Navigating the Crisis | Michael Wainwright on leading Boodles through COVID-19

“I have always enjoyed challenges in business and, like it or not, this is as challenging as anything we’ve ever faced.”

Today, in the latest in our series of interviews with Britain’s luxury leaders, we meet Michael Wainwright – the MD of fine jewellery brand Boodles – who discusses the impact of coronavirus on the business: the furloughing of most of the team, the importance of preserving cash, and the challenges of rent expectations, as well as the long-term consequences on the 200-year-old brand.

Michael Wainwright joined Boodles in 1984 and is Managing Director of the company. He is the fifth generation of the Wainwright family to own the business, which was established in Liverpool in 1798. He is also currently the Fundraising Trustee for the Rainbow Trust and is a past Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths Company.

HOW ARE YOU NAVIGATING BOODLES THROUGH THE CURRENT COVID-19 CRISIS? ​
I have always enjoyed challenges in business and, like it or not, this is as challenging as anything we’ve ever faced. The four Directors of Boodles are in close contact with many of our 110 staff by phone, and in  close contact with each other on conference calls – being four of only 15 staff not furloughed. Our focus is on preserving cash now; profit is taking a back seat and cash is king! We’re trying to cut as much cost from the business as we can – it is amazing how little money it is possible to spend. I’m also helping manage some of the sales enquiries we are receiving.

What has the situation taught you about leadership?
Many of the problems we are currently facing have never been faced before and they certainly test your leadership skills and speed of thought. We have found that face-to-face video communication with our staff is far more valuable and personal than email, and individual telephone calls seem to be well received and make our team feel valued, especially for those who live on their own.

AND WHAT HAS IT TAUGHT YOU ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS? ​
It’s made me appreciate our relatively strong balance sheet with no borrowings, built up over many years of fairly conservative family ownership. We hope to be able to withstand what could turn into quite a storm. It’s also become quickly clear how uncompromising our landlords are; I think it is slightly unfair how everyone else has to compromise and landlords sail off with 100% of their rent intact. In contrast, the UK government has been hugely helpful with the furlough scheme, rates cancellation and VAT payment deferrals. But, perhaps most importantly, we are trying not to focus too much on the short term. This is easier said than done when you are trying to preserve cash, but don’t turn your back on your brand which you have painstakingly and expensively built up over so many years.

How are you and the wider business supporting your people?
As mentioned, we are doing regular video calls and messages with staff from one of the directors each week, as well as many telephone calls. So far we have topped up salaries for all staff while they have been on furlough – though they are aware this may well have to change. We are also offering loans to help tide staff over where partners or spouses may have been made redundant. And finally, company quizzes. Goodness, we will be so well informed by the end of all this.

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE POTENTIAL LONG-LASTING CHANGES TO Boodles as a business?
Future shopping habits are totally impossible to predict. Sometimes I think people will want to buy jewellery soon as they will think “I am only here once”, and won’t be spending on overseas travel this year. Then I think to myself – “will people actually want to come into our shops and attend our
events again? And will as many people have money to spend on our lovely jewels?” Reassuringly for many centuries people have wanted to own fine jewellery, and I very much hope that this won’t change now. I also think that if you work really hard and know where you are trying to get to, you will succeed.

HOW ARE YOU, ON A PERSONAL LEVEL, DEALING WITH LOCKDOWN?
I am viewing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve my golf chipping (although I’m not yet
succeeding). As a keen gardener I am planting all sorts of vegetables such as artichokes, celeriac and
peppers that I have never tried before. And, if I am allowed to say it, I am very much enjoying being at our home in Hampshire with my wife and 24-year-old twins.

boodles.com

If you are the leader of a Walpole member or partner and have the time to talk to Walpole – and the wider luxury sector – on how you are navigating your business through the current Covid-19 crisis, please contact Jenni Rayner on jenni.rayner@thewalpole.co.uk; we’d love to hear from you.

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