Harriet Green talks pub food, capitalism and the importance of shiny things with Watchfinder’s Lloyd Amsdon
When I ask Lloyd Amsdon’s seven year-old step-daughter if she knows what an entrepreneur is, she draws a blank. It may be age-related, but there’s no reason why she would have heard the word. “I’m only an entrepreneur when I’m in London,” says Amsdon, co-founder of pre-owned watch seller Watchfinder. “At home, I’m just self-employed.”
But there isn’t much of “entrepreneur” that Amsdon doesn’t satisfy. Watchfinder is the largest seller of second-hand watches in the UK. In the year to April 2015, the firm turned over £38.5m. This year, it’s projected to hit £70m. But Amsdon thinks they’ll do that “easily”, and that run rate in January of next year could be £100m.
Watchfinder has always been up against heritage businesses, and those with a deep-pocketed backer behind them. Amsdon just had an upbringing of hard work to fall back on. His parents were publicans, and owned their own pub. “My mum did food and my dad did beer. I always saw people making their own way.” He’s upfront about the fact that he was “very average” academically, scraping through university, and “tried to climb the corporate ladder, but failed. Some people do well on it, but not me.”
BIGGER AND BETTER
He spent much of his twenties working for DMRI.co.uk, developing some of the UK’s largest websites in the automotive, financial services and competition sectors. But as a minority shareholder, in a company which was eventually sold to Daily Mail and General Trust Group in 2005, he realised that “making someone else wealthy” wasn’t what made him tick. “My cheque was a lot smaller than theirs. I don’t resent it, but I learnt something in that job: if you want a bigger cheque, you have to take the risk; it has to be your neck on the line.”
In 2002, while Amsdon was still working for the firm, he and childhood friend (now co-founder) Stuart Hennel decided to try something new and set up themselves. “This industry simply hadn’t woken up to the internet – and it’s not that hard to be enthusiastic about luxury watches!” For the first few years, Watchfinder was “bootstrapped, and it was really f***ing hard work. Setting up a luxury business is very expensive. We have always had to be more nimble than competitors, and be prepared to change direction at any time.” It took the firm nearly six years to save up for its Royal Exchange shop.
Despite being an online retailer, stores are vital to Watchfinder. In addition to its three shops in London, Bluewater and Kent – and an office in Mayfair – it has a new store lined up in Leeds, and other key central and City locations are the pipeline.
And there’s something else about the business model: Watchfinder isn’t a marketplace. It buys pre-owned watches, services them in its own centre, then sells them on. The company has developed a strong reputation because of its Swiss-trained technicians and seamless transaction system.
“We see ourselves as a multi-channel retailer. People like to see what they’re buying. I’ve always been in love with Swiss watches – Richemont, Swatch – they’re fantastic products. Lots of people associate them with a luxury lifestyle. I wish I was more like that – I just like holding and wearing them because they’re shiny.” Amsdon, incidentally, is sporting a yellow gold Yacht-Master. “I didn’t have time to change it. I shouldn’t be wearing it with this, really. We’ve just got back from holiday, and they just look so good when you’re in shorts.”
Amsdon says it always “staggers [him] how popular watch buying is. We’re in the age of ‘man bling’. We see people buying for weddings, birthdays, a new job, a divorce.” But things haven’t always gone smoothly. The financial crash was “absolutely devastating. In the 10 days following Lehmans, everything froze. No-one bought anything. We had to come up with a plan for October through to December. We’d taken on extra staff and overheads and so we tried to run as long as we could.” But by the end of January, cracks were showing, and Amsdon had to let a third of his workforce go.
ne good thing did come out of the crisis, he adds: “people became more value-conscious. Before, it was very much a ‘want, buy’ mindset. Now, it’s like dealing with used car buyers. People want to know about the condition, how much the same watch has sold for recently... City types want graphs.” So Watchfinder capitalised on this; the firm now has a system which feeds customers valuations based on market data.
And Amsdon has changed since 2008, too. “I’ve been far more interested in politics and the economy. I didn’t think people like me needed to be interested, but leave the politicians to monitor the economy, and don’t take note, and bad things can happen very quickly.”
On current UK politics (i.e. the Labour Party leadership elections), Amsdon is far from convinced by Jeremy Corbyn: “what he says is very dangerous. If you were at school in the 80s, you learnt about the 70s. But I don’t think most people in the country really believe his brand of politics could work. Was it Churchill who said everyone is a socialist and then they grow up? If it wasn’t for capitalism, I wouldn’t be here. I’d have been born into a low-paid job and I would die in it. Capitalism means that people who weren’t meant to be winners can be.”
CV LLOYD AMSDON
Turnover: £38.5m; £155m to date Number of staff: 87
Job title: Co-founder and brand director
Lives: Bearsted, Maidstone
Studied: BA History, Anglia Ruskin
Drinking: A pint at the local
Eating: A Chinese in Kudos, Canterbury
Currently reading: The Sound of Laughter, by Peter Kay
Favourite Business Book: The 80/20 Principle, by Richard Koch
Talents: Making play look like work – I enjoy a game of golf!
Heroes: My parents
First ambition: To achieve
Motto: “Learn from doing, not from schooling”
Most likely to say: Don’t be a carpet
Least likely to say: Anything regarding the intricacies of mechanical watch movements
Awards: Sunday Times Fast track “Ones to Watch”; EY Entrepreneur of the Year shortlist; Retail Hero: Growing Business Awards; Watch Retailer of the Year: Retailer Jeweller Award; E-Commerce Business of the Year: Digital Entrepreneur Award