John Greed: Working like a charm

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They say diamonds are forever, and in jewellery tycoon John Greed’s eyes the appeal of a timeless product is the key to success.

With a booming online enterprise and enviable prowess as an innovator in retail, he must be doing something right — as his Lincoln-based company is looking at a turnover this year of £12 million.

John Greed Jewellery Ltd, which stems back to 1991 when John arrived in Lincoln with £100 and a pushbike, now employs 50 members of staff and sells 4,000 units a day at its Firth Road warehouse in the city. The company is one of the biggest jewellery retailers in the UK with a flagship Lincoln store, coupling in-demand brands with iconic in-house designs.

With further expansion on the horizon, 48-year-old John describes his online operation as a “fairy tale”, and he thanks the virtual world of the internet for the rapidity of his business’ growth. Savvy initiatives in marketing brands like Pandora have seen the firm outsell even the retailer itself. But the products of John’s designer eye weren’t always accessories.

Brought up in Twickenham, John went to boarding school at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham. He then became a student in product design at Central Saint Martins University of the Arts in London. On finishing his degree he became a model maker in London before taking his skill across the continent, all the while holding on to a trusted bicycle as a semi-professional.

“I met some amazing people,” he said. “I cycled across Europe twice, hitchhiking at night and living hand to mouth.” Coming into contact with some of the richest people in the world, John learned some motivating outlooks.

“If you live in the Mediterranean and you want to commision a billion pound boat, you’re not going to see anything for two or three years, so what you want is to show your mates a model. Making models for extremely rich people, I would be invited to lots of parties. What I picked up was there was an attitude of ‘anything is possible. Just do it and send me the invoice later.’

“So I thought ‘I’ll do a bit of that’. Even now I don’t see anything holding me back. I just do it.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Discovering a hidden gem

John describes his childhood as ‘excruciatingly boring’. “I grew up in a very boring suburban house in west London. My father was an architect and my mother taught Bridge. I wouldn’t say my family were particularly spontaneous or entrepreneurial, and that’s why I am.

“One of my two sisters is in the jewellery trade. I saw how easy it was when I started by helping her on her stall in Covent Garden and she’s still there every Saturday. She doesn’t sell John Greed, but I sell her stuff.”

Escaping from his ‘boring’ London routine by working and travelling eventually saw him discover Lincoln, around Christmas time in 1991, aged 24. Little did he know it would be the hidden gem that sparked his jewellery empire.

“I had been travelling for three of four years just working and taking jobs everywhere,” said John. “I didn’t have much appetite for going to find work, I just wanted to go and see things. I was looking for places to visit and my mother said Lincoln was really nice and she had even had a romance at the White Hart hotel.

“So I took the high speed train to Newark and I cycled here. It was a Sunday and the city was completely deserted. I thought it was very weird. London is never deserted, and I’d never seen anywhere as quiet or as amazing as Lincoln.

“I remember walking up the hill and I was absolutely gobsmacked that you have a castle on one side, a cathedral on the other, an amazing square and there was no one around. It was so bizarre, as if no one seemed to realise what they had here.”

John saw opportunity in the romance of the city after just one week in a B&B on Portland Street and, despite his pushbike being stolen, he enthusiastically made the call to enquire about his first workshop on Steep Hill.

“When I rang up about the place I asked ‘How much is it?’, and the guy said ‘It’s £11 a week.’ He wondered if that would be alright because he lost the last tenants after putting the rent up from £6 per week! I was living hand to mouth at the time but still couldn’t believe the price difference to London.”

He worked at his first studio, Manta Design, as a sculptor. His pieces were exhibited in London, Amsterdam and New York before he began taking on commercial work for companies like Liberties, Heels and the Conran shop. He even created the world’s first monocoque fibre chair, which featured in the British Design Museum.

Realising the potential of jewellery, John bought a shop a few doors down on Steep Hill, which was completely derelict, and renovated it himself. After the launch of his website in 2005, he then took over 3,000 square foot of The Terrace in Lincoln to deal with rapidly expanding demand.

He opened his flagship store on Lincoln High Street in 2010, which has now been extended to neighbour a popular Pandora franchise, and in 2014 the company relocated its warehouse to a 10,581 square foot, high-security unit in a unit formerly occupied by Siemens on Firth Road.

The team at the firm’s HQ consists of admin staff, design teams, graphics and a large marketing arm handling brands like Links London, Thomas Sabo, Swarovski and Edge West, as well as John Greed designs.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

An appetite for innovation

While John admits he doesn’t rate himself in the early days on his business knowledge, and says his people skills are not a strong suit, what he does see as his natural skills set is the ability to create and innovate.

“I was always over-focussed. When I was at school I just wanted to make stuff all day long. We had a fantastic craft and technical department and by the end I had forged a key and I used to go there and work secretly at night.

“I have very narrow skill sets so I found it very difficult in the beginning to do some of the things I wasn’t good at. However now I pay other people to do all the stuff I’m rubbish at. My best thing is providing ideas and making them work. My worst traits are my people skills and the day to day running of the business. I’m now left to stay in the background playing with my toys.”

John explained his motivation has never been about money. “I have always wanted to make stuff and create,” he said. “I didn’t do it because I needed the money, I didn’t do it because I wanted to be successful, I did it because that’s how my mind works and I have to do it. I would be doing it at the bottom of my garden with some sticks and twigs, it doesn’t matter.”

The launch of the John Greed Jewellery website saw the growth of the company double every six months for three years. Now, John and his team stay ahead of the game by investing plenty of time on data metric mining, combined with maps of the human experience. His website gets up to a million visitors every month.

Without hesitation, John names Pandora as his biggest competitor, despite getting his big break from the brand. “We have a strange relationship. They rely on us, we rely on them. I buy the stock from them but they are our closest competitors, we are their closest competitors. I’ve still sold more Pandora online than they have and yet they are Pandora. What’s key though, is I don’t want to become my competitor.”

It was John’s skills in creative solutions and data mining that led to an idea that he says is his solution to the next “big thing in jewellery” – personalisation.

“Not on the High Street have come from nowhere in the last five years. Why? Because of personalisation. Personalised products sell well because someone parts with their cash when that product is worth more than their cash. It’s an enhanced product, and it makes business sense because it doesn’t cost the producer much.

“Twenty years ago I’d have sat here hand stamping bracelets, but for my business now I need quantities of thousands a week to make it work. I have a lot of experience in machines and making things work, so we designed lasers, got them made in China and imported them back here. I designed and created the tooling and the work flows, so now for example I engrave Pandora beads and our own stuff using lasers on a scale that you just couldn’t imagine.

“Others have tried it. My competitors have wasted lots of money having a go, and I’m sure they will, but I’m not standing still either. By the time they manage to do it I’ll be another milestone down the road.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

One regret

He’s honing in on the competition now, but John admits there is one lesson he had to learn the hard way. “About five years ago I thought ‘I’ll get someone in to do it, to be me.’ I got someone in and up until that point we had increased profit for 20 years on the trot. I got someone in and within eight months I was in debt by £2 million. I was bankrupt and I thought I was going to lose my house and everything.

“He managed to schmooze myself, the bank manager and everyone that worked for us. He overspent, spent on ridiculous stuff. And I had discounted reality until the point where there was no money left. My weakness was that I wanted to take a step back and he made me believe that he could provide that when actually he couldn’t. It was only my wife who saw it and she said: ‘you’ve been had’. Like I said – people skills.

“Now, I’ve engineered the business slightly differently, so I have a lot less day-to-day responsibility. When you’re up against a global corporation like Pandora, there is no stepping back. The business is squarely on my shoulders I have to be in complete control of it.

“How do I balance it? Very simple. I am out of the door by 5pm and I expect my staff to do the same. I don’t do any corporate things. I have a large house, loads of acres and a big wall around it. Nothing comes through that gate. I have two dogs, five kids and that’s it.

“For fun we have an old camper van and do lots of things as a family. We take them to the woods, to the beach, we do a lot of cycling with them. My wife and I are also into property development and my wife plays a big part in managing those projects. The present one is about 35 rooms of dereliction and we started off with a JCB taking everything out apart from the walls, the slates and the roof beams.”

With stepping back now off the cards, John has big plans for business expansion. Planning permitted, his Lincoln High Street shop is in line to be ripped apart for a revamp. John also hopes to receive permission to extend into a former cornish pasty shop next door.

“It’s now about developing our own brand and getting into personalisation. We have more lasers coming in from China to increase capacity. We are also going to get more into wedding stuff and really developing the brand.”