they speak every day. Decision making is very quick and people are trusted to make good calls. For example Nicholas recently bought a £250,000 sapphire in Bangkok and you won’t find anyone saying it was a risky move. If they thought it was a good idea, then it is a good idea.

All sweetness and light then? It would appear so. And the employees love working for a family firm too. Wainwright maintains that they know all employees by name, and the names of their partners too. At the annual staff party in Liverpool recently our guests were bowled over by how committed the staff are to the business. He’s only ever worked in one place so it was a welcome surprise to see how much the employees treasure the special feel. Staff retention at the firm is based on passion.

So, who’s buying jewellery in a global downturn? Wainwright admits that in the past Boodles had a blinkered view that such out and out British jewellery was really for British people. But no longer. Now the company is saying a big hello to the Middle East, Far East and the Chinese. The latter apparently like a bit of diversity and there will be something like eight big jewellery brands on their radar. But Arab customers like niche and Boodles is a niche they like. Overseas business now accounts for 20% of total revenues – a huge jump in the past five years. London is seen as a safe place to bring your money and the family solidity and history of Boodles all helps bring in business.

New Bond Street great for brand standing
Well, enough of nephews then. Are there no thrusting M. Wainwright sons? Oh yes, but he’s only 16. Wainwright says he would never push him into the business although he seems keen at present. And he would like him to do some other things first.

As he did? Kind of. He trained as a chartered accountant on the grounds that it is fantastic way to tread water for a bit and a good training for all business. He started working at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. but four years later the call of the diamond proved too strong. Although actually aquamarine is his own personal favourite gem – but he concedes they need diamonds to bring them to life.

I know the feeling Mr W: But it wasn’t always about high-end was it? Certainly not. Boodles has carved itself into a fully-fledged designer jewellery brand over the last 20 years under the Wainwrights’ guidance. There are now five internal designers and they also do bespoke pieces. Wainwright thinks that to be a genuine brand you need your own products. When the company was just up north it was simply selling bought-in pieces so was never going to make a big name for itself. The move down to London also contributed significantly to its standing.

Aha. I knew there had to be a divide somewhere. North and South? Well, not actually in quite the way you might think. It’s true that 65% of UK business (around £30 million) is done in London but forget notions of mean northerners. Boodles sells more £100,000-plus pieces up there than it does in London becausse he says there is virtually no competition up north. The market in London is much bigger in the £10,000-£60,000 bracket.

Cheapskates. But it is all about location non? You are so right. It was Champagne all round the day that Boodles moved into New Bond Street in 2007, their fifth London showroom. In fact it is one of Wainwright’s few regrets that they did not get in to the global superbrand street earlier. They could today easily get £5 million for their lease if they chose to give it up, but wild dogs wouldn’t tear them away. They’d like more frontage and more space but Wainwright figures there’s only one bit of the road worth being positioned on so they have to wait and see what comes up!

Blimey, that is specific. Any shareholders to run these theories past? Only two. They are err… Nicholas and Michael Wainwright. And that is the way they like it for now. Nobody to impress and no short-termism. He is not accountable to anyone other than himself day-to-day. But the youngsters are snapping at his heels and shares may have to be given out to other family members in due course. But that is fine with him because ‘if the family get on well you can see a bigger future picture – like a marriage.’

Talking of marriage there seems to be a lack of women in the Wainwright family? Not really, its just that they keep getting bought out. Wainwright’s father Anthony bought out his sisters from the business and history repeated itself when M and N Wainwright did the same thing.

Women leaving diamonds behind. I can hardly believe it: Well, its got them to where they are today which is fifth generation ownership and only two shareholders. When he’s not got his nose to the grindstone Michael Wainwright is gardening and possibly listening to Cockney Rebel. But when Monday comes, it’s all about two things. Family and integrity.