Anna Blackburn: A sparkling performance

Family-owned jewellery business Beaverbrooks was shining brightly in 2019 as it celebrated its centenary and the most financially successful year in its history. And then it was 2020.

As managing director Anna Blackburn explains: “We were on the crest of a wave. Then we came out of our centenary year and into lockdown – from the highest of highs to the lowest low.”

Stores closed their doors, uncertainty was in the air and, like retail businesses across the globe, the St Annes based company was plunged into a new world of the unknown.

It is fair to say it has coped extremely well. In fact, it can even be said the Beaverbrooks has had a good pandemic. To borrow the government’s slogan, it has built back better.

In the centenary year profits were over £17.8m. This year they are set to exceed £30m – showing an annual growth of more than 30 per cent.

It’s a remarkable performance, with Beaverbrooks’ special ethos at its heart. There is much more to this Lancashire business than jewellery sales, successful though it is at achieving them.

As part of its mission to ‘enrich lives,’ Beaverbrooks donates 20 per cent of retained profits to charity. And it has also been ever-present in the UK’s yearly ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list, ranking for 18 consecutive years. It was also named the number one ‘Best Place to Work in the UK’ in 2021/22.

The more successful we are as a business, the more profitable we are, the more we can give to the wider community

The focus, even pre-pandemic, was on its people. When Covid struck that focus intensified. Beaverbrooks invested heavily in PPE and safety measures across the business, reconfiguring in-store and warehouse working environments and facilitating home working for its head office teams.

Sitting in the company’s bright and airy boardroom, surrounded by pictures and documents highlighting Beaverbrook’s distinguished history, Anna, who has been recognised as one of the UK’s best leaders, reflects on the driving forces behind what she describes as a “brilliant year”.

She says: “It’s a combination of things. The jewellery industry has done extremely well. There’s been more disposable income, people not being able to travel, people being fed up.

“We had a lot of people wanting to treat themselves to that special Swiss watch, there were a lot of engagements. People have wanted to give gifts to their loved-ones, to show they care in difficult times.”

She adds: “From the very beginning of the pandemic we reviewed our position, reviewed our strategies and looked at worse case scenarios

“I don’t think any of us thought we’d be shut for six months of the year, but we had to make sure that we came out of this, whatever this was, as strong as we possibly could. Colleagues knew we had their backs, that they were the priority for us.”

Beaverbrooks has 71 stores across the UK and employs in the region of 1,000 people. Anna stresses that it made no redundancies because of Covid.

She adds: “I had to spend time negotiating with landlords, with some great conversations around partnerships, again making sure we came out as strong as we could. We worked with a lot of our landlords to share the pain.

“We continued to invest in products, reconfigured our whole office and warehouse to be able to carry on with our e-commerce business. It took us 19 days to reconfigure our warehouse

“During lockdown last year we created a new prestige luxury brand and we have bought two stores. The new brand is called Loupe we are very excited about it. We think it will be a game changer in the luxury market. Loupe is about quality and a luxury environment were people want to spend time.”

Loupe is the eyeglass used manufacturing jewellery and a key tool for watchmakers. A Milton Keynes flagship store and a second Croydon boutique will be unveiled later this year, with an e-commerce site following.

As well as the rise in e-commerce, which has continued even as the country has unlocked, there have been massive increases in Beaverbrooks’ mail order and telephone sales.

Anna says: “We’ve talked a lot about confidence, about resilience and investment within the business.”

And she is looking towards the near future with cautious optimism, despite the looming inflation-led crunch. “There are plenty of reasons why business could be a struggle,” she says. “But actually, there are as many reasons why the strengths of our business will continue.

“There’s the three-year catch up on weddings. People will still want to celebrate key life events. That is where Beaverbrooks comes in, the quality of products and the customer service we offer.

“There’s no doubt about the decline in footfall in the high street, but we are finding customers are spending longer in store and are spending more money.”

Anna joined the business as a graduate trainee in 1998, and after working her way up the ranks accepted the role of chief executive officer in 2013.

This appointment was significant on two levels – she was its first female CEO and the first non-family member to take up the role.

Her role was changed again as she was appointed managing director in 2018, making her only the second-ever non-family member to sit on the board and cementing her key role in the organisation.

Anna’s first role was as a sales consultant at Beaverbrooks’ Trafford Centre store. She applied for the job after returning from a year spent travelling following university in Manchester, where she studied sociology and economics.

She says: “I thought it was time to get a job. I like jewellery, saw the post advertised and went and found out all about the company before the interview.”

She liked what she found. “I’d spent the year in Africa volunteering in an Aids orphanage in Malawi. I wanted to make a difference,” Anna explains.

“The business at the time was donating 10 per cent every year to charity – that is now 20 per cent. I was also struck by the way I’d able to have a voice in the business.

“It was the family feel and values that attracted me, plus the opportunity to develop, though I never thought I’d end up in this position. But I believed there could be a good career. The investment in people and the charity all made me say ‘yes, this is where I want to be’.”

Anna travelled around the country as her career in the business developed, including time north of the border in Scotland, and even met her husband at Beaverbrooks. Today they have two children aged 10 and 14 and live not far from the St Annes head office.

Anna has spent her career trailblazing and is very much a woman who has made an impact. However, when it comes to making that difference, she believes it is not about gender, rather it is about having what she calls “emotional intelligence”.

She adds: “It is the ability to make the tough decision and to actually explain the reasoning behind it. Having compassion and empathy are the key skills of any leader, whether male or female.

“Our products are amazing but ultimately we are a people business. Having empathy and really listening to your people are critical. It is about relationships and the empowerment of people.”

Nurturing that empowerment and evolving Beaverbrooks’ business values have been at the heart of her development of the company, and the way it has emerged through recent challenges.

She has made it her mission to prove that treating people well should be reflected on the bottom line and since taking up her senior role has worked to create a highly accountable, engaged workforce with high levels of job satisfaction.

To that end she talks about “fairness” and “trust”, and a “level of honesty”, which is there, she says, “because we want people to do well.”

Anna adds: “It’s a culture where people are not afraid to put their hand up and say, ‘I got that wrong’. It is about embracing that and having open and honest conversations.

“We want to be a great employer and be a great workplace and that takes engagement from everybody. They need to feel they can make a difference and that they have a responsibility to themselves, their colleagues and the business.

“The feedback culture we have adopted is very important as is changing the mindset to one of collaboration. It’s that importance of having the right people in the room and being really open and honest and transparent.”

She also runs focus groups to check in with colleagues across the business and to hear their thoughts.

Overall, it is a successful approach. Anna points to the fact that one in five of Beaverbrooks’ colleagues have been working for the business for more than a decade.

She also adds that by the end of the current financial year the business will have given £17.5m to good causes since 2000 and supports more than 250 charities.

However, she adds: “It’s not just charitable side. Our whole ethos and purpose as a business is about enriching lives.

“The more successful we are as a business, the more profitable we are, the more we can give to the wider community, and that is a massive driver for me personally.”

That commitment to giving continues for her after leaving the office. Anna is involved in charity work, and cooks for the Streetlife homeless charity based in Blackpool.

She’s also undertaken long distance walks to raise cash for good causes and is currently looking at a ‘tower to tower’ virtual trek, walking the equivalent of Blackpool to Paris in miles.

Walking proved therapeutic during the pandemic as a chance to restore and work on her own personal mindfulness.

Anna says: “I was exhausted by the end of the year. I’d been continually reassuring people, keeping things on track. I learned an awful lot about myself in terms of resilience.”

And her advice to those at the very start of their careers? “Find something you are passionate and care about. If you’re doing something you love and you’re good at it, you’ll be successful.”