Monday Interview: Brian Duffy, Aurum Holdings

Brian Duffy has his eyes on the east of Scotland, but is still personally focused on the east end of Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
Brian Duffy has his eyes on the east of Scotland, but is still personally focused on the east end of Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
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AS THE UK’s largest luxury jeweller, it’s little surprise that Aurum Holdings is gearing up for international expansion. But before it advances overseas, the group behind the Mappin & Webb, Watches of Switzerland and Goldsmiths chains has one glaring omission in its domestic footprint that needs filled.

“We are under-represented in Edinburgh,” says chief executive Brian Duffy, by which he means that Aurum has no presence whatsoever in the heart of the capital (there is a sole Goldsmiths showroom in nearby Leith’s Ocean Terminal shopping centre).

We are upstairs at Watches of Switzerland in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, a two-year-old store that typifies Duffy’s aspirations for the whole of Aurum’s 160-strong estate. Castlemilk-born Duffy – who was due at the Europa League showdown at Celtic Park later that evening – is relaxing with a cuppa on a black leather sofa after a day of property hunting in Edinburgh.

He is impressed with the “development on the other side of Harvey Nichols”, the luxury shopping thoroughfare of Multrees Walk. He also remains fond of George Street, home for decades to the city’s outlet of Mappin & Webb before it was closed down about seven years ago.

Aurum’s last site in Edinburgh, Watches of Switzerland in Princes Street, was shut in early 2013 as part of an on-going review to cut costs in the wake of the financial crisis.

Formed through the merger of its three main brands in 2006, the group tumbled more than £19 million into the red in 2009 as one of its biggest shareholders, Icelandic retail investor Baugur, collapsed under the weight of money it borrowed to finance a raft of leveraged buy-outs. The jewellery group eventually came under the majority ownership of its debtors, led by Iceland’s Landsbanki.

It was then sold to its current owner, US private equity firm Apollo, in early 2013. By that time, Aurum was back into operating profit on sales of more than £318m under the guidance of Duffy’s predecessor, Justin Stead.

Duffy, who was recruited to replace Stead at the start of this year, says the group now has the stability it needs to grow. He sees “potential opportunities” in Edinburgh, but remains cagey as to which of Aurum’s brands will be returning to the capital.

“We will see,” he says. “In retail, these are big decisions. You take on a long-term lease, you take on people, and you invest in stocking up, so we have got to go back and do our homework.”

With UK sales now topping £400m, Aurum is turning its attention further afield. Mappin & Webb has been presented to potential distributors in the United States, and distribution deals for watches are being explored elsewhere. Following the acquisition earlier this year of Reading-based retailer Watch Shop, the group has further options for online expansion.

“We are also looking for some potential acquisitions abroad, although nothing appropriate has come along as yet,” Duffy says.

The son of a teacher and a firefighter, Duffy had no specific career aspirations while growing up other than to travel the world. This he has achieved: after qualifying as a chartered accountant with KPMG in 1976, his work has led him to live in a variety of cities such as London, Geneva, Paris and New York.

By the age of 24 he was working for Polaroid, the American firm with a film and camera production facility in Dumbarton. That took him to New York, giving him his first taste of working overseas. About five years later he moved on to Playtex, where he held various senior roles in the UK, France and the US.

He took a radical change of direction in 2002 and left the company – by that time owned by Sarah Lee – to pursue his life-long love of music.

Despite having played guitar with various bands from the 1960s onwards, Duffy decided to up his game by enrolling at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford.

“I always say that if you are ever in that kind of situation, you should fill your time with things that make you feel good,” he says.

“Music is a wonderful thing to have in your life. You can escape with it.”

But he didn’t get to finish the course. Though his time at the academy “made a real difference” to his music, an offer in 2003 to become European president of Polo Ralph Lauren proved too good to turn down.

He oversaw the brand’s expansion into Russia, Turkey and other Eastern European countries, tripling sales to more than $1.2 billion (£763m). A life-long fan of Celtic FC, he joined the board as a non-executive in 2009 and brokered a deal whereby Ralph Lauren became official outfitter to the football club.

With his new commitments at Aurum, he recently gave up his seat on the club’s board, opting instead to devote his free time to the action on the pitch. However, the deal with Ralph Lauren continues: “They are still the best-dressed football team in the world.”

Back on the topic of jewellery, Duffy is upbeat about the prospects for the economy and his sector in particular. Luxury goods are once again a growing market.

“A lot of people in the market are expecting a record Christmas,” he says. “We are stocked and staffed for and ready for a really big Christmas.”

30-second CV

Born: Castlemilk, 1954

Education: St Mungo’s Academy, University of Glasgow

First job: Bookkeeper at James Ferguson & Co

Ambition at school: It was always high. It was always international. Beyond that I was open

Can’t live without: Obviously my family would be high. Music would be high. Good Bordeaux would be high

Kindle or book: Kindle

Favourite city: I have loved everywhere we have lived, but for friendliness and people, it is undoubtedly Glasgow, by a country mile

Favourite mode of transport: I have an old XJS, so that would be it

What makes you angry: I get impatient with the pace of progress

What inspires you: Team success

Best thing about your job: The people and the product. Personally, I have always liked watches

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