Retail, Innovation and Manufacturing reporter for the NZ Herald

The Kiwi woman at the top of NZ's diamond dynasty Michael Hill

Emma Hill, chairwoman of Michael Hill International. Photo/supplied
Emma Hill, chairwoman of Michael Hill International. Photo/supplied

Gold, silver and diamonds are in Emma Hill's blood.

From the age of 7, when her father opened the first Michael Hill jewellery store in Whangarei, daughter Emma has been part of the business.

Starting at the bottom, emptying rubbish bins and cleaning counters, she moved on to helping out in the shop and in August last year, at the age of 43, took over as chairwoman of Michael Hill International, market value $600 million-plus .

The Hill dynasty may be worth millions now, but it only began after disaster struck the family.

Michael Hill was 42 and working in his uncle's jewellery store when fire destroyed the dream home he and wife Christine had been building for years at Waikaraka Harbour, near Whangarei. It was "hopelessly underinsured," says Emma Hill.

But she says her father had always wanted to start his own venture, and it was losing the family home that pushed him to make the move - with financial backing from a friend and fellow-member of a string quartet Hill played with.

The first store opened in 1979, designed and fitted out by Michael and Christine.

By 1987, the business had expanded to 10 stores in New Zealand and Michael Hill made the decision to list on the NZX, raising $3 million to jump the ditch and bring the Michael Hill brand to Australia.

Emma describes it as a gutsy call, but one that paid off. As a little girl, she says her dream was to be a train driver, but that goal quickly gave way to gold and diamonds, as she became more and more involved in the business and in helping customers choose pieces of jewellery.

"I spent much of my childhood in that first store, observing Mum and Dad and falling in love with the business," Hill says. "From there, I guess I always just knew it was what I wanted to do. It was literally in my blood."

The family moved to Brisbane the year the company listed on the NZX, opening four stores in the city. The market was a much more competitive one than New Zealand, but the business continued to tick along, with Emma working in the shop on weekends and holidays while finishing the last few years of high school, then her BCom in Queensland.

Sir Michael Hill on board his super yacht VVSI in Auckland's Viaduct Harbour. Photo/Nick Reed
Sir Michael Hill on board his super yacht VVSI in Auckland's Viaduct Harbour. Photo/Nick Reed

By 2002, Emma was in charge of launching the first store in Canada. Michael Hill International now has 67 stores in that country, and aims to lift that number to 110.

The company is also test marketing in the US, with a few outlets in Chicago. With more than 320 stores worldwide and more planned for this year, Hill's job as chairwoman is a big one, but she isn't daunted.

"Sure there's pressure - it's the family name above the door but I've always been very determined and driven," she says.

"I think it's definitely helped, growing up with the business because our strength has really been our ability to create an enjoyable, fun experience and help people find the right piece of jewellery, and I think having that deep, deep knowledge is really good for them and good for the business."

Michael Hill may have stepped down as chairman, but with a new boat and an extension to his Arrowtown golf course on the cards, he hasn't slowed down.

Asked whether he is still involved in running the business, Emma laughs. "Oh yes! He loves his business - it's his waking thought and he's highly energetic."

"He's handed the chair role over to me, but he's still very keenly interested and passionate about the business and he's full of a thousand ideas - not all of them brilliant, but there's some gold in there if you pull out the right ones."

Running a family business is not always smooth sailing, but Emma says the Hills are very aligned in their vision for the brand and its expansion, and its success comes down to open communication.

These days Michael Hill is the company's founder president, and remains a director.

Michael Hill's Spirits Bay collection design.
Michael Hill's Spirits Bay collection design.

Both Michael and Christine are still very involved in the design side of the business, creating several of the company's latest collections.

Her admiration for her parents is obvious, not only in the work she does and her determination to prove herself, but in the anecdotes she tells.

Her favourite piece of jewellery is a Totorere shell design, part of her mother Christine's Spirits Bay collection.

As Emma tells it, her parents were walking along the beach when they were first dating and Michael found one of the shells and put it on Christine's finger, inspiring her years later to create a design based on the shell.

The brand's unique collections and designs, says Emma, set it apart from other jewellers and give it a competitive advantage.

"The Spirits Bay collection, for example - it's a beautiful design but also has a great meaning, and it's those sorts of initiatives that separate us out from other jewellers around the world," she says.

"So designing collections that are unique to us and have a link back to the brand in some way, like the bridal collection which Michael designed based on his love of music," she says. "Those sorts of things I believe will help us continue to grow."

She may be sentimental, but it appears Emma has inherited her determination from Michael, although she says he is simply open minded.

"Michael's secret to life is that he's able to think really big," Emma says. "There's no barriers to his thinking. A lot of us get stopped by things but he doesn't see barriers at all, and then he surrounds himself with people who can execute his vision so he doesn't get too caught up in the detail."

"I think those two strengths married together has enabled him to create what he has."

The Michael Hill brand is well-established, but Emma is keen to make her own mark on the company, launching sideline label Emma & Roe in 2014.

The brand specialises in interchangeable jewellery - charm bracelets which can be added to, or stackable rings, for example. It has separate stores to the main brand and Emma has expanded it to 20 shops in New Zealand and Australia, as well as online.

Emma Hill, chairwoman of Michael Hill International, with her mother Christine Hill. Photo/supplied
Emma Hill, chairwoman of Michael Hill International, with her mother Christine Hill. Photo/supplied

She says the brand has been well received so far and has hopes of reaching the same size as Michael Hill, or bigger.

As well as running the company, and building a home in Arrowtown near her parents, Emma says she juggles family life with her partner and eight-year-old twins - a girl and a boy.

Although she is dedicated to the company, being with her kids and being present as a mother is her number one priority, she says. But even after 37 years with Michael Hill, she says she isn't tired of the company.

"Its a thrilling moment when you can help someone choose a piece of jewellery, because it's such a symbolic thing to buy and something that celebrates a really special occasion in peoples lives," Emma says. "I love that."

- NZ Herald

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