Richard Branson Highlights First Antwerp Diamond Academy

Antwerp, the Belgian city famous for its bustling diamond trade, played host to the first ever Antwerp Diamond Academy—an education-focused seminar that strives to arm local diamond dealers with innovative business strategies.

The event, held on May 6 inside the historic Stadsschouwburg theater, attracted roughly 200 local dealers, who participated in intimate seminars on social media practices, IT solutions, e-invoicing, web-sale marketing, and e-commerce.

Richard Branson rings the opening bell with Diamdax cofounders Simon Okuniew (left) and Immanuel Van Poppel, while moderator Marlene de Wouters looks on. (Photo courtesy of AWDC)

Nishit Parikh, president of the Antwerp World Diamond Center—the governing body for the native diamond trade—explained that the Academy is an updated take on the traditional business conference. “It seems that people are not interested in sitting for two days and listening to speeches,” he added. “It’s nice to have something like an academy; something we do every month or two where you get four to six people to come and speak about a topic. It’s education. And we need to move our businesses to the next level and listen to people outside us.”

While most attendees—a cross-section of native Belgian and Indian-born dealers—said they definitely picked up some savvy tips and tricks, the real lure of the day was the always-colorful British business tycoon, Richard Branson, who flew in for the event to launch Diamdax, a new online diamond exchange developed by the AWDC.

That Branson knows little to nothing about the diamond trade didn’t trouble Dilip Mehta, president and CEO of Rosy Blue, one of the biggest dealers in both Antwerp and Dubai. “As diamond dealers, we all look inwards to see what everyone else is doing,” he said. “We need someone who can make us think outside the box and look at other things in life. It’s important to understand and actually compare ourselves with other industries.”

And the Virgin Records /Virgin Atlantic founder, who coined the event’s tagline, “Screw It, Let’s Do It!,” didn’t disappoint.

Sitting with a moderator for nearly two hours, he gamely (and often cheekily) answered questions about how he developed his various businesses, and what entrepreneurs can do to maximize profits.

When asked the secret of his success, he offered, “People skills. I love people. The most important skills in a leader are people skills. Give lots of praise and very little criticism.”

Branson advised entrepreneurs to hire people who are motivators, adding, “Find someone who knows how to get drunk with the staff. Otherwise you can have a pretty dull company.”

He also warned of the dangers of shouldering the day-to-day workload of your own company by yourself. “You should hire someone to run the business who’s better than you. You will be successful based on the team of people you choose.” And he advised against growing businesses too gargantuan. “Try to keep businesses small. At one time we had 20 different record labels, and they were competing but also helping each other.”

Branson promised the audience, which had ballooned to nearly 2,000 local business folks and university students that, “there’s always room in the market for the best. If you make the best product or have the best service, you will almost always succeed.”

Later in the day, on the same stage, Branson rang a rather unwieldy brass bell to signal the opening of Diamdax. (Up next for the magnate? Kite-surfing the English Channel with his children, naturally.)

Diamdax, an online marketplace for buying and selling natural polished diamonds typically under three carats, was built to be a full-fledged trading platform that, like the stock market, is blind (meaning that names of sellers and buyers are hidden) and delivers auctions based on real time spot prices.

“With the exchange’s ability to report real transaction data, the diamond industry will have a true and accurate pricing model,” said website cofounder Immanuel Van Poppel. “For too long the diamond industry has been hampered by its own inefficiencies.”

Reaction to the initiative from local dealers was largely positive. “I think it’s a good start,” said Mehta of Rosy Blue. “The diamond industry does need an electronic exchange. Of course the concern is about price transparency — it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I am not uncomfortable. I think it increases velocity and trading volumes.”

Local diamond dealer Noam Katz said anything that showcases Antwerp diamonds should be considered a positive, considering how tough business has been in recent years. “Everything is getting harder because completion is getting tougher,” Katz said. “There are many new players, especially from the Asian market – China and India. And I don’t think there is room for everybody.”

American diamond buyers in Antwerp, for one, have become rare. “We have independent retailers from the U.S. coming sometimes, but the majority of chains are doing their business in India,” said Mehta.

Big stones are still a draw for Stateside buyers, said Pirkh, “but before you used to have the guys who bought the medium and small stones coming too. More and more, Americans have moved to buying jewelry directly.”

But the city, which ended 2011 with a total diamond turnover of $56.5 billion (compared to $38.2 billion in 2010), is clearly still a major player in the industry. Fifty percent of the world’s polished diamonds still pass through Antwerp, which has long been a leader in developing new techniques and technologies for polishing, grading, and certification.

“It’s still a very important place,” said Mehta. “And very much a major trading hub, besides being a kind of a regional hub in Europe.”

At the very least, the city’s diamond dealers are keen on keeping their competitive edge, with planning for the next set of AWDC educational seminars already under way.  

JCK Magazine Editor