For love and money

With high margins, reliable growth and a constant stream of loved-up fiancés, it's easy to see why jewellers like fourth generation family-owned Wallace Bishop tend to stick around.

There are 125,000 weddings a year in Australia, growing steadily each year, year in year out, never going out of fashion, and now with a new growth market among those who prefer not to stray outside their own gender, and most of them are preceded by the acquisition of a diamond ring, chosen by shining lovers standing at a counter, with the infatuated fiancé always going over budget and spending a month’s wage to please the object of his desire.

Oh, what a magnificent business it is, selling engagement rings. Reliable volumes, consistent growth, high margins, a product that sells itself and all based on love! No wonder jewellers don’t come and go: when a family gets a foothold in this business they tend to stick to it like glue through the generations.

Well, up to a point. Hardy Brothers, Australia’s only jeweller with a royal warrant and one of the oldest, hit a succession break at the fifth generation and the business found its way into the Skase family -- Christopher and Pixie -- in 1980.

The Qintex ownership lasted for nine wild years, until the Skases decamped to Majorca, flinging the jeweller, among other businesses, at baying creditors, whence Hardy Brothers was bought by a then 102 year-old whippersnapper of a jeweller, McKinney’s of Brisbane.

Nine years later, John McKinney, the third generation of his family, also hit a succession break, with three daughters more interested in the product than the business, and so Australia’s most venerable jeweller found its way to Wallace Bishop, the subject of this week’s little profile.

Wallace Bishop Jewellery was kicked off by the eponymous Mr Bishop in 1917. He was, by all accounts, an enterprising and talented young jeweller from Birmingham who sailed to Australia on the good ship ‘Ripping Grange’ to find his fortune. He intended to settle somewhere interesting but ended up in Brisbane instead: an optometrist there needed someone to make spectacle frames and young Wallace decided to take the job in the hand.

Graph for For love and money

One of the first Wallace Bishop stores in Brisbane

He started making jewellery at home and then graduated to his own shop in Adelaide Street where he did pretty well and made a passable living. His son Carl Wallace Bishop also became a jeweller and inherited the business, and in turn, his son, another Wallace Bishop, also went into the family business and inherited it (his sister Barbara got property, as is so often the solution to the inconvenience of having two children).

Wallace II also had two children: Cameron Wallace, born in 1964, and Stuart Wallace, born in 1968. Both worked in the business, and this is where the story gets interesting.

In 1997, the same year that Wallace Bishop, the company, bought Hardy Brothers from John McKinney, Wallace Bishop, the man, made a momentous decision: the elder child would not get the business; it would be the younger one, Stuart.

In that same year, 1997, Stuart won the prestigious De Beers jewellery design award for a 5-carat princess-cut beauty, with the diamond turned upside down like a pyramid, and black onyx on the side, which didn’t hurt his chances one bit, let’s face it.

Graph for For love and money

The current CEO, fourth generation Stuart Wallace Bishop

That year, 1997, was a big one for Wallace Bishop, man and firm. He chose his younger son over the eldest, bought Hardy Brothers and installed an external board of directors to help manage the transition to the next generation. 

The upshot was that Cameron left the business, possibly gnashing his teeth, and it will be he who gets the property this time, while Stuart will get the business.

And quite a business it is. Wallace Bishop Jewellery consists of 53 stores, including six Hardy Brothers stores in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The Wallace Bishop stores are all in Queensland and northern NSW, where it’s the leading receptacle of the local fiancés’ hard-earned cash, turning over more than $50 million a year (they wouldn’t tell me the actual figure).

Wallace Bishop, the man, turns 80 this year and still owns 100 per cent of the business. Stuart, now the CEO, works for him on a salary, but eventually the business will be his.

As for the fifth generation, Stuart has three children: Alexander Wallace, 21, William Wallace, 16, (now there’s a name to conjure with) and Arabella, 7.

Naturally enough Stuart is not thinking about the next succession yet, since he has not yet succeeded himself, but it would be an achievement indeed for this business to get to the fifth generation. Not many do that, even in the jewellery business.

To read this month’s Family Business Magazine for free, click here.

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