This interview is brought to you by Female Focus, an exclusive international network enabling professional women to meet from, share experiences and build business relationships whilst engaging in interactive experiences. Female Focus was established by Vaishali Shah at Minerva Trust & Corporate Services Limited.
On the tiny island of Jersey, nestled between England and France, you’ll find Jersey Pearl, a family business that has brought a splash of luxury and craftsmanship to travellers from all over the world. Founded in 1985, Jersey Pearl prides itself on offering the most fabulous pearl jewellery through its contemporary-chic and classically elegant designs.
Julia Williams is part of the third generation of her entrepreneurial family and is responsible for maintaining the Jersey Pearl brand through its product line. Her grandparents arrived in Jersey in the 1970’s and saw the opportunity with the sheer volume of visitors who frequented the Island. They understood the concept of people wanting to treat themselves on holiday. This vision is what led to where Jersey Pearl stands today.
Some of their more popular lines she oversees include studded, tiered, layered and bejewelled collections and bespoke pearl pieces.
Beyond the global appreciation from loyal customers, industry experts have also taken note of the Jersey Pearl offerings. The company was named ‘Brand of the Year’ for Retail Jewellers, by the UK Jewellery Awards in 2013.
Recently Female Focus and WIFB had the opportunity to sit down with Julia and discuss her family’s entrepreneurial origins, the opportunities and challenges of the jewellery business, as well as what the future may have in store for Jersey Pearl.
Perhaps we could start with the vision your grandparents had upon first seeing Jersey. Did they see entrepreneurial opportunity as soon as they arrived?
Absolutely. They immediately became taken with this idea that you have downtime, you’re relaxed, you’re celebrating a special occasion, and there’s no better way to do that than with jewelry. If you’re on holiday, you clearly have the time and means. Nobody comes home with spare money, you always spend your holiday money. And I think they saw this idea that with pearls, with the beautiful island of Jersey and the sea, with a classic product they have this ability to fulfill that need and that’s where Jersey Pearl was born really.
How did you become involved with the business? Was it only as an adult or were you involved from a young age?
My journey started when I came home from school in the summer and my mother was fed up with me being under her feet, I think. You know, a 13-year-old in Jersey quite a long way from a bus route. I lived 5 minutes away from the Jersey Pearl venue, so my Mom says to me, ‘Right, Jersey Pearl café, there you go, eight hours clearing tables, serving customers, get in there’! So my journey has been from the grassroots up, face-to-face, understanding what people want on holiday, whether it’s a cup of tea or a pearl necklace. Then after doing that for years, I moved onto the sales floor, learning what it means to buy beautiful jewelry and learning what really matters to people, which I believe is understanding their story. Why did they come on holiday, why did they come to Jersey, what do they love? Because all of that helps find the right piece of jewelry for them. And then you get to the diamond grading stage of my life, where you really have to get to know your clients and their needs. You really have to pay attention. Now with what I do with Jersey Pearl is, I put that all together. The journey of understanding the manufacturing and the production which sort of comes along with what I really did in my degree. So that’s where it started, right from the café, getting to know the people and what they want. How do people behave on holiday because if we understand that, we can understand what they want to buy.
Did your studies tie into the family business?
Not directly, I did mechanical engineering. But it helped train me as a problem solver. I think that’s what engineering does. It’s about processes, it’s understanding manufacturing and logistics. When you understand how something is made, you understand what you can make. So I think it was actually the best degree for what I do now. When people start talking about melting temperatures, processing solders, lathe cutting techniques, I know what it means because it’s engineering.
When you first formally joined the business as an adult, what kind of perception change happened there for you and how did you start putting your footprint into how the business was run?
Officially I joined the business full-time as Product Director, really very recently in November 2016 and the first thing we identified was to understand a clear picture of what generates income and where is the ability to grow. That’s probably my primary task at the moment. So for example, we have a certain amount of retail space and we choose what to buy every year. Often we have been historically governed by what it looks like or what we sold yesterday, rather than strategically thinking, ‘Actually, although we sell quite a few of these, they’re not a big generator. They’re not a great return on investment because of margin or because it doesn’t fit our brand message’. So what we have to do is strategically create some product KPI’s that allow us to actually say this is an optimum product for us and that’s where we’re going.
What are other family members currently involved in the business alongside you?
My brother is in charge of the brand. He’s key in saying this is a great product and yes it might be a great producer of profit but it doesn’t fit our brand. So what we need to be able to ask is can we tweak it? Can we adjust the finishing? Does the pearl need to change? All of those sorts of things is where he comes in. And my mom started her own Jersey Pearl store. My grandmother has been there as well, behind the scenes supporting the family.
The role that you’re currently taking on is one that could be called a change-maker. What is your approach in not stepping on people’s feet too much? How do you think you’re going to be implementing your vision across the organization now that you’re fully joined?
As a business, we’re quite disparate. We have businesses in quite different areas within the UK, we have a brand office in London and my colleagues in the product team are in Cheshire. I think that’s a skill in itself because it’s not like you can walk down the corridor and say ’hey what do think about this?’, we can’t do that. So actually we have to have a very fine balance between how people might receive emails as communication versus face-to-face and phone calls or skype. We have a lot of people who have been in positions for a long time as well, so we have to understand people’s reactions to change. I think change is best with a personal approach, we still have that ability to be quite personal. Although people know me in the business, they’ve not necessarily sat down and spent a lot of time with me so I think really spending time with people and making sure that you go and make the effort and see people is very important.
We’re building the corporate structure, we’re writing strategies, but we ask ourselves who is the end-user? Strategies are fitted for board and for the venues, we need to make sure that everybody is involved. We have to make sure we hit the tone of what’s going to make a difference. Get them on board and bring them along with you.
You come from a family of adventurers. How have you kept that kind of spirit alive across the organization so you don’t become too bureaucratic? What do you do to keep that innovation alive?
You know this will sound very strange we are actually in the complete polar opposite right now. We have traditionally been a business of massive creativity and invention and a lot of freedom to choose. We’re at the stage where we’re just trying to temper it, even me. Creativity is not always a problem, it’s implementing the creativity with good structure and reason. I think we’re at actually the other way around at the moment. Maybe in a year’s time or 10 years’ time, the creativity might begin to decline, but I hope not.
We are in a period of constant economic upheaval. How has this impacted your industry? Do you feel your consumer is changing and if so, how do you think you’ll be able to respond to that?
Well if we start where we said the business started, it’s about people treating themselves on a holiday. People are taking that leisure and the downtime. In fact, I think people spend more time on holiday than ever before. People are professional holidaymakers, they have TripAdvisor, they have more choice and variety of holidays than ever before. Going to an airport now isn’t as potentially exciting or scary as it used to be. My children can walk through an airport just like they can walk down Main Street. People are professional travellers which is great in some ways because we’re dealing with people who’ve seen Murano Glass in Venice. They understand what it’s like to buy opals in Australia. They have been buying things from their holiday so actually, they’re open to it. It’s what they expect to do but they are now discerning at what they do.
So you have a more discerning customer, you have a more demanding customer really. So how does that translate into your day-to-day challenges for the business?
Well, the challenge, therefore, means you have to be very good at your message. You have to be very clear on what you’re offering otherwise they won’t use their holiday time with you. You have to almost work to become that area’s famous thing. You need to work very hard to become the thing you must do when you go there. So we have to make sure our message is clear so when people say ‘Oh Jersey you’ve got to go and do da-da, you’re at the top of that list. When people say ‘Oh I really want a little special something to mark this or I have a birthday coming up for somebody when I go home and I’ve been to Jersey what do I get them? We don’t want them going home necessarily with potatoes. Pearls, yes!
What’s challenging in our business is we are dealing with visitors. Yes, they’re growing visitors but they’re discerning visitors and our brand and our products and our whole shopping experience and our message must support that. People are only with you for a short time. And they’ve got seven days or 14 days to decide.
As a parting piece of advice, for women who are not in a position where they have a supportive female environment, where do you think they can get the courage that has been given to your family? How do you think women can cultivate this for themselves?
Strangely there has to be a certain amount of come from within. There has to be that moment when you decide, as a woman or a man, I’m going to do it. I’m going to put myself out there, try something, take a risk, I can do it and believe in yourself. It can start from a very early age, with supportive family, friends and schooling fostering and encouraging you to take small steps. It might come later in life, but it is triggered from within, I’ve been very luck to have had great support all my life, and can only hope I am just as supportive for the future generations and women in our organisation. I like the idea of lots more mentoring that is coming along. There are a lot of organizations, we have a few in Jersey, one is 20 years established. So go out and join these networks. I think it starts with everything from school, from brownies, it’s all about getting out and doing it.
Featured Picture Courtesy of Jersey Pearl