I have known Michael Wainwright for 12 years, since I set up the publisher that owns Square Mile. In that time, I’ve seen Boodles grow from an independent business into a globally renowned brand. We sat down – MD-to-MD – for a chat about his journey.
Boodles was set-up in 1798. When did the Wainwrights join the company?
My family bought into Boodles just after 1900 – my nephews Jody Wainwright [director] and James Amos [marketing director] are the sixth generation of my family in the business. Liverpool used to be a very wealthy city in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. It was the wealthiest non-capital city in the world, my father always used to say. It has other qualities now; music, football, but there’s not enough new money being generated there. So we moved out in the northwest to begin with. Chester, which has been a very good location for us, and Manchester. Then in 1987 we opened in London – so that Mr Michael
(as I was then known) could find a wife, because he wasn’t finding one up north!
So you were sent down south to seek riches and a wife?
I found the wife relatively quickly, actually, so my father died a happy man. The riches, however, we’re still acquiring them. Honestly, we didn’t make any money in London until about 2000. Our shop in Chester was really underwriting what we were doing. Fast forward to now and we have nine shops: five in London and three in the northwest. We also opened in Dublin, which was difficult because we opened in 2006 just before the financial crash.
You’ve been out of the business for 12 months or so. What have you been up to?
I’ve been what’s called Prime Warden of The Goldsmiths’ Company, which sounds very archaic indeed. The Goldsmiths’ Company is one of the City of London’s Livery companies. The Livery companies are like medieval trade unions, for want of a better description, but they do a huge amount of good now, and are very philanthropic. In the case of Goldsmiths’, we nurture young jewellers and silversmiths. We have our own college near Farringdon Tube station called The Goldsmith Centre where we do a lot of pre-apprentice teaching and post-grad teaching. We’re just about to start a business growth course for some of these young artisans because they’re very good at making a beautiful pair of earrings or a beautiful piece of silver, but they really have very little idea about how to start or grow a business.
To change things it takes time – you’ve got to be patient. I’ve learnt not to be too impetuous
What have you taken from the experience?
It’s made me realise that we need to save the UK manufacturing trade in our sector. There is terrific competition from Asian countries in making things – and without the support of companies like mine, and support of The Goldsmiths’ Company who are trying to nurture these young craftsmen, in 20, 30, 40 years’ time there’ll be no craftsmen in this country at all. At the top end I think they will stay here, but an awful lot of jobs have gone already. The quality of manufacture in other countries is definitely getting much better, so we’ve got to make sure we get better, too.
What challenges do you expect the luxury sector to face over the next few years?
Central London property costs are a big challenge. The thing is, London has become such a dominant and important city that people are in central London for flagship purposes – just to fly the flag to say they’re in Bond Street. We’re not. It’s making economics more and more difficult when the property costs, the costs of occupation, are so high. You’ve got to sell a lot more jewellery.
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There’s a danger of killing one of the most important streets in British luxury if that continues. Yes, there will always be people who will be able to afford to go there, but are they the sort of brands that you associate with the heartland of British luxury?
Exactly. The appeal of diamonds going forward remains a challenge, too. The dreaded internet as well. Fortunately for us, I don’t think the internet is going to steal too much of our business, certainly in the foreseeable future. We’ve got an online selling channel and it is our slowest-growing bit of the business. I’m quite pleased about that actually, as it doesn’t feel as luxurious.
Well, it’s a very personal purchase, isn’t it? it’s not something that people are buying every day. If somebody’s going to make a one-off or once-a-year commitment…
They want the service, they want the relationship, they want the experience. We want that for them because that’s what we’re good at – and you can’t give that on a computer. We want people to come into our shops and experience what Boodles is really about.
What’s the toughest lesson you’ve had to learn in your career?
Rome wasn’t built in a day. To change things it takes time – you’ve got to be patient. I’ve learnt not to be too impetuous.
That’s the drive, though, and you need a little bit of that, right?
Yes, you do. A lot of impatient businessmen still do very well, and they probably get there quicker than I have done, but I’ve learnt the importance of having the right staff – it matters more than anything.