Appearing on the Jewellers Podcast, Albert and Toby Bensimon discussed all things Shiels Jewellers, the COVID-19 conundrum, and how their business has evolved with Toby at the helm.
What was discussed?
- Albert handing over Shiels to his son Toby
- The new idea's that Toby brought to Shiels
- How Toby's love for business started
- What Toby's other businesses are
- If Albert and Toby and still excited about jewellery
- How COVID-19 affected Shiels
- Shiels goals for the next 5 years
- Albert and Toby's relationships with competitors
- Changes to the jewellery industry
Handing Over Shiels Jewellers
Since its inception in 1945, Shiels Jewellers has been a family business. In 1977, Albert Bensimon and his wife Nyra took over the business.
Not long after, Albert and his wife quickly expanded the business from one store in Adelaide to over 40 stores across SA, QLD, WA and NSW. But after 36 years in charge, Albert thought it was time to step aside and hand the managing director reins to his son, Toby Bensimon.
Toby took over the managing director role in 2013 and since then, he has guided the business through the recent retail downturn and has ensured that the company continued to grow during the current period of digital growth in the retail landscape.
Although the business relationship between the two is fine now, Toby explained that the handover period had its challenges. It is never easy to take over from a family member.
''There was a transition period of about a year when Dad first handed the business over to me and it was actually difficult,'' Toby told the Jewellers Podcast.
''You have to come to terms with it and try to work out the rhythm. It did take about a year for us to figure that out, and that wasn't stressful, but it was just a learning curve where we were stepping on each other's toes.
''It's like a couple of bad dancers learning how to dance, but we figured out that rhythm pretty quickly, and I really enjoy working with Dad.
''It's really good to have someone with experience and wisdom to bounce heavy ideas off. Although, we don't bounce all our ideas off each other because we would drive each other nuts.''
Toby Bensimon's New Ideas
Albert, who is still in the Shiels office every day, explained how valuable Toby’s knowledge of the ever-changing digital landscape has been.
''I used to advertise on three stations on a Sunday and get 75% coverage and my ads worked,'' Albert explained.
''Now, I could spend three times as much money and not get the coverage. Toby knows how to get that through social media and other mediums which I don't understand.
''Toby's probably being generous when he said that the transition period took a year, it actually took about a year and a half.
''I had to agree with the decisions that he was making. Sometimes I thought they were risky but fortunately for us, his decisions have all been the right ones.
''There were times when he said 'I want to open a store here' and I told him that I would never do that, but when the store opened and started working well, I acknowledged that he knew what he was doing.''
Because Albert is still in the office every day, and the pair's family relationship, Toby often draws upon his Dad's extensive knowledge and experience. And why wouldn't he? With over 40 years of experience in property, retail and charity, Albert has a wealth of knowledge.
The former managing director of Shiels was recently acknowledged for his contribution to business and the community with an Order of Australia Medal.
Over the years, Albert has served on many boards and helped to raise millions of dollars for organisations like Hutt Street Centre, Rotary Adelaide, Blind Sport Australia, UNICEF, UIA Refugee Relief Fund, State Opera, Festival Theatre and Helpmann Academy.
While serving as President of Retail Traders Albert managed to achieve weekend trading for the retail business, which had been strongly opposed due to the self-interest of many groups who disregarded the wellbeing of the majority.
''I'd be foolish to not take advantage of 40 years of experience in property because it's such a complicated area,'' Toby said.
''Even if you've done it for 15 years, as I have, there's still so much to learn. It's an ongoing, long term, PhD kind of thing.''
Where Did Toby's Love For Business Come From?
Toby, who has been working for Shiels since he was 15 years of age, has always had a keen interest in the business world.
Family conversations at the dinner table were never dull in the Bensimon household, and Toby used that to his advantage. Instead of tuning out as any normal teenager would, he opened his ears and listened to his parents business conversations.
''Toby heard about problems that we've had over the years just from sitting there at the kitchen table and listening to his parents,'' Albert explained.
''He had a lot of experience in areas where the average person simply wouldn't because it takes time.''
Toby's Other Businesses
Toby has used his well-rounded business knowledge to create two other businesses. He is also the co-founder of Podpac, Australia’s largest manufacturer of coffee capsules, and Bureau Booths which are soundproof acoustic booths.
Podpac packages coffee pods for many well-known brands as well as under licence for labels such as Bailey’s. They also have two of their own brands of pods called Podista and Urban Brew.
Despite Podpac's current success, Albert joked that the company actually started because of an argument between Toby and himself.
''Toby bought a pod machine for the office, and I wasn't a big fan of it because the pods were overpriced,'' Albert said.
''I eventually got the diamond scales out and I weighed the amount of coffee that's in a pod and it was four grams or something.
''I can’t remember exactly, but it was bugger all. We noticed that Nespresso was charging 80 cents a pod, and we knew that we could make them much for much less using the Shiels formula offering quality at reasonable prices.
''So, the business was born and we now sell them for 20 or 30 cents.''
During the recent COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, Toby identified another avenue for business with Bureau Booths.
''The business is internal office pods, for people who have open-plan offices that want separate quiet spaces,'' Toby explained.
''We actually ship them and install them in open-plan offices. We also have an outdoor version of that called urban rooms.
''We can flat-pack them through your house, put them up in your garden and you can have a place to have a Zoom office.
''You don't need council approval, we build them to a size that doesn’t need approval. They're fully insulated, air-conditioned, have Wi-Fi and come with plants.''
Are Albert And Toby Still Excited About Jewellery?
Despite Toby owning two other businesses, he still puts all his time into Shiels Jewellers, and his love for the industry has never faded.
As you’d expect, it's exactly the same for his Father.
''You would think that after 40 years in the industry that I had seen it all, but just yesterday I saw a diamond that excited me so much,'' Albert explained.
''I took it to show Toby because it was just so radiant and beautifully cut. It was just like we had seen a fantastic movie or read a great book on something.''
You would think that instilling this same kind of passion in the Shiels staff would be hard, but according to the pair, it is not hard at all.
''It's easy because people are attracted to this industry because they already like it.
''People usually come on board because they're into the industry already, so trying to get excited about jewellery is an easy battle to win.''
How Shiels Has Adapted To Coronavirus
During the initial lockdown period, Shiels made huge changes to their operation. They implemented a regimented cleaning program across all of their stores and ramped up their online capacity.
For Toby, communicating with the team that the company always had their health concerns as their number one priority was of the utmost importance.
''It's about communicating to our team that we've always got their back,'' he explained.
''The fact of the matter is, the customer is not always right during this pandemic, so we had to communicate that to our staff.
''Health is the main focus during this pandemic and it's about the protection of our teams.''
Of course, the lockdown also meant an increase in the company's digital footprint and they had to adapt in that respect. In the space of seven days, all of the stock from Shiels stores in lockdown was sent to the main office in preparation for online sale.
It was a massive operation and Toby praised his loyal staff for their efforts.
''It was a big job, but our staff were really happy that the company was opening back up,'' he said.
''Everyone here is like family. I mean, almost everyone here has been here for 10, 20, 30 years.''
What Are The Goals For The Next 5 Years?
Toby admitted that the company's goals had changed because of the pandemic, however, they still planned to open up a store in every state. It just won't be at the volume that they had previously forecast.
They are now shifting towards more of a digital outlook with less brick and mortar stores. Albert did, however, explain that landlords have been much easier to deal with during the coronavirus period.
''I remember one conversation I overheard with two leasing managers saying that to rent a store corner to a jeweller was like shooting ducks,'' Albert explained.
''They said they would just play one against the other. The super high rents are a thing of the past and the consumer will benefit.
''We know that we can actually negotiate very reasonable deals. In the past, they negotiated unreasonable deals. Shopping centres are getting back to their real value because they were over-inflated for a while.''
Over the years, the jewellery industry has evolved, and jewellers have started talking to each other more. However, this has not always been the case and for Albert, talking with his competitors was a foreign concept when he was in charge.
''One thing that Toby has instigated is to get all of the jewellers together, 20 years ago, this is something I couldn't have dreamt of,'' Albert explained.
Toby added: ''When times are really good, there's no need to discuss things, but when things start to get really difficult and profitability drops, people start to look at things that they can change.
''I think that's probably why they're more open to talking. I just happen to be the one on the phones instead of Dad this time.
''Another thing that jewellers really should be sharing information on is how to improve the customer experience. I think as an industry, that's something that we can talk about.
''We would always be open to discussions with other jewellers about how to improve, it's not spying on a hyper-competitive area, it's an area we all need to improve.
''We have a common enemy with rent prices and that lead to higher prices for the consumer.’’
Changes To The Jewellery Industry
In this day and age, everyone is moving to the digital revolution, however, Albert insists that traditional norms will remain in place for many years to come.
''People say retail is going to die and shops aren't going to exist, that’s nonsense,'' he explained.
''People said movie theatres were not going to exist when television came out, and they are still here. Newspapers, they're not going to be here, but they still are.
''Things take on different forms, some fall by the wayside but I think retail stores will still be in shopping centres in 50 years time.''
Toby highlighted the growing influence that marketing and social media has had on the industry.
''I think now, the homogeneity of jewellery globally is driven by Instagram,'' Toby said.
''I mean, before anyone comes into our store, they've looked at 10,000 pictures of a ring. Whereas before that, they would get two catalogues, have a look and circle the ones they liked.
''Now they just have this extreme exposure, and the influential people on those platforms really dictate and drive the tastes of the day. If they see Kim Kardashian with an oval-shaped diamond, you better believe it, the next day, that's what everyone's asking for.''
Because of the emergence of influencer culture, social media now serves as a primary search tool for people in the market for an engagement ring. It is also a bottomless source of information and inspiration for potential buyers.
Check out the full episode of the Jewellers Podcast or if you want to see more of Toby, simply search #TobyfromShiels.