Michael Hill – the man behind the brand

Jenny Berich meets the man behind New Zealand's most successful jewellery retail chain.
With around 250 stores in Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada there is no doubt that Michael Hill has come a long way since he opened his first jewellery store in New Zealand town in 1979.
Indeed Michael is the first to admit that his rise to the very top of the global jewellery market was largely unimaginable before a “tragedy” changed his life “instantly”.
“Until the age of 40 I played life safe,” he recalls.
“I worked behind the counter of my uncle’s business, Fishers the Jewellers, in a little town called Whangarei for 23 years.
“I always thought I should have a share of my uncle’s business but he never really liked me so I never built up the guts to ask him and didn’t feel I had the potential to run my own store.”
“But everything changed on October 1 in 1977 when Christine (my wife) and I went to the pictures with the kids (Emma and Mark) and then went to her parent’s house to drop them off before we went out to a dinner party.
“While we were standing around chatting with Christine’s parents, the phone rang – it was our neighbour telling us that our house was on fire.
“We rushed home but it was too late. There were flames 20 metres high in the sky.
“The only things I managed to salvage before the house was completely destroyed were my violin and some of Christine’s jewellery.”
“The intensity of the burning heat cleared the whole area but at the same time it cleared my mind.
“I decided then and there that everything in my life had to change and that I was going to buy my uncle’s business.”
Michael wrote down his goal on the back of a business card that same night.
Although obviously emotionally devastated by the loss of their dream home, Michael and Christine gradually began to rebuild their lives with a renewed passion and desire to live their lives to the full.
Although Michael returned to his job behind the Fishers’ counter on the Monday after the fire he was determined to find a way to raise the funds to buy the store.
“Eventually I found a backer and made a bid for my uncle’s business but he rejected it,” says Michael.
“I then made a higher bid but he rejected it too as he didn’t want to sell to me at any price.”
Michael was left with “no option” but to “set up in opposition”.
Thus, with a modern open plan layout designed by Christine and an innovative affordable product range, the first Michael Hill Jeweller opened for trading on May 13, 1979 – across the road from his uncle’s store.
 “I decided to call the shop Michael Hill Jeweller simply because most people in Whangarei already knew who I was thanks to all my years behind the counter in Fishers,” he says.
Not surprisingly Michael’s uncle was “furious” and did all he could to prevent him from succeeding.
“Many of his suppliers refused to supply me as they were worried they would lose the Fishers’ account and I couldn’t get insurance as the insurance company felt they couldn’t insure us as they already insured Fishers.
“It was hard as our shop was tiny and we were up against one of the best known business in New Zealand but I didn’t mind the hardship. It made me tougher than tough.
“I was no longer the wimp that was bullied at school. I changed instantly and have never looked back.”
“I don’t think anyone except Christine and I really believed the store would be a success but in18 months I was taking more than the business that had been there for 23 years,” he says.
The store turned over NZ$225,000 in its first nine months, NZ$750,000 in its second year and over NZ$1 million in its third year.
The store’s success gave Michael the necessary confidence to strive for even higher goals.
In 1981 he set a goal to own “seven shops in seven years – in 1987 he opened his seventh store in Manukua City, Auckland.
In June 9, 1987 he floated Michael Hill Jeweller on the New Zealand Stock Exchange to raise enough capital to expand the business locally and into the Australian market.
Nearly four months later on October 1, the first two Michael Hill Jeweller stores were opened in Queensland’s Chermside and Indooroopilly shopping centres – “exactly 10 years after the fire burnt down our house”.
In 1988 Michael set the goal to own “70 shops in seven years” – the seventh Michael Hill store was opened in Newmarket, Auckland in 1986.
 Since then the company has expanded to include 54 stores in New Zealand, 144 in Australia, nine in the US and 30 in Canada.
Now Michael has set a goal that that is ambitious even by his own standards – to own1000 stores around the world by 2022.
“I know it’s a pretty audacious goal,” he smiles, “but my CEO Michael Parcel agrees that we can do it and everyone within the company does too.”
 “Obviously it’s not possible to open a 1000 stores in Australia and New Zealand,” he says. “We have to expand into other markets to make reach the target.
“I want to become a global brand.  I know that might sound slightly arrogant but it isn’t really − it’s just a very driven goal that is essential for our success.”
Therefore, apart from redesigning the company’s stores for his global assault, Michael is also launching Michael Hill perfume, Michael Hill laser-inscribed diamonds and Michael Hill watches as part of the company’s branding strategy.
Michael believes his goal to open 1000 Michael Hill stores has changed the “thinking” of the company’s staff.
“It has a powerful motivational effect on everyone working for the company,” he says.
“Everyone who joins our company see an enormous future for themselves.”
And Michael sees a great future for them too.
“Our people are the key to our success,” he says. “I need great people to run our existing stores in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US and I need great people open up stores in Asia, China and the UK.”
Michael says that the people working for Michael Hill will ultimately determine the outcome of the company’s 1000 store goal.
“Our people make our stores,” he says. “That’s why we invest so heavily in training.
“We have an intense three month selling process.
“We believe that if we get the person in 100 percent in sync and in harmony with themselves then those people will get great results.
“For me the great excitement in running Michael Hill is seeing ordinary people (people that appear ordinary to others) become stars in our company.”
Michael, who has in recent times written two books on his success (Toughen Up and Think Bigger), says that “it’s been a hell of a ride” building the Michael Hill chain thus far but he has no intention of stopping now.
“We are determined to reach our 1000 store goal,” he says. “We want to be the Zara of the jewellery business.
“We want to offer amazing value for money but look like one of the swankiest jewellers around.”