Henry Birks & Sons of Canada
Henry Birks started this well-known Canadian firm in 1879. He was born in Montreal on the 30th November 1840, his parents, John and Ann Birks had arrived from England in 1832. Henry's ancestry can be traced back to the Sheffield cutler William Birks (see: Jackson p.437).
Henry's first position in the trade was as clerk to the firm of (Joseph)Savage & (Theodore)Lyman in 1857. He rose quickly through the ranks and became a director of Savage & Lyman in 1868.
Interior of Savage, Lyman & Co.
Savage, Lyman & Co. - Montreal - 1871
Henry left Savage, Lyman & Co. in 1877, the firm had been in financial difficulties for some years and went bankrupt in 1878, Henry was appointed to liquidate the assets of the business, and in February 1879 opened his first shop in Montreal. Henry's business prospered and in 1893 he took his three sons, William Massey Birks, John Henry Birks, and Gerald Walker Birks into partnership and the firm became known as Henry Birks & Sons.
In 1899 Birks purchased the important firm of (Robert) Hendery & (John) Leslie following the death of Robert Hendery in 1897. This firm, formerly Robert Hendery & Co., and earlier Bohle & Hendery, had been long term suppliers to Savage & Lyman. Birks, with this acquisition, now had its manufacturing base and this capability was increased further in 1907 when they purchased Gorham's manufacturing plant in Montreal.
Henry Birks & Sons - Montreal - 1901
Henry Birks & Sons - Montreal - 1902An Interview with William Massey Birks, published in 1922 by The Magazine of BusinessWILLIAM M. BIRKS runs the leading store in his line in the metropolis of his country. His store is said to do a greater volume than the estimated total volume of all competing stores in his city. And his concern also has what is probably the leading store of its kind in each of the seven largest cities of his country. Birks is vice-president and de facto head of Henry Birks and Sons, jewelers, with headquarters in Montreal, and branches in Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. The Birks Montreal store occupies, on the ground floor at Phillips Square, St. Catherine Street, a larger floor space than any other retail jewelry store, on the North American continent.Unusual management policies have developed for William M. Birks' concern a nation-wide dominance, with 7 large jewelry stores in the 7 large Canadian cities. Behind his desk hangs table silver produced by an ancestor, William Birks, Master Cutler of the Cutlers Company of Sheffield in 1706.So much for the business itself; how does it happen that a city of 800,000, in a country sparsely populated, by European and United States standards, has produced such a business? It has not been a case of "just happened"; rather, it has been painstakingly accomplished over a period of 43 years.
Birks explains frankly that the business is modeled along the lines of outstanding British jewelers, rather than on the "American plan." And since the Birks business is so successful, certainly its plans and policies must contain some ideas of value to any executive, no matter what his field.
Why are the Birks stores so generally the leading jewelers where they operate? That is the most significant question. For a merchant to lead in one city is commonplace; but if he opens a branch in another city, ordinarily he must be content to run second or third to the long-established shops of that place. Yet the Birks organization has generally managed to come in and take the lead. How?
"In the first place," explains William Birks, "we got our start in a most unusual way. Practically every jewelry store has its beginning as a watchmaker's repair shop. A watchmaker, essentially a skilled artisan, not a merchant, leaves his employer and opens a little 8-by-10-foot shop, where he sells his time and ability, with little or no complication of merchandising.
"Then a wholesale jewelry salesman prevails upon him to buy a small line, or to take it in on consignment. Eventually by the growth of his jewelry sales, he becomes a jeweler.
"Our start was quite different. My father entered the employ of a Montreal jeweler. With no background of handwork to hamper his merchandising ability, when after a few years he went into business for himself, his interest was in merchandising jewelry, and he put his best efforts into buying and selling.
"Another thing: As our Montreal business grew in size and reputation, we saw the opportunity to sell by mail. So we put out our first catalog, and began building a business that soon extended over all Canada.
"We always treated our mail customers well. Many a store lists an entirely different, lower quality of goods in its catalog than it sells over its counter. We have never felt it would pay to do that; we list the same articles, and at exactly the same price. We have always handled our mail-order business on the basis of our high-class store clientele."
It is an interesting sidelight on the feeling of Birks' mail-order customers for the house that practically all extensions and corrections of the mailing list are made voluntarily once or twice a year by customers in each locality. And they do it out of loyalty to the house, and for no more material reason.
"In consequence of our mail-order business," Birks continues, "as we have opened new stores we have found there a nucleus for our local clientele, already built up as Birks customers by mail. Usually these people have been among the most influential in their city. And, with our store starting out on the highest plane, with such customers, we have done well.
"In a way, I suppose we are a chain store organization. Yet, despite our seven stores, we are wholly different from a chain. For we have built slowly and strongly, never flashily. We always seek the best location in the best retail district of a city.
"At first we rented, but we found we could not afford that. A high-grade jewelry store makes a building more desirable, and draws the very best type of tenents not only to the building itself but also to the neighborhood. Consequently at the expiration of a lease we inevitably found ourselves faced with a stiff increase in rental.
"In self-defense we were forced into buying real estate, therefore, to guard against these increases in rental and also to take advantage of the increment we brought about. That has meant that we have had to go slowly, since we have kept the ownership in our own hands. When, as in one instance, we put $1,250,000 in a building before we began to stock the store, we have been unable to expand in the way that is possible for a chain of tobacco or grocery stores.
"This policy of owning our own buildings has also been of tremendous value to us in our branch cities. Whereas a store in a rented building, with a non-resident management and ownership, always remains a sort of stranger in a city, our stores in their own premises and with resident managers who are also directors of the firm, take root and become-part of the local business circles." .
Another reason why the Birks name spreads into new territory ahead of the stores is that, despite the high-grade, expensive jewelry in which the bulk of the business is done, Birks finds it in the long run profitable to make a strong bid for the lower-unit sales. You can go into Birks' and buy out of stock a necklace of matched pearls; but the salesman, who makes that sale without turning a hair, will just as cheerfully show you a topaz ring at $10, or a modest amethyst lavalliere at $15. He will courteously devote to you as much time as you require–and that may be more than the larger sales used up.
"While the big sales are pleasant," Birks will tell you, "there is a huge volume of smaller sales to be made. Take the question of presents: all of us, consciously or unconsciously, have standards to which we work. The head of a large business may give wedding presents at $150 each; the bank clerk probably pays $10, or even $5. He, just as well as the wealthier man, likes to send a present from a top-notch store. So we do our best to meet his requirements. And it pays, too.
"We find it easily possible, by keeping our buying organization alert, to carry a good stock of low-price, high-quality article –novelties usually, but never trashy. If an article is not first quality, we don't want it in the shop.
"The result of our selling these small units is that we have a tremendous number of customers–without question more than any other jeweler in North America. It may be that one other jeweler does a larger dollars-and-cents volume than we–but I'll warrant we have 20 times the number of transactions every year.
"This large buying public sends our gift merchandise to every corner of Canada, and for that matter all over the world. The goods stand up well–as only best quality merchandise will stand up–and makes us friends where we may not have had even mail-order customers before.
"And then, too, from among these small customers today are inevitably coming the rich, freespending customers of tomorrow. If a man develops during his early years the habit of buying from us, when he gets older and more prosperous he continues to buy his jewelry of us. Thus we are developing new customers, and the small sales contribute a welcome share of present profits."
The Birks firm is the largest Canadian manufacturer of jewelry, silver -and the like–but it manufactures exclusively for sale through its own stores. It gives no one a discount from its retail price list; yet very frequently it receives, and fills at the retail price, orders from other jewelers, whose customers insist on some article manufactured only by Birks.
"This is especially true of flat silver," explains William Birks. "We make, as nearly as we can ascertain, about 66%% of all the sterling flatware sold in Canada." Parenthetically it may be added that a few years ago one of the leading silver manufacturers of the United States built a large factory at Montreal, operated it for a few years, and then sold out to Henry Birks and Sons. "The reason we do not manufacture for sale through other outlets is the same as our reason for not buying through jobbers: we feel that it is economically undesirable to add more than one profit, unless the extra profit represents an added service to the customer. Anyone in Canada can buy of us by mail just as easily as he can buy from his nearest jeweler. We price our product just as low as we can to yield us a fair profit. It would be unprofitable for us to cut into our fixed price so that we could give another retailer a profit. "While jobbers are of real service to many stores and in many lines of business, we feel they have nothing for us. Every manufacturer knows us, and comes to us direct. In the foreign markets, we have 14 buyers abroad every year – more than any jewelry jobber, and more than any other retailer. With our business we are able to do these sendees more economically than anyone can do them for us." Incidentally, Henry Birks crossed the Atlantic 80 times on buying trips, and William Birks has so far crossed 60 times.
An interesting policy is that Birks buyers have instructions to buy of foreign manufacturers if they can buy there to better advantage than they can of the Birks factories. "That is a wonderful check on our manufacturing," declares William Birks. "Our manufacturing men naturally want to make the best showing they can. But when an outside manufacturer can give better value, we buy of him. Then our manufacturing man has to scurry around and find something else to which he can turn his production at a profit. It guards against our making what we can buy cheaper, keeps us alert for the best manufacturing processes, and assures our customers full value for their money." And thus the Birks stores grow. As has already been suggested, the Birks stores are notable for the high standard of their salesmen. Salesmanship is almost a hobby with William Birks–and his definition of a good salesman is one who has developed a large personal following. It is not an easy problem that a salesman has in Montreal, anyway, for he is likely to have in rapid succession a distinctly French customer, then an Englishman, an American, a native Canadian, and a Scotchman.
"We warn our men to be" careful to deal with each person according to the natural traits of the customer and his race," is Birks' way of putting it. "The good salesman sizes up the customer even before exchanging greetings. Take a visitor from the States, for instance–he always wishes to be left pretty much to his own resources; too much attention annoys him. If, as he looks into a jewelry showcase, a salesman comes up and asks, 'May I show you something,' the American is likely to say, 'No. no thank you, I was just looking around.' Then he leaves that department, goes to another, and shies away from it if approached before he is ready. After three or four attempts to shop in his own way he adopts a 'Damn-you-why don't - you - leave - me - alone' expression and marches out of the store. An Englishman, on the other hand, particularly of the aristocratic or army-officer class, will be offended if he is not waited on hand and foot every moment he is in the store. A Canadian, half-way between the two in his inclinations, requires his own distinct sort of treatment. So when a salesman builds up a large following among all our classes of trade, we know that he is skilful in the personal relationships as well as sincere and able in helping every customer make a selection.
Henry Birks died on the 16th April 1928. His business went from strength to strength and continues today.