Chris Stoner, son of jeweller Philip Stoner, left the family firm to set up a rival business. Lizzie Murphy met him.
FROM the black sparkling chairs to the lizard-skin display cabinets, everything about Stoners in Harrogate is designed to scream luxury.
Entering the shop feels a bit like walking into an exclusive club with the black shiny interior and spotlights in the ceiling carefully designed to catch the light of the diamonds on display.
Managing director Chris Stoner, 35, is dressed in a smart navy blue suit, crisp white shirt and navy blue tie, although he apologises for his unshaven look. “I’m moving house and I couldn’t find my shaver this morning,” he admits.
The shop, which sells bespoke engagement and wedding rings along with Rolex watches, is the second store for Mr Stoner, who five years ago decided to leave the family jewellery business set up in 1982 by his father, Philip Stoner, to launch his own enterprise.
The decision was, he insists, supported by his family, even though it meant they were in competition. “My dad has always been incredibly supportive,” he says. “I think I just wanted to work for myself. I am awkward and stubborn and probably very annoying and difficult to have as an employee.
“I guess I just didn’t want to put my dad through that any more,” he adds, laughing. “He probably encouraged me, more than anything.”
He adds: “There’s no rivalry as such but inevitably sometimes we’re in competition with each other. I think we’re fairly adult about it. On the occasions where it has happened and I know a customer has been to them and also to us, I’ve always called them and they have called me so we are fairly grown up about it.”
Mr Stoner initially set up a design and manufacturing jewellery business in Baildon, near Bradford, but went on to take over his father’s jewellery store in Shipley – the original shop set up in 1982. “It was kind of strange because I worked in that shop when I first joined the business, but it was lovely as well,” he says.
“My dad had come to the decision to sell the Shipley store. It was very close to where I lived at the time and it seemed to make sense to take it on. It had been neglected a little bit because the focus of the business had moved to Leeds city centre so it wasn’t as successful as it had been or could be and I thought there was potential there to actually make it into a stronger business than it was.
“It just needed a bit of TLC and it’s a successful and profitable business.”
Last year he made the brave decision to expand and opened a second store in Princes Street, Harrogate. The company now employs 10 people across both sites and is expecting a turnover of £750,000 this year. “I wanted to design and create some really interesting pieces and Harrogate just seemed like a really good place to do that,” he says.
He adds: “There’s a real emphasis in our industry on the huge brands that have emerged in the last few years. Pandora is a brilliant example, with their silver charms. It’s massive and everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon.
“To some extent I wanted to move away from that and try and create something that was much more unique with more longevity. It’s much more interesting for me to sit down with a couple who perhaps might not know exactly what they want or might have seen something that they can’t buy anywhere else, and try and create something that is absolutely perfect for them rather than buying a product and selling a product.
“It’s a much more difficult way of doing business but it’s much more rewarding.”
Further expansion is on hold for the foreseeable future until the economy picks up. “I’m very happy with where we are at the moment,” Mr Stoner says. “I think we’ve got to take a view on the economy right now and see where it’s going. People probably think I’m crazy expanding the business right now but for me it just seemed like the right time to do it.
“I remember speaking to a guy years ago who said he never wastes a good recession because it’s the best time to become successful because there is a lot of opportunity out there. That’s not to say it’s easy because it’s tough.”
He adds: “It’s definitely two or three years of consolidation now and working very hard on getting a really solid grounded footing into what we’re doing and then we’ll be looking in three to five years’ time to see where our future’s going to be.”
Mr Stoner and his older brother, Jonathan, grew up immersed in their father’s business. “One of my earliest memories is seeing these amazing coloured gem stones in my dad’s factory,” says Mr Stoner. “I remember being mesmerised...Just the hustle and bustle and all the equipment and machinery in this huge jewellery workshop and all these guys working away with flames and precious metals.”
But it wasn’t until he was 22 that he decided to join the company.
“It never crossed my mind until I left university,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I knew that I wanted to work in business, especially marketing, but I didn’t have any huge aspirations to go into the family business when I was a young boy.”
He adds: “As I grew older the opportunities to enter the family business became greater because the business was expanding and getting more interesting. If I’d joined straight from school it probably would have been a little bit too small for me but by the time I left university there was a lot of modernisation to take place and with the expansion it seemed like a good time to join.”
The company began in Shipley with one shop and a £5,000 investment. It now has branches in Halifax, The Victoria Quarter and The Light, both in Leeds.
Jonathan bought the chain of outlets following their father’s retirement in 2008.
Chris Stoner designed the store in The Light with his father in 2001, which he went on to manage. “It was a huge challenge, hugely rewarding and I learned an awful lot from it,” he says. “A lot of those lessons and skills have been put to good use in the last few months in Harrogate.”
He also designed the Dickie Bird clock at Headingley during his time at the company. His father was also commissioned to make the diamond-set military badges and buckles for Michael Jackson’s stage outfits.
“That was before my time. It was quite a technical project – a big project – at the time when Michael Jackson was spending vast amounts of money on ridiculous things. There was a guy in London who was putting together the costumes and sets for the tour who knew my dad.”
Mr Stoner runs the business with his wife, Sarah. Together the couple have two young children, Archie and Martha. However, the one ring he hasn’t yet made is his own wedding ring, borrowing one to wear for their big day. “I know what I want but I’ve just not got round to doing it yet,” he says.
Chris Stoner: Fact file
Title: managing director, Stoner Group
Date of birth: May 4, 1975
Education: Salt Grammar School in Baildon and marketing degree at Stirling University
First job: Manning the rides at a funfair
Favourite song: Prove It All Night, by Bruce Springsteen
Car driven: Audi A6
Favourite film: Stand By Me
Favourite holiday destination: Jamaica
Last book read: E-myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael E. Gerber
Most proud of: My babies