With Nouvelle Bague, Stefan Hafner, Io Sì and Porrati in her stable, and a wealthy Dubai-based owner, Ilaria Furlotti, CEO of DIT Group, says she is out to build her business worldwide. Recently, Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan was able to sit down with the amiable jewelry boss as she talked about acquisitions, expansion, family and having her bosses in the world’s most talked about city.
ET: Can you start off by talking a little bit about the history of the group and how you got involved with it?
Ilaria Furlotti: I have been working in the jewelry business for 30 years. I enjoy this business very much; I enjoy my working life even though it is now very hard. Nowadays even if you have a good idea and everything is researched, business is hard. We have to fight every day with the reality of the economy and problems around the world. For this reason, it’s very important to have a partner and not be a small company where you are alone.
I worked for 25 years with a small company, Alfieri & St. John, and it was a successful small brand—not so important but very well known. I always said small is great, but now small is not so great. You cannot survive alone. That’s why I’m thankful every day that five years ago Tawhid Abdullah [Managing Director of UAE-based Damas Jewelry LLC] gave me the chance to start this company.
Sometimes in life you have to be a bit crazy to succeed, because if you always look at the reality, you don’t get ahead. You don’t get married, you don’t have children, and you don’t do anything. So sometimes to go forward, you have to take some risk. So when a few years ago Tawhid asked me to start and manage this group, I accepted. Go with your gut, not with your brain. Today I thank my gut because my brain would have stopped me.
Today this group is becoming one of the most important groups in the jewelry business as a small, private group with four brands. Managing four different brands, when each brand is so distinguished from the other, is not easy.
We offer Novelle Bague globally and prices start from 1,000 euros [$1,400] and up so we span the whole price range for jewelry. And we offer four different lifestyles so if you want something more fashionable, we have Io Si; if you want something more classic, we have Stefan Hafner. People don’t leave without buying some piece from us.
As you know, our owner is well-funded and from Dubai, and he owns one of the most important companies in the jewelry business. They went to the stock exchange on July 8th, so now we are part of a public company. However, we are obliged to maintain the vision of the business and be very concentrated on what we are doing. We cannot waste time, money, energy. And in Dubai now we have two flagship stores: Stefan Hafner and Porrati and five IOSI corners.
We are now opening two DIT shops with all four brands in Marina Mall and Dubai Mall. We are there because, in these two malls, Damas of Dubai is the most important player so we can take advantage of their power. They take care of us, so Dubai should be the core for us.
ET: After you sold Alfieri & St. John to Damiani, tell us how you met the people from Damas?
Ilaria Furlotti: I was selling to Damas jewels of my little brand IOSI and one day, I was sitting in Tawhid office and he said, “I love your style in leading the company. He asked me, “Ilaria, why don’t you make a partnership with me?” He told me that if I took responsibility to manage the group, he would put up the money and help me in any way. So I smiled and I said, “Ah, okay.”
I took a taxi back to the hotel and was thinking to myself, ‘Maybe he was serious.’ I called him back and I said, “Tawhid, are you joking?” He said, “Not at all.” “Okay,” I said, “stay there. I am taking a taxi back.” When I got there, I asked where he wanted to start.
He told me Stefan Hafner because he was in love with the product and thought it was so beautiful and so on and so forth. The day after I phoned to Bologna and asked Mr. Hafner to sell the company, and he did in 2004.
ET: You mentioned the core is now Dubai and different companies from Dubai are buying companies around the world. So how is it to work for a company from Dubai? What are they like in terms of owners?
Ilaria Furlotti: I think they are very special people. They are visionaries. All around the world there are some very smart and clever men, but they talk only about money, about EBITA, about profit margin and so on. And this is important, but you have to match this part with the vision. I think that the Abdullah family has both these qualities, maybe because he lived in Italy for seventeen years. He had an Italian wife so he mixes the Arabian mentality of business with the Italian mentality very much.
Some people wonder how, as a lady, I survive, but I survive very well because they have a lot of respect for me, and we have a very nice relationship. I feel like part of the family when I go to Dubai. I really hope to succeed in this business to first of all give back to Abdullah’s family the satisfaction that they gave me with this offer four years ago. They deserve it because they supported me so much.
ET: Tell us where you think the company is going over the next three to five years. What would you like to accomplish?
Ilaria Furlotti: We have to take advantage of the experience that Damas has. They will have, at the beginning of next year, more than 500 shops so they have a lot of retail experience. So I hope through that experience we can convince more retailers to become our partners, to become our arms all around the world because, in my opinion, we need more partnerships with the retailers, even with the employees. Everybody has to understand that the team needs to move in the same direction.
So we push all our retailers to sell all our brands, and we give them a lot of support to do so. The intention is to open DIT shops in other countries, all over the world. And we have a project with an important Chinese Group. I think that we can succeed in this way. But we aren’t looking to buy other companies because we have to focus on what we have.
ET: Here at the fair, a lot of the smaller Italian companies are talking about how difficult it is right now for independents. What advice, having been at a smaller company, would you give? What do you think these companies have to do to survive?
Ilaria Furlotti: First of all, they have to be honest with themselves about how big the problem is. Sometimes when you are small and you are alone, you justify any mistakes you make. I think if you have a really big problem within the company, you have to find a partner. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge company, maybe another two or three small companies like yourself. Together you can try to work to invent some flexible system to help each other. So I’d say not to fault yourself too much because the difficulties are real. I think everybody has problems these days.
ET: The big groups keep getting bigger and bigger. How is it competing against those groups as you become more of a global company?
Ilaria Furlotti: My hope is that we grow as a company in a way we are proud of. I know that big groups, of course, use a lot of resources, but they also impose on others. They tell you, “You [retailers] have to buy this,” which can make people angry. I would like to be the company that when they see me, they say, ‘Oh, what a lovely lady.’ Not, ‘Oh, she’s here again. What does she want from me now?’ The bigger you are, the higher budget you have to reach your goal, but sometimes you end up stepping on others. I hope we never have to step on others. I think the bigger companies have to change this attitude. If they go on in this way, I think that now or in a few years there will be a problem because people are tired of being pushed around.
ET: Switching gears a little bit, do you have any hobbies or things you enjoy outside of the business?
Ilaria Furlotti: My hobby is my daughter. Because we don’t have much time to spend together, I spend time with her whenever I can. She’s 24 years-old so of course she’s not a baby, but I enjoy being with her very much. I also like to spend time alone. Next month I will be 60, and I said I will spend a few weeks with the person in the world with whom I am most comfortable—myself. When life is a “talking life,” like mine is—because I arrive here [at the Vicenza trade show] early in the morning and I talk and talk and talk—in the evening I enjoy being alone. So when I have time I like to go to some place nice and relaxing where I can find peace and silence. I think I’m a lucky lady, you know. Life gives me a lot of nice things.
ET: Is your daughter in the jewelry business?
Ilaria Furlotti: No, but I would be happy if she was. I hope that she will find work that she loves and enjoys. If it will be this work, okay, if it will be to sing, okay. What is most important is that she enjoys her work.
ET: In the United States right now for the second time, we have a woman who’s running for vice president. You mentioned women taking more prominent roles in the Middle East as well as in business. Do you have any thoughts about women in business?
Ilaria Furlotti: I am very happy because I think women have some qualities that people will embrace—maybe not 100 years ago or in the next 100, but in this moment, they do. We need someone that is put-together and, because a lot of people are scared of the difficulties ahead, we need someone who provides comfort. I think that is the touch of a woman.
I have almost the same name and same age as Hillary Clinton. She’s 60 as I almost am and our names are similar. I was her supporter because I said, “That’s Ilaria.” I am joking, of course, but I do think that now young girls, 15 and 25, will be the ones that save the world.
ET: How did you get into the jewelry business?
Ilaria Furlotti: For love. I jumped in the jewelry business because I fell in love. I heard bells ringing in my ear and I decided he was the one. So I married this man who was the production manager of a jewelry company in Valenza. If he had worked at a cow company, then I would have worked with cows. It was a sign of destiny. At the time, I worked in the Credit Suisse as a controller. This was my job, but I switched for love.