Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Steve Bennett, founder of Genuine Gemstone

STEVE BENNETT has gone through 27 businesses in 34 years. Some failed, others sold for millions.

“If I set out to make money I would invariably fail,” he said. “When I started another business I knew it had to be bigger and better value than anything else.”

In 2004 he founded the Genuine Gemstone Company with £3.5m from the sale of another business. It produces and broadcasts three 24-hour home shopping channels dedicated to gemstone jewellery — Gems TV in Britain, Rocks TV in America and a craft channel, Jewellery Maker.

The business, based in Redditch, Worcestershire, has 500 staff plus 100 in Jaipur, in India’s northern state of Rajasthan, who make the jewellery. It had sales of £99.4m and £3.8m profits in the year to March.

“We’ve carved out a market that is way ahead of the high street in terms of value for money,” said Bennett, chief executive. “It’s been fun and we’re on the right path.”

Getting there has been a turbulent experience, though. In 2005, Bennett brought in a business partner from Thailand to help source gems and produce jewellery, but disagreements soon broke out.

“Merging seemed like a great idea at the time but it meant two bosses battling to run the business,” he said. “I couldn’t be bothered with the arguing, so I sold all my shares.”

For four years Bennett focused on other “crazy” ventures, including a property portfolio and a home shopping channel for wine, called Vinappris. “It was a complete disaster and we lost about £8m,” he said. “We realised we were really missing the jewellery scene and were desperate to get our old business back.”

Gems TV had been listed on the Singapore stock exchange, but profits suffered and it became a cash drain on its parent. In June 2010, joined by his wife Sarah Davies, 38, and his brother John, 39, Bennett seized the opportunity and bought back the firm for £3m.

The family returned to sell jewellery under the Genuine Gemstone name, which by then included an online store, Gemporia.com. The acquisition almost doubled sales in 2011.

The company came top in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league table of Britain’s fastest-growing private businesses in 2012, with £54.5m sales, and was sixth last year.

“We went back to trading only in precious metal and authentic jewels, including emeralds, sapphires and the 17 birthstones,” Bennett said.

He was born in Birmingham and attended Smith’s Wood secondary in Castle Bromwich. His mother was a housewife and his father a saxophonist. “Dad thought I was going to be a sax player. I’d be doing gigs till 2am on school nights so I didn’t do well academically.”

Bennett left school at 16 to pursue music before becoming a gardener and then a computer engineer. “I think my dad overlooked the fact that however much I practised I just wasn’t good enough.” By 1989 he was a car salesman, but he was made redundant.

Bennett, then 23, decided to join forces with his brother John. The pair founded Software Warehouse, helped by £40 a week from the government’s enterprise allowance scheme. The company featured in the first Fast Track 100 table in 1997 and in the next two years.

In 2000, Bennett merged part of the firm with Jungle.com, a music and computer retailing venture, and sold it to Great Universal Stores for £37m later that year.

Finding a new venture was difficult. The sale included a non-compete clause, so Bennett could not do anything similar. With time on his hands he found himself watching shopping channels while his wife, a former pop singer, began studying jewellery design.

“I saw how new and exciting the combination of jewellery and television could be,” he said. “The only thing I was interested in at school was geology, and running a gemstone business seemed closely related to this.”

Bennett spends half the year travelling to the company’s mining partners around the world. In 2012 he founded the Equal World Foundation to help their communities. Sir Richard Branson is its patron. Projects include building a library in Kenya and four schools in Tanzania, and providing sanitation in Rajasthan.

“My role in the company is to find the stones, and the closer we are to the source the better the value,” said Bennett. “We are able to give our customers the story behind their jewellery.”

He is in talks with Samsung, Toshiba and Panasonic about developing the first shopping channel able to make transactions via smart TVs.

His son Matt, 22, a qualified gemologist, is the company’s sales manager. “It’s a big family business and we love what we do,” said Bennett, who has five other children. “I may have founded a lot of companies but this is definitely the last.”

Bennett, 48, lives in Warwick. His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is simple: “Find something you believe you can do better, and make it so. It doesn’t have to be innovative.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Steve Bennett of Genuine Gemstones

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