'I loved coming to Belfast during the Troubles, there was a real sense of community spirit'
Mark Adlestone, chairman of Beaverbrooks, talks to Emma Deighan about the jewellery chain’s Belfast beginnings and celebrating a century in business
Mark Adlestone is the chairman of UK jewellery chain Beaverbrooks, but few people know the links the brand has to Belfast and the wider community here.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year Beaverbrooks, which has 71 stores UK-wide, was first set up in Belfast by three brothers, Isaac, Harry and Maurice Adlestone, who moved here from Leeds in 1919.
Initially they operated under the Adlestones banner and out of a suitcase but numerous stores later, the first of which was set up in Belfast, the company changed its name to "appear more British sounding" in 1935 said Mark, who is the third generation of the family to run the firm and the grandson of Isaac.
"We are a Jewish company and they just felt they wanted a British sounding name. It felt safer or more appropriate," he said.
"So they looked to a famous minister, Lord Beaverbrook. But the interesting thing was he wasn't British at all, he was actually Canadian and came to England in 1910 but he was a very influential man. He owned the Express Newspapers and was massively important in politics," he added.
Subsequently Lord Beaverbrook brought a legal action against the brothers for using his name but the trio of businessmen successfully defended the case, becoming an upmarket jewellery store occupying most of the high streets in the UK.
The very first store the brothers opened was in Belfast, one year after that suitcase operation. They then expanded into the north of England, setting up a base just outside Blackpool.
"After the Second World War they moved over to St Anne's and people ask why we're based there but it's because it's a lovely place to live and it was a bit grim in Manchester post-war and it's also because the brothers didn't have a good history of health. They all died young," Mark continued.
Isaac died from diabetes, while Harry lived until he was 65, failed by brittle bones and cancer. "He had a specially adapted Rolls Royce," Mark recalled. Meanwhile Maurice passed away at the age of 55 from a cerebral haemorrhage.
Isaac's son Gerald was just 12 years old when his dad died. He carried on the family empire which is now in the hands of Mark, a father of three.
When Mark recalls his days in Beaverbrooks in Belfast, even during The Troubles, he does so fondly despite the backdrop of unrest.
"I was brought up in St Anne's and schooled in Blackpool. I went to Oxford to study Jurisprudence but I didn't complete the course and I wasn't interested. I think I was seduced by the thought and what I really wanted to do was do was business in Manchester. My dad said to me 'I think it's time you started working son' and I didn't feel in a strong position to argue so I started in the business in 1979."
Mark's first visit to the Belfast stores (there were two Beaverbrooks stores; one in Royal Avenue and another in Anne Street operating as Adlestones. Today it has one store here, Beaverbrooks on Donegall Place), was also in 1979.
"It was intense times," he said.
"I came over at least twice a year to Belfast to spend time in the shops and to be with our colleagues and I remember, in the early days, to get into Royal Avenue there was an Army checkpoint to go through. It was remarkable.
"All through the Troubles I always found I loved coming to Belfast, maybe because of them almost. I think the Troubles created a real community spirit. People are wonderful there and I seem to connect with the people of Belfast."
Mark also recounted how the two Belfast stores separated their employees according to religion.
"I didn't quite understand what was going on in the recruitment process," he admitted. "But during one discussion we discovered that one of our stores was Protestant and the other was Catholic.
"So when you recruited Protestants they were based in Royal Avenue and Catholics worked in Anne Street, or it could've been the other way round, I can't remember but it was remarkable because the funny thing is they all got on well and we never had any problems between stores."
There are many Troubles-related anecdotes that Mark recounted with fondness, including 1987 when he brought new manager, Jeff, to Belfast.
"I was bringing our manager from York over who had been promoted to take on the manager position in Belfast, because that shop was the best shop in the country for selling diamond rings. We had a phenomenal diamond business there.
"On his very first night in Belfast the alarm in the Europa Hotel went off at two o'clock and we had to leave our rooms because of a bomb scare. He went a bit white and we were out of the room for around three hours. I had my sister's wedding coming up and I used the time to write the speech for that but poor old Jeff had to get showered and show up to work with just two hours' sleep.
"I believe he still lives here and moved on to become an estate agent," Mark added.
A father of three girls, one of whom has just begun working at Beaverbrooks, Mark has been highly honoured in recent years for his services to business and charity.
In fact, in the retail sector, Beaverbrooks is highly regarded for its philanthropic contributions, a quality that is always nurtured by Mark who said he spends 20% of his time on community and charity work "because I have a good team" which allows him to do so.
And, this year, he was chosen by the Queen to become the next High Sheriff of Greater Manchester. He received the honour at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.
One of the main features of his new role as High Sheriff is to support and contribute to the voluntary sector, encouraging the growth and development of charities.
In 2017 Mark was also appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester, and he's just stepped down as the chair of the Federation of Jewish Services.
Such titles and accolades stretch well beyond Mark's own personal achievements. Beaverbrooks has been awarded 10th best company to work for in the UK, in the Sunday Times best companies to work for 2019. It's a status it's held for over 16 years. It's also celebrating its fifth most successful year in business.
"It's part of our DNA to help communities and charities," said Mark, who has donated £13m to over 750 charities since the year 2000 under Beaverbrooks.
In NI those charities have included PIPS, the now closed Forum For Action on Substance Abuse (FASA), Sands NI (Stillbirth And Neonatal Death Support), Crohn's and Colitis NI and Water Rescue.
"And we want to look after our staff too. We don't ask them to work on Boxing Day because it's a time for family, and to open on that day would come at a human cost," Mark continued.
Family is the backbone to Beaverbrooks' success story.
It has just welcomed its fourth generation member of staff, with Mark's daughter joining the firm. But for the first time in its history, it has brought an employee, a non-family relative, to its top tier.
Anna Blackburn is a former graduate trainee, who joined the company in the Trafford Centre, and is now managing director/chief executive.
"She is special," said Mark. "We have transitioned from being all family owned and run to a professionally run business."
This move will, perhaps, allow Mark to enjoy some time to himself. When he's not fundraising, or working, Mark can be found indulging in his love of sport which includes racquetball, skiing and running. He may even be found belting out American Pie by Don McLean at a karaoke night if he's not at a rock or indie gig. And with a backdrop of challenges in the retail sector, Beaverbrooks is performing well, giving Mark even more reason to enjoy the finer things in life.
"We're doing well and the reason is we are focusing on the area we feel we can influence. We're one of the best places to work in the country and we work very hard at that."
This year will be a memorable one for all staff as they receive a £100 bonus and a day off for their birthday to mark a century in operation. The stores will also stock an exclusive range of celebratory pieces including a Tag Heuer watch and an exclusive Beyond Brilliance diamond ring range.
"I've seen massive changes in Belfast and I see that every year. I'm a regular to the city and I always enjoy being there," concluded Mark.
Q What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A Run your own race. Focus on yourself. Have independence of thought and don’t be distracted by the noise around you.
Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A Follow your passion. You’ll only be successful if you love what you do.
Q What was your best business decision?
A In the 1980s we had a big decision to make; discount heavily like our competitors or move our market positioning. We chose to move upmarket and have never looked back.
Q If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A It would be in the business world for sure and probably in retail. I also dedicate a minimum of one day a week to charity and communal work, which is really important to me and so I would still keep up this commitment.
Q What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A I’m a keen skier so the last trip was to Avoriaz in the heart of Portes du Soleil in France. In August we’re going to Tel Aviv for a city/beach holiday.
Q What are your hobbies/interests?
A Music is something I’m really passionate about, and I love listening to different types, from classical music to rock. I’m also a big collector of music and own approximately 2,600 albums and more than 450 vinyl singles. I also enjoy the theatre and live music; my first concert was David Bowie in 1973… not a bad first gig, hey?
Q What is your favourite sport and team?
A Beaverbrooks’ head office is five miles from Blackpool and so I support Blackpool FC and am a season ticket holder.
Q Have you ever played any sports?
A I love sports and regularly play racketball and squash. I played table tennis at a decent club level and am an advanced skier. I’ve skied ‘The Swiss
Wall’ a couple of times (also known as Le Pas de Chavanette) which is a particularly steep and difficult piste on the French-Swiss border. As a company, each year Beaverbrooks hosts a charity 10k Fun Run and my goal is to beat my age in minutes!
Q If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a great way to get people to like you and Leading Change by James O’Toole is an excellent book about values-based leadership.
Q Have you any economic predictions?
Q How would you assess your time in business at Beaverbrooks?
A I hope that by creating a very special people-orientated culture within Beaverbrooks I have left a positive impact on all those I have connected with during my time there.