Prestons managing director Karl Massey was born in Macclesfield and went to school in Wilmslow, home of Prestons, his current flagship Rolex, Tudor and Patek Philippe boutique. Growing up, his family was in the retail business, with a small shop in nearby Alderley Edge, Cheshire, that sold second hand jewellery and watches from brands like Timex. Mr Massey started working in the shop at weekends from the age of 13, before dropping out of school aged 15 to work there full time.
“When I was 15, my deputy headmaster approached my father and let him know that if he took me out of school, they would turn a blind eye. So they let me go and, from the age of 15, I went into retail,” he recalls.
Within three years, he had opened a second shop for the family in Cheadle but was hungry for more, and particularly keen to take the business upmarket into the luxury world. That opportunity came in 1988 when Cottrills, a jeweller in another Cheshire town, became embroiled in a financial scandal that forced it into administration. Mr Massey’s father managed to buy the business from the receiver for a pound, plus 80p in the pound for the stock. “My father’s view was that, if it didn’t work, there was only two years to go on the lease and we would just be able to move any unsold stock into our smaller shops,” he remembers.
“I went there and it was like a dream come true. The only brands they had left were Cartier and Seiko; they’d had Rolex, but lost it. I managed to get Omega, and in the first year we sold 100 Omegas. I kept writing to Rolex every few months asking to get the agency back, and eventually after about 12 months, we got it. That is how we got into the higher end,” Mr Massey reveals.
Like all great retailers, The Massey family were street smart as well as opportunistic. In the 1990s, the business had picked up a few corporate customers who would place orders every month for Omega watches that would be given to long-serving employees. “I thought to myself: what an easy business, and so I created a catalogue of corporate gifts. I got myself a secretary and started writing to local companies and by 1992 we had picked up 80% of the business from ICI [a major chemicals business].”
By 1992, the corporate gift business was turning over about £300,000 and the stores were doing around £600,000. A deal with British Rail changed all that. Mr Massey won a contract to supply rewards to the rail company’s entire workforce, and by the following year, 1993, the corporate business was turning over £2.3 million. Ten years later and CottrillsReward, as it became known, was the UK’s biggest player with around 500 corporate clients.
“It was wonderful. We were turning our stock 20 times per year and we were going out and picking off Garrard, Mappin & Webb, local jewellers all over the country,” Mr Massey describes.
It was the profitability of that business that allowed him to expand his luxury retail operation. He already had Cottrills in Bramhall store and opened a second branch in Macclesfield where he had the agency for Rolex and then Patek Philippe.
In 2006 he acquired the Wilmslow store, and was piling the company’s own money into a six month-long fit-out. There were no plans for further expansion before Wilmslow was up and running, but fate intervened again when Preston & Duckworth, one of the biggest regional jewellers headquartered in Preston, went into administration. Mr Massey swooped again and bought its Bolton store for one pound, plus 70p in the pound for the stock.
This turned out to be the high water mark in terms of growing the number of stores in the North West. Wilmslow and Bolton were soon open and trading well, but a major robbery at the Bramhall store — the third time it had been raided — prompted Mr Massey to close that shop. He also closed the family’s Macclesfield shop because it was so close to Wilmslow so two stores were fighting for the same customers.
That left Cottrills in Wilmslow and Prestons of Bolton, but Mr Massey decided that the Prestons name was stronger than Cottrills, so he re-branded Wilmslow to Prestons as well. Prestons of Bolton eventually closed in 2015 after trading continuously for 150 years.
Expanding the empire in Cheshire may have ended, but the two stores in Wilmslow and Bolton had given Mr Massey considerable success with Rolex and Patek Philippe, which led to an opportunity in 2012 to open a Rolex boutique in Leeds and a few years later, in 2015, to open with Rolex and Patek Philippe in Guildford, Surrey.
Along the way, the group has acquired two Pandora franchised boutiques, and opened a mid-market multi-brand jeweller called Daisy Mai opposite Prestons in Wilmslow.
But Rolex and Patek Philippe are where the group’s passions (and profits) lie, with three boutiques in Wilmslow, Leeds and Guildford driving the business.