Stephen Whittaker is immensely likable. It’s a good job too because the ex-soldier and one-time tank salesman can be more than a little cheeky. But then, he’s allowed to be.
As managing director of Birmingham auction house Fellows he has driven it to become the template of a modern thinking operator and this year it has widely become recognised as the standout watch auctioneer in the UK.
The reasons behind this, he says, are simple. “Traditionally auction houses have not bothered to describe and sell watches well to the general public. We decided that we would like to.”
There’s plenty of work involved though. “A lot of other auction houses view us with envy and distrust. It is very labour intensive what we do – you have to consider the hard work we put in to sell to people remotely, with all the expert descriptions and photography, it’s a huge commitment. Actually envy is the not right word, maybe it’s loathing. Because we do it the way we do, a number of buyers will now say ‘those idiots in Birmingham do this and that’ and ‘if they say a product is a slightly damaged Rolex, then you can bet it is a slightly damaged Rolex’. Well, the other auction houses would like that reputation but they would like that without all the hard work.”
It is certainly paying off for Fellows. Three years ago it was barely doing watch sales but last calendar year it sold about £1.75 million of watches and this year it will be about £2.5 million.
This is partly driven by a commitment to low-entry sales. “Most people have things for under £1,000 – and there is an active market there. And of course we are also just cheaper – for both vendors and buyers.”
Behind the success, says Stephen, is a talented team positively brimming with expertise. “My guys work incredibly long hours and go beyond what is expected of them. It’s taken me 10 years to build a team of experts though – there simply aren’t that many people with the right knowledge who aren’t committed elsewhere and are of course prepared to commit the social suicide of moving to Birmingham.”
Stephen is spokesperson nonpareil for non-London businesses. “The internet has shown us that the world is a much bigger place. We have to convince people that they won’t catch some sort of anti-social disease by transferring their goods to Birmingham, and then they learn that may just get a better service too.”
The Retail Titan category was sponsored by Bremont.
To see the full digital issue of the magazine, click here.