Milestone anniversary beckons for ‘jewel in the crown’ of Dublin shopping scene
David Andrews is not giving much away. “We’re still working on it,” he says of the plan for next year’s 150th anniversary of Weir & Sons, the iconic, family-owned Dublin jewellers of which he is Managing Director. Something special lined up, surely?
“Well, Patek Philippe are bringing out a special, limited edition watch to commemorate our 150 years,” he says. “It will be platinum with a green dial, so really quite unusual.”
As understatements go, that one is right up there. One of the world’s most prestigious luxury brands, going out of its way to mark the 150th anniversary of an Irish jewellery shop, is an accolade most could only dream about.
“Yes, but we’ve been dealing with Patek Philippe for three-quarters of a century now,” Andrews replies, matter-of-factly. “There’s probably not many that can say that.” Indeed there are not. Then again, there aren’t many family businesses that survive a century and a half in the first place.
Fifth generation family business
Like many of the brands on sale at its glittering Grafton Street premises, Weir & Sons is synonymous with luxury and longevity. Founded in 1869 by Thomas Weir, the business has remained in the family all this time: David Andrews is great-grandson of the founder while his three children, Christopher, Lucinda and Natasha are all involved.
Andrews grew up in Killiney, Co. Dublin, going to school in Portora Royal in Enniskillen where he “did just enough to stay out of trouble”. One might assume that his career was all mapped out for him, but that wasn’t the case.
“No, it was never assumed or expected that I would join the family business,” he says. “The Weirs were extremely fussy about who they took on, and I had no particular ambition to get into the business anyway. Instead, I decided to follow my own path, so I went into Craig Gardiners (accountancy firm; now part of PWC) as an article clerk.”
He decided to change tack, successfully applying for a job with the Northern Ireland civil service, before fate intervened. Out and about in Dublin, he bumped into the then-Managing Director of Weir’s who heard about his plans to head north. An interview with T. K. Weir was swiftly arranged and young David Andrews was offered a job.
“I joined in 1967 as a sales assistant, doing administrative and sales work and just filling in around the office,” he says. “It was hard work but I loved it, loved the atmosphere and everything that went with it. At that stage of my career, I wasn’t aspiring to become Managing Director, I was just working away.”
He began to move up the ladder, taking on the role of company secretary in 1971 before becoming a director in 1975 – “in charge of buying and selling” – at which point he embarked on a mission to get more brands in the door and on the shelf.
“The first brand I took on was Cartier in 1976,” Andrews says. “Then Tag Heuer, Jaeger Lecoultre, Mont Blanc, Baume & Mercier, Breitling, Gucci, Raymond Weil, Seiko, the list goes on. Up to that point, watches had probably accounted for less than 25% of sales but today more than 65% of our turnover comes from watches.”
He was appointed Managing Director of the firm in 1978, however the company shareholding was beginning to pose a problem. Andrews and his joint MD, Tom Jenkinson, wanted to drive the business on but there were 20 shareholders and it was getting increasingly difficult to keep everyone happy. Things came to a head.
New ownership structure
“In 1982, we decided to completely realign the ownership structure,” he says. “We got the shareholders down from 20 to just three people – myself and my two sisters – which was a huge development. It guaranteed the continuance of the business really, as it meant we could do things our way.”
The business went from strength to strength, even though the cash-strapped 1980s when VAT rocketed to 35% and recession swirled heavily in the air. Then, as the economy accelerated over the following decade, the family picked up the option of buying the freehold on their main Grafton Street premises.
Owning the building outright was a proud moment for all concerned. When the Tiger era finally collapsed in 2008, it became more than that: buying the building turned out to be one of the game-changing moments in the long history of the company.
“It was shocking when it happened,” says Andrews of the financial crisis. “For a business like ours… unbelievable. There were days we’d just be standing around, looking for something to do. Turnover just dropped. No customers.
“However, owning the building meant we were able to keep going,” he says. “We decided from the outset that we would do everything we could to not let anyone go – and we stuck to that. Senior staff took a pay cut and when anybody left, they were not replaced – but nobody was made redundant. I’m so proud of that.”
Things began to pick up again in 2010, the Weir’s recovery spearheaded mainly by an influx of brand-loving Chinese tourists. The company took on a Mandarin-speaking member of staff to cope with demand; today there are four full-time Mandarin speakers on the sales floor.
Other changes have been implemented as Weir’s looks to innovate and exploit new markets. The old school opulence of Waterford Crystal has been replaced by less expensive, more contemporary brands including Alex and Ani, Ted Baker and Daisy London. The website has become a focal point for the business too.
“Even something as touchy feely as buying a watch has an online aspect to it,” says Andrews. “I think something like 80% of all our sales have been researched online in advance, so it’s vital to have that shop window open – it’s like having another branch for us.”
While online shopping represents opportunity, there are threats too. Andrews remains incredulous at the Brexit vote, describing it as “financial suicide” and, like so many other Irish business owners, cannot see any winners emerging from the deepening mess.
“I toured around the UK last year with my son Chris,” he says. “The thing that struck us was how many high street retailers were closed – boarded up and gone. It was very sad actually, going to a city like Leicester and seeing all those empty buildings. Brexit is not going to fix that – it’s going to do the opposite.”
Not that he is looking too far ahead. The Andrews family is currently in the throes of succession planning with a family charter being drawn up “to make sure there’s no conflict and everyone’s views are represented”. The business will remain firmly in the family, whose ownership style, David Andrews says, is the principal factor in reaching 150 years in business.
“They had extremely high standards,” he says of management through the years. “I can remember family members coming for interviews here and being turned down – harsh as it sounds! There was always a hard-nosed business attitude and the company always came first. That attitude stood to us over the years.
“I never had a specific management philosophy as such, I always tried to lead from the front and do what’s best for the business,” he says. “I believe in loyalty, although that’s a commodity in shorter and shorter supply these days. I believe in getting things at the right price and putting the correct value on them. In 150 years, we’ve never once had a sale – why would we? How can something be worth so much this week and then 25% less the following week?”
Away from the world of business, Andrews is a competitive sailor who once represented Ireland in the Admiral’s Cup and Sardinia Cup. Motor racing is also a lifelong passion, although his days of winning races – he once took the chequered flag at the legendary Mujello circuit in Italy – are over. No regrets though – on any front.
“No regrets at all,” he says emphatically. “Not a single one. I’m happy and thankful to have had the career I did. It’s been fantastic. I’ve travelled and seen the world thanks to my job – been all over the place and loved every minute of it. Looking forward to next year.”