By Melinda Collins
Throughout history jewellery has been used as an elaborate embellishment; that little splash of colour and interest that can make or break a sartorial selection.
Similarly, embellishment has been known to make or break a good story. Let’s face it – we all love a good yarn.
When it comes to Sir Michael Hill there is little need for literary embellishment; the facts really do speak for themselves.
When his first jewellery store opened in 1979, Michael Hill set himself a goal; seven stores in seven years. In 1986 he exceeded that, opening his eighth store in Newmarket.
In 1988 Hill set himself another goal – 70 stores in seven years, a goal which was also achieved. Then, in 2002, Hill decided he would have 1,000 stores by 2022.
By the end of 2009 Michael Hill had 242 stores in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, with an annual revenue of about $200 million. This year Michael Hill International is worth $590 million in market capitalisation on the NZX.
Whether the 53 percent shareholder reaches his latest goal is yet to be seen however, history does have that little habit of repeating.
But the most compelling story is of how Hill went from having nothing, to having everything; it’s the real story of the king of bling.
Coal to diamonds
When life gives you lemons, some people make lemonade. Michael Hill took coal and made diamonds. Well, not literally, but every time life pushed him down, Hill pushed right back. The result; one of the most famous rags to riches story New Zealand has ever seen.
Michael Hill Jeweller started in 1979 when Hill and his wife Christine opened their first store in Whangarei. But the story really started many years earlier.
Hill left school at 16 to pursue a career as a concert violinist, before being told he was starting too late to be a noteworthy musician. So he started working in the family jewellery business for his uncle, Arthur Fisher.
Hill proved a good salesman, but his real aptitude was management and through his lead the store did really well. He was winning international awards for his window dressing and he took over the store’s advertising efforts, drawing attention through his wacky advertising themes.
It’s not surprising he met his wife Christine while working at the store. They married in 1965 and had two children Mark and Emma.
But in 1977, the house that had taken them four years to build was destroyed by fire.
Re-assessing his life, Hill attempted to buy his uncle’s business, an offer which was refused. So, on 13 May 1979, Hill opened his own jewellery store nearby, calling it Michael Hill Jeweller. And he took with him years of experience.
“I had a 23 year apprenticeship with my uncle and father and knew what to do,” he says. “This is what young people need to do, stick with a job and learn all the pitfalls.
“Today they expect to know everything in a year, but that is not possible.”
It was a case of doing one thing and doing one thing well. Hill limited his store’s product range to just jewellery, disregarding the silverware, clocks, porcelain and glassware traditionally found in other jewellery stores.
“My TV offer was unique,” he explains. “Jewellery retailing was pretty unimaginative in New Zealand in those days; little discounting, scant use of TV or radio press, formal shop designs with unimaginative displays, windows crammed with stock.
“We changed all of this – a very wide doorway versus a small shop front, simple windows changed weekly, with only a few dazzling products, fronting my own adverts on TV and radio and doing my own newspaper creatively, running monthly promotions to attract customers, the invent of the blackboard with chalk message and we specialised in diamonds gold and watches so could take smaller premises with lower rentals.”
Against all odds
He had developed “a will to succeed against all odds,” through being bullied at school and then losing everything in the fire. But he’s always been one to aim high and says his drive comes from visualisation. “It also helps to practice transcendental meditation to clear the incessant self talk. Without this, one cannot concentrate on the real issues.”
While he admits to making mistakes, including the infamous flop of “digressing into shoes”, he sums up his keys to success in business as “artistic flare, uncomplicated direction, goal setting, being able to delegate, store design, artistic window dressing and great stock”.
But there’s been some real coups along the way. In 2006, following a five year trial, the Michael Hill Watch Collection was launched and the company began phasing out the sale of other watches. By mid-2008 only the Michael Hill brand of timepieces were being sold in his stores. The company describes the Michael Hill watch as one of the company’s key brand developments and says it remains one of the best watches in the world.
There was also the 2011 move into professional care plans which has been lauded for taking a one-off commodity purchase and turning it into a revenue stream. “We have developed a system that cares for the clients’ jewellery.
Jewellery is such an emotional purchase and this takes the stress out of any mishap that may develop.”
He has also managed seemingly effortlessly to conquer the Australasian and American markets, moves which involved catering his approach to meet the differing needs of these markets and he says the degree of competition means you really need to be on top of your game.
He’s now also somewhat of a life coach, spurred on by the public correspondence he received in response to his book Toughen Up published in 2009. The book chronicles his journey from Whangarei jewellery store owner to chairman of the publicly listed company with 250 outlets in four countries. It’s a roadmap to success based on his philosophy that tough times are good.
It’s during these tough times Hill says we need to reassess our businesses by asking, what are we doing well, what
could we do better and what sort of business can we become?
He went on to publish Think Bigger: How To Raise Your Expectations And Achieve Everything in 2010. This time he outlining key lessons he learned during the years; clearing the clutter of your mind, positive daydreaming, letting go, thinking bigger, working smarter not harder, how to keep motivated, the power of the spoken word, having fun, thinking outside the box and helping others.
He certainly knows what he’s talking about. Sir Michael Hill revolutionised retail selling in New Zealand and Australia and believes “by sticking to the basics, the whole organisation is concentrating on the same goal; everyone is aiming at the bullseye”.
But he still believes there needs to be a balance between work and play. “Without a balance in life we lack the meaning of life; happiness through contentment.”
Hill is still passionate about his music and he has just seen another successful year for the biennial Michael Hill International Violin Competition, which attracted contestants from around the world.
He also realised he was a bit of a golf tragic when he was a member of the Mt Denby Golf Club in Whangarei and has established one of the country’s leading privately owned golf courses, The Hills. “I’m on a 14 handicap and don’t spend enough time hitting balls on the range.”
From the modest beginnings of a little par three course, The Hills has developed into a world class championship golf course. Host of the NZ Open from 2007 to 2010, it is the home of the NZ PGA Championship and will again play host to the biggest golfing event in the country when the New Zealand Open returns to The Hills in early 2014.
But then, if he ever gets bored with golf, he’s always got his superyacht WS1, named after the highest grade of diamond, to give him something to do.