Shaper: Steve Bennett

Show aired on 11th April 2015

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Off The Wall from Cyrille Aimèe, a beautiful version of Michael Jackson’s classic. Good morning, it’s me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM’s Jazz Shapers. Jazz Shapers the place where you can hear the very best of the people who are shaping the world of jazz, soul and blues alongside their equivalents in the world of business, a Business Shaper. I am very pleased to say that Steve Bennett is my Business Shaper today; he is the co-founder of the Genuine Gemstone Company, you all know Gems TV, that’s the one most famous iteration of his business but he has also set up thirty businesses, yes you heard me right, thirty businesses across the last few decades. An extraordinary guy, you’ll be hearing lots from him very shortly. In addition to hearing from Steve you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon De Reya some words of advice for your business and as well as all that of course some fantastic music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, including new music from José James, classic blues from John Lee Hooker and this from Nina Simone.

The punchy and powerful sound of Nina Simone with Work Song. This is Jazz Shapers and as I said earlier, Steve Bennett is my Business Shaper and if I actually listed all the things he has done we wouldn’t be finishing by 10.00 o’clock this morning. He is the co-founder of the Genuine Gemstone Company, you will have seen Gems TV which is according to the words in front of me, the longest established jewellery channel in the UK and he is here sitting in front of me. Thank you very much for joining me Steve.

Steve Bennett
Elliot all my pleasure.

Elliott Moss
Now how long has this amazing business been going which is now turning over a hundred million pounds?

Steve Bennett
So Gems TV as you say quite correctly of the jewellery brands we have is probably the most well known in the UK. That started in 2004. So we are some eleven years on now.

Elliot Moss
It wasn’t your first business, I alluded to the fact that there have been a few before. I am going to go way back to when you left school. The reports are that you weren’t the best student ever and I have heard that before many times.

Steve Bennett
I was terrible. Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Did you know very quickly… I mean when did you decide you were terrible because you know, we have both got kids…

Steve Bennett
It is probably all to do with Jazz’s fault really because my dad was a sax player in a band and we played all the conservative clubs and we played at the labour clubs and at about the age of thirteen he would drag me around three or four nights a week playing the sax so I was too tired to go to school the next day.

Elliot Moss
Because obviously you are a very smart guy and you have an aptitude for business and you like to work and I believe you also kind of post-school, you’re a gardener, you’re a computer engineer, you’re a car salesman. I mean you obviously knew that working hard was a good thing?

Steve Bennett
Yeah I had to work hard because one thing my father overlooked was, he kept saying ‘you’re going to be a sax player one day, you’ll be on the cruise liners, you know, that’s what you are destined to do’ but he overlooked one thing and that was I wasn’t very good at playing the sax so I spent all those years learning to play the sax, being taught and this is I think where I was really lucky, I had got a parent who was going ‘you can, you can, you can’ rather than ‘you can’t, you can’t, you can’t’ so I think when people say, you know, what’s that magic ingredient and certainly with my own kids it’s just give encouragement from an early age. So all I have had really is a lot of encouragement but I wasn’t a very good sax player.

Elliot Moss
In between all these jobbing jobs where you were literally just trying to get the money in because you weren’t a very good sax player by your own admission. You then stumbled into running a business or creating a business rather, called the Software Warehouse.

Steve Bennett
That’s right.

Elliot Moss
In 1989 with your brother?

Steve Bennett
That’s right. He was still officially at school because he was fifteen at the time so…

Elliot Moss
This is great. One of the kids leaves school very early and doesn’t want to do it, another one is fifteen and he getting approached by his brother.

Steve Bennett
I know it was terrible and obviously my parents weren’t overly happy at this stage because they realised they needed one of their three children to be educated. So yeah, he would come with me, we would borrow my mother’s car. We would borrow my mother’s credit card and we would go and try and sell computers and install them and do all sorts of things and these were early days for computers so we were door knocking trying to convince people that they needed a PC for their accounts or word processing or whatever back then.

Elliot Moss
Now you are going to find out much more about Steve, my Business Shaper but just to say before we got to the lovely José James, that business which started there, driving around in a car actually ended up being sold for thirty seven million pounds eleven years later so whatever you were doing and we will find out a bit more about it… you were doing it right. Time for some music this is Fine and Mellow from José James.

That was Fine and Mellow and indeed it was, from José James. Steve Bennett is my Business Shaper, he is the co-founder of, you will know it by the Gems TV name, it is actually called the Genuine Gemstone Company. They do other things as well. It has a turnover of a hundred million pound business, turning a pretty tidy profit too and I believe that profit has doubled and will be announced soon as doubled since last year, give or take, doing very well and Steve we were talking before about not your first foray because if it was your first, we would have to go back even further. But the fact that your proper first business with your brother who was definitely under the age of sixteen when you started it, ended up selling for thirty seven million pounds. How did you do it? I mean what did you know about software then and how did you pull it off in ten years?

Steve Bennett
I think that IT at the time was just starting to happen and PCs were just coming out and I had spent a couple of years as a trainee computer engineer for a company called ICL but wanted to go into sales because I thought that was where I could make a bit of cash and they wouldn’t let me go into sales because I wasn’t qualified, didn’t have a Degree, didn’t have A levels or anything like that. So I decided to go on my own and we went door knocking, we started to sell computers and then we realised that there was a little bit more profit in the actual software that drove the computers and we went close to the wall a few times, we almost closed it down once or twice. I remember going off to America for two weeks to a sailing competition, left my brother at that time at sixteen years old to look after the business, again driving round with my mum in her car to fix computers and came back just about to shut it all down and I had found a bit of software advertised in a magazine, an in-flight magazine that doubled the hard drive space of laptops and at the time laptops only had 10 megabytes and you couldn’t put much on 10 megabytes so I sort of played that we were a bit importer of software and they gave me exclusive rights and we got into the software industry.

Elliot Moss
The things you just outlined and you talked earlier about your father talking about ‘you can, you can, you can’ and I imagine that played a big role in believing you could do stuff that really you had no right to know how to do. But then it sounded like you quickly worked out that you could put structure around that. You could actually scale. That you could, you actually could do a lot more than you might have thought.

Steve Bennett
Yeah I think confidence underpins everything. That’s the foundation to most successful business people but then a lot of hard work on top so I meet too many people sadly that say ‘I really want to do this’ but there is the desire but they don’t want to put the effort in. So yeah in the early days you put immense amounts of hours in but that confidence from the parents, you know, giving you that attitude that you can achieve things, is probably the best foundation for anybody in business.

Elliot Moss
But as a young man then building that business, that first one. You would have had to have put proper financial accounting in place, you would have to build a proper team, you had a brand. I mean you did a lot of stuff. You learnt on the job? You got great people around you? Or both?

Steve Bennett
Sure. No in the early days I mean you have to do it everything yourself unless you get a huge amount of finance. We started with a four thousand overdraft from the bank and that’s how we started off way back in ’89. So we started with very little finance so you learn to do everything. You learn to do the VAT return, you learn to do all the paperwork, you learn to sell on the telephone, you learn to sell door knocking, you teach yourself what you need to learn and most businesses in the early days you know, you have to be a jack of all trades.

Elliot Moss
Was it fun then? I mean you are running a much bigger business now. Was it more fun that you were having or was it actually more stressful as you think about that early stage?

Steve Bennett
I think in the early days there is a lot of stress. I suppose it depends where your money comes from and you know, my parents were lending, their mortgage was against their house that we got the four thousand loan for so there was a lot of stress in the early days. Even to tears at times when things would go wrong and you know, I’ve got to pay mum and dad back this money so a lot more stress in the early days. A lot of stress as you talked about that we have actually sold that business to Argos in 2000, a lot of stress around the sale of that but stress is not a good thing in business. Probably in the early days it is but as you learn as you get on and on, as you start more businesses you really have to try and avoid the stress.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out how Steve Bennett, my Business Shaper is still here smiling and not looking too stressed at all. Latest travel coming up in a couple of minutes but before that some words of wisdom for your business from our program partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. You can catch me talking to a fantastic shaper from the world of business every Saturday from 9.00 o’clock until 10.00 here on Jazz FM. If you miss any of them then go into iTunes; put in the words ‘Jazz’ and ‘Shapers’ and you will find a whole bunch more. If you happen to be on or near a computer, CityAM.com is also your destination. I am giving you lots of choices and even, yes even, if you want to fly in the air you can go on British Airways and you will hear some on BA’s Highlife. Today Steve Bennett is my Business Shaper, he is the co-founder of Gems TV, the co-founder of the Genuine Gemstone Company. He has set up many businesses before that. He will probably set up loads more afterwards. He is also, and I am going to come on to this a little later, the co-founder with his wife, Sarah of the Equal World Foundation or the Colourful Life Foundation which we will come on to and talk all about what he does over there in all sorts of interesting countries for local people. Steve you were talking before about selling the business and stress and the nature of stress and how you need to stop stress, you need to dissipate stress over the years. I imagine selling a company is one of the most stressful things that you can do? Is that right?

Steve Bennett
I think again it depends on why you are selling. We sold Jungle at a time where things weren’t real in business. I remember one strange meeting with an investment bank where we had lost three million pounds in a month and I went into the meeting and that morning on the train I had read that LastMinute.com had lost five million in one month and I went into the meeting, that was my defence, we hadn’t lost as much as Lastminute and the bank had turned round and said, ‘well Steve the problem is you are not investing enough, look at how much money you could be losing if you invested properly in marketing’ and that’s when stress comes in. When you are told to do one thing when you are actually fundamentally know that this isn’t real, this is not the way business should be so when we were doing Jungle.com and in the middle of selling it to Argos, that was so stressful because all the things you learn in business were thrown out the window at that stage.

Elliot Moss
The voice in your head at that point and again now and any time in between then and 2000 and now in 2015, is there a voice? Is there someone who is calm and sensible? Not yours but is there someone from the past or you know are there advisors you go I really trust their opinion?

Steve Bennett
Yeah a couple. I have been very fortunate over the years with the people that I have met and there is a great guy who runs Carphone Warehouse and TalkTalk called Charles Dunstone who is a wonderful guy and no matter how big he gets, if I phone him up with an issue or a problem I go down and I see him and he will take five minutes, ten minutes out of his busy day to try and analyse a problem. More recently the last couple of years Richard Branson joins us on one of our charities so we get access to Richard four or five times a year and certainly where I am in my business now, he is probably the most influential because yeah I am just coming up fifty, I’ve got child number seven on the way and…

Elliot Moss
He said seven… he did say seven.

Steve Bennett
I did say seven.

Elliot Moss
He did say seven just so if you were not sure, he did say seven.

Steve Bennett
So I am trying to get to that stage now where even a year ago I still felt guilty if I wasn’t in the office when I could be in the office you know, I’d feel guilty if I had taken a morning off to go for a run or go cycling and I am just trying to get to that point now where it’s ‘hang on, let’s get the balance right’ and of course Richard is a master at that so yeah he is probably currently my main mentor.

Elliot Moss
In terms of that mentoring and you’ve picked to phenomenally successful people and people that have very good reputations as well as being decent people. What is it? What is the nature of the advice that they give you that is so good?

Steve Bennett
I had this massive ceiling in my head that I couldn’t get a business over a hundred million and we got there close in the IT industry, two years in a row finished in the nineties. The last financial year in my jewellery business we ended up at ninety nine and a half million turnover and everybody was taking the Michael out of me saying ‘you know that limit that you’ve got, you really have, you know, you just can’t build a business over a hundred million’ and we have just done it this year and the advice from Charles Dunstone was simple. One word, he said, ‘Steve clarity. You haven’t got enough clarity in what you are trying to achieve as a business. Just really make sure that you understand what it is then you can sell it to your team who can then sell it to the customers’ and we just hadn’t got enough clarity.

Elliot Moss
Talk about one word you need to remember it’s that one, it is clarity. Fantastic advice. Time for some music this is Boom Boom from Mr John Lee Hooker.

That was Boom Boom from John Lee Hooker. Steve Bennett is my Business Shaper and we have been talking about all sorts of things. Clarity was the last thing we were talking about. Clarity is a concept obviously it helps everyone in business in all sorts of areas. How do you take that advice and how have you taken that advice and actually applied it in the business? It is one thing having a message, it’s another thing taking the message and actioning things. What’s been the secret to that because people listening will be going ‘yeah, yeah I’ve got the clarity but I still haven’t got the results’?

Steve Bennett
Yeah I give you a great example. My dad used to tell a story, he used to have a car showroom selling mini’s and there was a Ferrari garage down the road and a lot of my dad’s colleagues said ‘you know we’ve got to get into high end cars’ and one day the opposite happened, the Ferrari guy started selling minis and his customers got confused and eventually the Ferrari guy goes out of business and the gentleman my dad worked for carried on in business. So my dad taught me early days about clarity as well but what we did was we were as we are today, Gemstone Jewellery Business and you know, we were doing very very well but my wife said, ‘Come on, maybe we start looking beyond just genuine gemstone jewellery. Maybe we start looking at you know, some of the costume jewellery, getting into the volume lines rather than you know, the aquamarines, the tanzanite’s and all the things we were famous for’ and we talked about it so much for about two weeks she almost convinced me to go against what I thought we should be doing. So I said to my brother one day ‘I’m going to go in, I am going to change the limited company name to the Genuine Gemstone Company’ so that even if I am long gone, long dead nobody changes the structure of the business and we went as far as changing the actual limited company to stop anybody from changing the root to the business. But clarity, yeah it… just know what your business is about. Don’t spread it too thin. You know if you want to do other things then do it under different businesses, different brands and you know, Richard Branson is a master of that although he’s got the Virgin brand, he believes in smaller business units rather than one big business unit. So split it down into different streams but be very focussed.

Elliot Moss
Now you haven’t just arrived at being a successful person, it hasn’t been plain sailing the whole way, you’ve had a couple of bumps, probably more than one or two.

Steve Bennett
Oh yes.

Elliot Moss
One that I am aware of is the Vinappris Business, the wine business which I think you set up around 2006.

Steve Bennett
That’s right.

Elliot Moss
It collapsed. You lost millions.

Steve Bennett
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
And you just… what do you do? You just dust yourself off again? I mean again people wonder how people like you carry on. It must have felt awful?

Steve Bennett
Yeah that was tough that one. We had sold our Gems TV business in 2006 and we were looking for something to do so we decided that what Gems TV does, it goes round the world, it finds a gemstone and we film it coming in out of the ground, we show those documentaries on Sky, Freeview, Virgin and customers buy the jewellery and we were convinced that probably the biggest element to what we did was showing how the gemstones are made and coming out the ground from nature so we went round the world filming vineyards. We thought it was the nearest thing to what we had done previously. So we went round the world filming vineyards. Then we started importing wine and my dad… I should listen to my dad again actually because he said ‘If you can sell something invisible on the television I’ll take my hat off to you’ and of course we didn’t, we lost a lot of money and so… it really was we really misunderstood what the main driver to our previous business was.

Elliot Moss
But you don’t sound like that stressed you out? To the point about stress earlier. It sounds like you learnt from that and again back to the clarity point, you understood why it didn’t work and then the mentality is what? I’ll just go again? Because you bought the Gems company back didn’t you?

Steve Bennett
I did yeah.

Elliot Moss
That’s what happened. It floated.

Steve Bennett
That’s right.

Elliot Moss
Didn’t work. You found money, they were losing money.

Steve Bennett
That’s right.

Elliot Moss
And yet you still went in. So the conviction you had to continue, you never wavered. You didn’t ever question did you?

Steve Bennett
I think, I think you would be a fool if you didn’t question your own strategies at times and I think we did question, especially when everybody including the bank thought we were crazy buying back Gems TV. It had gone from very profitable to losing half a million pound every single month so with the cash we had got in reserve after losing so much in the wine industry, we knew we had to turn it round almost immediately so it was a huge gamble, re-mortgaging the house, after at one stage you know we were quite comfortable. So yeah, you’ve got to have a lot of confidence but you’ve got to be able to back it up with something and we did really believe that we knew the gemstone industry and we were so passionate about the gemstones that we decided to give it a second crack.

Elliot Moss
Lucky you did. We will have our final chat with Steve plus we will hear some music from Dr John, that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Dr John and Bonnie Rae and I’ve Got The World On A String. Steve Bennett is my Business Shaper just for a few more precious minutes. Steve you were talking earlier about the fact that you bought this business back, gemstone business, the Gems TV business because you were passionate and you believed it could work. How did you fix it? What have you done right since then?

Steve Bennett
I think back to something we touched on earlier on… clarity. They had done all sorts of things wrong with the business, the staff weren’t excited about what they were doing product wise, they had tried to run it by spreadsheets and certainly jewellery and clothing and the things that are brands, it’s about passion. You know, customers buy in to the passion and if you try and run jewellery businesses or clothing brands purely off spreadsheets that passion disappears. That was one element. They had tried to run it very financially rather than let the customer decide on the right price points and the way we sell our jewellery and it’s quite interesting. Most of the business world is about sale or return, you buy something, if you can’t sell it you send it back. Well we can’t do that because we make our own jewellery so the great thing for us is we put it on the TV, we put it in a reverse auction and the customer decides what to pay and they had lost that. They had tried to say what price something should sell for and the whole beautiful thing is if I get five aquamarines out of the ground or thirty tanzanite’s, let’s let the customer decide. Sometimes we make more than we thought we would. Often we make less than we thought but that was the beautiful thing about the brand, it is still what the brand is about today and that’s what they lost sight of.

Elliot Moss
Now since then and the things they lost sight of you have totally focussed and there has been clarity and you’ve, as you have said, you’ve broken the back of the hundred million pound ceiling which you had. You’ve been named Number 1 fastest growing privately owned company with the Sunday Times, Jewellery Retailer of the Year, British Jeweller’s Association Jewellery Retailer of the Year there… I mean it goes on and on. You are doing really well, you have psychologically gone through the hundred million. What’s next? And will the money make you happy because you strike me as someone where the money is not enough? It’s not about the money?

Steve Bennett
It’s never about the money as well so anybody that goes in to business with the money as the main motivator generally loses because I wouldn’t have bought it back if it was about the money. It was too bigger risk. Most the decisions we make aren’t money related, it’s about trying to do something either bigger or better. And again I think if you look at even back to Richard Branson, you look at all the things he has done; has he ever entered anything just to make money? I would argue that probably no never. Has he always tried to do something either better or found a problem, you know, better airline, better this, better that so it’s never about chasing the money. It’s about trying to do things better than everybody else is doing or in a different way. So what’s the next thing? Well we are trying to raise as much money as we can for the charity we have set up. So for us we want to keep growing it so we can keep putting more and more into the schools that we are building and the different projects we have got around the world all based on education.

Elliot Moss
Now that means and I wanted to talk about the Colourful Life Foundation which is as you said, building schools and so on. Your values, have they always been like that? Did you always think ‘when I’ve got enough money I am going to focus a lot more on giving things back’ or has it emerged and evolved because of the freedom that the financial position that you are now in has given you?

Steve Bennett
Yes. No. It hasn’t always been there. In the early days it probably didn’t even cross my mind but about eight years ago in Africa, looking for gemstones which is what I spend most of my time doing is looking for gemstones in Africa and you see poverty and you see things where you think you can help and just like business I think we did a lot of wrong things in the early days as in trying to do things without the involvement of communities thinking we were helping and we weren’t so even that’s a learning curve but you know, I’ve got six children, number seven on the way and we want to make things a bit more equal. You know, nothing frustrates me more coming back from Africa where we’ve done something and these kids are smiling who have got nothing and come home and my two sons are fighting over a PlayStation game because it’s not the latest version or it’s the wrong Xbox or it’s the wrong whatever so in fact one of my big groundings for them at the moment is to take them with me around the world and let my kids see first-hand you know, what real poverty is about.

Elliot Moss
Well listen, keep going it’s fantastic work to do and obviously you’ve got to keep building this business to enable you to be in a position to do all the great things that you are doing. It has been an absolute privilege to have you on the show, thank you so much. Just before I let you go though, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Steve Bennett
Well I like lots of different jazz but if I go back to one that my dad tried to teach me as a sax player in the early days, it’s Take Five.

Elliot Moss
This is your choice, it’s Take Five from Dave Brubeck.

That was Take Five from Dave Brubeck, the song choice of my Business Shaper, Steve Bennett; totally down to earth and a lovely grounded human being, has complete focus on what he needs to do, understands the power of clarity; resilience, someone who has set up a business and then has failed and then gone back and has failed and gone back, he just keeps on going; and passion, a real belief that what he is doing is what he should be doing and it has helped him achieve his latest goal of breaking the hundred million revenue barrier. Fantastic stuff. Join me again, same time, same place, that’s next Saturday 9.00am for another edition of Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM. In the meantime, stay with us because coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

Steve Bennett is a businessman and entrepreneur who founded The Genuine Gemstone Company in 2008. During his career, Steve has started 27 businesses, first starting out in the IT industry at the height of the dotcom boom. However, when an opportunity presented itself for him to return to his passion for gemstones and minerals, Steve turned it into a successful and profitable venture. Seven years later The Genuine Gemstone Company employs approximately 500 people and has been listed as one of the UK’s fastest growing privately owned companies, with an annual turnover of £100 million. The retailer is the umbrella company for jewellery brands Gemporia, NOWSEEN and Jewellery Maker. From travelling the globe searching for the next big gemstone discovery to presenting on the brands’ TV auction channels, Steve makes sure he is heavily involved in the day-to-day running and overall direction of the business. Steve is also a keen fundraiser for the company’s affiliated charity, The Colourful Life Foundation. Most recently he returned from a trek to the North Pole in a bid to raise funds to develop communities in need around the world.

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevegemhunter

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“My father kept saying to me, ‘you are going to be a sax player one day’….but he overlooked one thing – I wasn’t very good at playing the sax.”

“I think confidence underpins everything.”

“We started out with very little finance so you learn to do everything. You learn to do the VAT return, you learn to do all the paperwork, you learn to sell on the telephone…”

“I had a parent who was saying ‘you can, you can, you can’ rather than ‘you can’t you can’t, you can’t’ ”

“I am just coming up to fifty, I’ve got child number seven on the way.”

“…even a year ago, I still felt guilty if I wasn’t in the office when I could be in the office. You know, I’d feel guilty if I had taken a morning off to go for a run or to go cycling…”

“I had this massive ceiling in my head that I couldn’t get a business over a hundred million”

“Clarity – just know what your business is about. Don’t spread it too thin. If you want to do other things, then do it under different businesses, different brands.”

“I think you would be a fool if you didn’t question your own strategies at times.”

“Customers buy into the passion and if you try and run jewellery businesses or clothing brands purely off spreadsheets, that passion disappears.”

“Nothing frustrates me more than coming back from Africa where we’ve done something and these kids are smiling who have got nothing, and I come home and my two sons are fighting over a Playstation game.”