When Jurek Piasecki left Goldsmiths after 25 years at the helm he could have comfortably settled into an early retirement. Instead he has set up watch distributor Nuval to target what he tells Rachael Taylor is a soft underbelly of the UK watch retail market that is ripe for his carefully selected offering of hidden gems.
Jureck Piasecki is not a man who needs to work for a living. So it begs the question, just why is he?
Rather than this being a mere assumption about his wealth, it is a statement delivered by the man himself a short while into our interview at his London offices, a second home to Birmingham-based watch distributor Nuval, of which he is managing director.
Piasecki is the former chairman of national retail chain Goldsmiths, which he claims to have nurtured from a
£3 million-a-year business to one with a turnover of £350 million by the time he stepped down from the helm.
Of course the term stepped down is perhaps incorrect. This makes it sound like a well planned exit at a mutually beneficial time, which it certainly was not.
While we chat about Piasecki’s past at Goldsmiths, of which he is evidently proud, he is keen to play down his split with Goldsmiths and its parent company Aurum, but it is that less than acrimonious parting that has led us to sit here today discussing Nuval.
Piasecki had spent 25 years building up Goldsmiths but in 2007 he exited the retailer, which was then under the control of Baugur, after what was described at the time by the national press as a bitter boardroom dispute, over which he was suspended. Despite his suspension Baugur group chief executive Gunnar Sigurdsson at the time was quick to publicly praise Piasecki for his “integrity and his success in building Goldsmiths”, but that didn’t stop the split from being any less sour. It did, however, leave Piasecki with enough personal wealth thanks to an out-of-court settlement with Baugur to ensure that should he want to he need never work again.
The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for most men and women of working age is the dream of making enough money to retire into a life of luxury, and while there is certainly evidence that Piasecki enjoys a life frilled with the finer things, he has also made a return to the world of hard graft with Nuval.
After leaving Goldsmiths Piasecki set up an investment company called Lockend Investments to keep his bank balance building and, no doubt, his brain ticking. The company oversees a varied portfolio of companies including home food waste solutions, film production – Piasecki is a big film fan with an extensive collection of Marilyn Monroe momentos that runs into thousands of pounds – property and IT. But the main crux of the company is Nuval, a watch distribution company that Piasecki set up four years ago.
The company has been slowly growing and now has nine brands: Graham London, Bedat & Co, Phillip Stein, Carl F Bucherer, Metal.CH, TechnoMarine, Eberhard, Arnold & Son and Ball Watches.
The company was originally founded with Neil Duckworth in the managing director’s chair but he left the business last year – later going on to found his own watch distribution business Veritime – and a restructure ensued that led to Piasecki taking a more active role in the business. The team now has eight staff and is led by brand director Charlotte Cherrie and finance director Richard Darling. The business has recently employed new team members, including sale director Chris Bedworth, who has joined Nuval from luxury mobile phone brand Vertu, and Piasecki says there is scope to expand the company further.
A young, growing business is a handful so why, after what many would have interpreted as an opportune moment to break away from business and retire, has Piasecki set himself up a second career in the watch business? He says it was a mixture of a desire to set up a company he could pass on to his children – his daughter Jessica Piasecki now works at Nuval as a marketing and PR executive – as well as sheer guttural passion for the watch industry.
Working for a large chain such as Goldsmiths, Piasecki is used to working with tried and tested watch brands, but this is not an avenue that he has chosen to pursue with Nuval. Instead, it is the diamonds in the rough that interest him, or the “undiscovered gems of the watch industry” as his wife Vicky Piasecki puts it; Vicky is also involved in the business, though the Piaseckis are keen to steer away perceptions that Nuval is a family-run business.
The Piaseckis are in agreement that a rumbling of change in the watch industry is opening up a gap for Nuval’s type of brands – high-end Swiss-made watches, but not necessarily well known names.
“In the 1980s watch brands weren’t important and I was picking them all up,” says Piasecki, adding that he has observed the market over time as the power balance shifted to the brands.
Rather than being put off by the power that the big dominating brands command, he feels that increasing power, and theegos that go with it, will lead to a retailer revolt, or “social retail unrest” as he eloquently dubs it.
“The big guys, like Rolex and Omega and Cartier, are all fighting for position and there is a soft underbelly,” he says.
As big brands move towards retail strategies that are led by own brand stores and cut back on independent retailers, he believes that those retail stores will have offers with gaping holes in them – holes that he believes his brands can fill.
As well as brands pulling out of retailers, Piasecki believes that there is a more significant revolt on the horizon when retailers will have enough of being dictated to and will be the ones to end relationships with brands that dictate make-or-break terms such as minimum order spend, dedicated window space, or shop-in-shop boutiques. “At some stage you have to say enough is enough,” he says.
But it is notoriously tough for new watch brands to break into a market as mature as the UK, particularly when those brands – as is the case with Nuval’s portfolio – retail for thousands rather than hundreds of pounds, as shoppers tend to go for what they know when spending that much money.
While Piasecki admits that the herd instinct will still apply, he also believes that the watch consumer is becoming more sophisticated and is not just interested in a brand name but the quality of the watch.
“There was an opportunity in the market that we can fill and Jurek has a fantastic previous track record,” says Vicky Piasecki. “A lot of watch brands asked for Jurek as he is the figure head and is very confident with watch brands. A lot of these brands are hidden gems. Each one of the brands is a challenge in its own right, but so many people want something different on the high street and people’s product knowledge is better, they look into other brands.”
As well as uniting retailers with a more unique offer than is currently available on the high street, Piasecki hopes that Nuval will help the brands it works with to raise their profiles in a crowded market. “Anyone starting out fresh [on their own], like Eberhard, would lose a lot of money,” he says, adding that Nuval has the connections and the know-how to smooth a brand’s path into the UK.
At present Nuval’s distributes 10 watch brands – plus a range of jewellery cleaning products from Connoisseurs that includes the Diamond Dazzle Stick – and it is a number that he is happy to sit at for now.
When Piasecki’s name has hit the headlines of late it is not usually in relation to Nuval but connected to speculation about whether he is or isn’t planning to make a bid for Aurum, the parent company of Goldsmiths that is now up for sale. And so the question begs to be asked.
Piasecki looks thoughtful for a moment and then answers with an enigmatic tone that makes you realise why columnists would be led to consider him a potential bidder. “Under certain circumstances I would but it is not a priority,” he says.
Vicky Piasecki, however, steps in with a firmer negative answer and a look in her eyes that reads the speculation in her husband’s answer. “It wouldn’t fit into our current plan,” she states resolutely. Instead, she says, they have their hands full with nurturing Nuval, something that is demanding of their time and money.
“We wouldn’t have put money in the business if we weren’t passionate about it and believe that it is going to happen,” she says. “It is a long-term plan.”
Her husband chips into this vein of conversation and reveals that he and Vicky do not draw any financial gain from Nuval, marking it out as an investment rather than a money spinner. “Vicky and I don’t take a penny out of it,” he confides. “We don’t even charge expenses. We are really investing. I don’t draw a salary from Nuval; I don’t need to work. But do I like watches and jewellery? Yes.”
While many business ventures liberally attribute passion as a key driving force, money rarely fails to talk, and the fact that the Piaseckis claim to not be personally making a penny from Nuval five years down the line does prove their commitment and gives their belief that a portfolio of interesting, under-the-radar brands can survive in the UK market an edge of authority. And should Piasecki’s vision of a watch market on the turn come true and the soft underbelly becomes soft enough for his brands to break through then Nuval will be in the perfect position to sweep up.
This article was taken from the May 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.