By Thomas Shambler
Amidst a boom for coloured gemstones, Ian Harebottle, CEO of Gemfields, believes that luxury must be sustainable and transparent
How do you describe Gemfields to someone unfamiliar with the brand?
I'd point out that Gemfields is the world's single largest colour mining and marketing company. But our vision is to rejuvenate the coloured-stone section of the market. Why do we need to do that? Well, recorded history is generally accepted as going back about six thousand years. Throughout almost five thousand and nine hundred of those years, the most revered and respected luxury good or product known to man was coloured stones. So right throughout history, there was no more cherished a good than emeralds and rubies and sapphires.
But over the last forty years, that has completely changed. If you look at the luxury market in general, fast fashion and disposable goods are at the top, then fragrances, paintings, sculptures, precious metals and then gems. The driving force behind that change was marketing and the marketing of products with margins that were very high. Luxury is no longer about something that was rare – and don't forget, it was that rarity that kept the prices high – but whatever is 'fashionable'. But fortunately, that's about to change. Consumers today are increasingly looking for long-term value, especially when it comes to luxury.
The mining industry hasn't got the most stellar reputation.
That's not the case if you're really committed to ethics and sustainability and transparency. That's not an objective, that's just who we are as a company.
Has that ethical stance been successful?
Incredibly successful. The importance of ethics and transparency has been growing steadily over the past decade, for consumers and so too for companies. I think if you go out and find someone who is looking to make a big purchase – to stretch themselves and buy something that is a real luxury – then ethics will be important to them. Today, I believe that there is an expectation that luxury goods have been sustainably sourced.
But can you truly make a profit and have a cause?
There was a time when the world's resources seemed endless. For example, I grew up during a time when asbestos was everywhere, and no one knew it was harmful. But new science and technology showed us how wrong it was. There was a time when we thought there would always be more oil, and always be more resources, but those times have changed.
There is more awareness now, and it's not just about a company doing something because they know a consumer values it and will pay a premium for it. I think companies are starting to realize that being sustainable, transparent or ethical is just the right thing to do. In fact, in today's world I would say it's the other way around; without a cause, you can't make a profit.
What's the best part about your job?
People always ask me where I live, and with a wink, I reply with, "I live in a little place called Earth" because the world has become so small and I travel extensively. On one day I might be in Hollywood at a red carpet event, or at a business awards on the other side of the world, and even down in the mine, wearing overalls, and seeing a gemstone in the mud for the first time in 500 million years.
What's one of the most important business decisions you've ever had to make?
Typically the most important and biggest decisions that I ever have to make are saying no to something. Our company has grown very quickly, and that puts a strain on resources. There are times that the staff want to expand elsewhere and you have to turn them down. I love saying yes to people and new projects; it's exciting. But sometimes as a leader you just need to see the bigger picture.
What would you say to a brand new employee about the culture at your company?
That's easy. Richard Branson once told me at a conference that he always hires young people who are much brighter, younger and more hard-working than he is. And that is certainly how it works at Gemfields.
Do you have any advice to new members of the team?
I always tell my staff that if you do the right things, the right way, all the time then the right results tend to happen. And when I say that, I mean to work at the best of your abilities and knowledge, every single day.
Do you have any daily rituals? Something that helps prime you for the day?
I travel quite extensively, and I find that when you on the go and working then your mind never stops and it's hard to go to sleep. So often I will just lie in bed and flick through the channels and not watch anything. It almost creates a sort of white noise for the brain, where you're not really thinking about anything in particular, and that helps me get off to sleep. Now if I don't do that, or don't clean my mind, then I tend to spend most of the night working out some problem or other.
What does a regular day look like for you when you're not travelling?
This is what happens most days in London, where our head office is. I wake up at five each morning and walk out the door half an hour after that. Then I pick up a few papers and a coffee and get on the train to work. I find the commute handy as it helps keep me up to date, but in the UK I need to read a few papers. Many of them are quiet biased, so I tend to read a few different takes on the same story before I can make my own mind up.
I arrive at the office at around seven – and those are the most precious hours of the day for me. I have two hours before my staff arrive, and that's when I can get loads done without distraction. On the tail end of the day, I leave the office at around six.
When Gemfields goes into a country, it has the power to drastically alter lives. Building these mines involves thousands and thousands of people, in very remote places.
That's very true. And building the infrastructure around that, schools for educating families, ensuring safety standards and the like.
That sounds incredibly stressful. How do you manage?
Well, thankfully that's not all my responsibility. Previous to joining Gemfields I was a consultant on strategic management – helping companies with rapid changes in their working environment. Remember before PCs were around, these big companies would have all typing pools.
When personal computers started to become popular, everyone panicked – suddenly there was no need for all these people whose job it was to type things up – the boss could write his own mail. But smart companies learned that if you teach these employees transferable skills, they could go on to be a much more meaningful to the company.
As I continued to consult, especially with the bigger companies, I discovered that a lot of large companies survive despite their leadership, not because of it. In that ethos, Gemfields is a collective – the burden or responsibility doesn't fall on one person's shoulders, it's on all of ours.