Wake Me Up When It’s Over: Association Merger Talks Don’t Inspire

September 11th, 2014   •   no comments   

With echoes of the Scottish referendum, the British Jewellers’ Association (BJA) and the National Association of Goldsmiths (NAG) issued – according to the trade press – a “Together We’re Stronger” missive at International Jewellery London (IJL), extolling the virtues of a unified organisation and naming the committee members that will bring about the proposed supply chain ‘love in’.  Contrary to expectation, The Unification Working Party is not a Maoist cadre tasked with boosting rice production, but a bipartite committee trying to determine the details of the NAG / BJA merger which was announced with a flourish – and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding – earlier this year. The IJL meeting was its progress report. But I can’t help thinking that, just like the ‘yes’ campaign, there are still a lot of unanswered questions floating in the air. Like, what are the benefits of unification?

Inspiring Debate?

Inspiring Debate?

Aside from the obvious potential economies of scale that might be achieved, what else will benefit their respective members, the trade as a whole, and the public in general, if these two bodies – each with a proud history – are lumped together? But before we get onto that, consider those economies of scale. Sure, having one chief executive instead of two will save a few quid, and combining the ‘back office’ functions makes sense, but unless everyone is going to squeeze in together that still leaves two buildings to be serviced. Or is the plan to sell the NAG’s prime asset, its Shoreditch building, and put the resulting once-only wedge into the fighting fund?

Reports in the press speak of an impassioned plea to his AGM for greater industry collaboration from the BJA chief executive who is quoted as saying, “Here is the vision– a united industry pulling in the same direction, speaking with the same voice and creating even greater consumer confidence in the purchase of jewellery”. But what exactly is that vision? Are manufacturers and retailers currently pulling in opposite directions, and will the unification of two trade associations lead to more consumer confidence?

During my tenure I thought all parties worked together pretty well when it came to such consumer confidence issues as ethics and supply chain transparency. With retailers (NAG) and suppliers (BJA) holding each other to account, and the Gemmological Association (Gem-A) offering impartial expertise; thus maintaining the necessary ‘tension’ between the protagonists that got things done.  Back in the day, campaigners protested about conflict diamonds or dirty gold outside jeweller’s shops, because they appreciated that their visibility and immediate financial impact would force retailers to demand action from their suppliers. Thus, vested interests were exposed, and change was effected by applying pressure back up the supply chain. But once there is one body representing that chain, no matter how many reassurances it issues, it will inevitably be seen as a cosy industry cartel by conspiracy theorists. Will ever be able to counter the activists’ charge that “they’re all in it together” and “they would say that wouldn’t they”?

The NAG and BJA aren’t in the same league, but just look where consolidation has got the electricity suppliers. It’s now virtually impossible to separate power generation from consumer supply. The result is that customers are distrustful and resentful of the impenetrable monoliths that they believe collude to stifle competition – against customers’ interests – and increase prices!

Meanwhile the NAG’s chairman was quoted in an earlier article declaring that the differences between the BJA and NAG are “becoming increasingly blurred”. I disagree. The differences between the two organisations are clear. The NAG has been training its members and their staff for over one-hundred years; spawned the Institute of Registered Valuers and SaferGems within the last decade; and established the original ethics working group. The BJA came late to the party, preferring to concentrate on helping its members to export their products and their manufacturing capability. But both organisations are undeniably experts in their respective fields.

The only reason that the two bodies are now chasing “the same types of members” is that, faced with a moribund manufacturing industry at the turn of the 21st century, the BJA had to look elsewhere – namely retail – for members. NAG’s principle error, and what provided BJA with a toe-hold, was to believe that Canute-like they could stem the rising tide of internet selling and thus had no need of online members who didn’t meet their standards. The BJA mopped up those that failed their test!

If my past experience as a ‘foot soldier’ during two trade association mergers is anything to go by, then they will be lucky to pull it off without one side or the other thinking they’ve been shafted; alienating the bulk of their existing members; without sacrificing their expert staff to ‘economies of scale’; or transmogrifying into an amorphous blob that doesn’t truly represent anyone – a jack of all trades, but master of none. The sector deserves better than ‘vanilla’ representation and if the working party wants to sell this merger it will have to come up with more compelling narratives than those currently going the rounds. As the referendum debate proves, radical change is effected by appealing both to the heads and to the hearts of voters. So far – at least from the outside – I don’t sense that this debate has come up with the right combination of these elements to really capture hearts and minds of grass roots jewellers.

Michael Hoare

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