The Moodie Davitt Report brings you the latest instalment in our popular series Ten Easy Pieces*, in which we get up close and personal with leading travel retail personalities via ten snapshot questions.
In this edition, we meet Noble Elegance Director and F.I.N.E Jewellery Founder Ari Johansson, a self-confessed numbers addict.
1. Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Helsinki, Finland and did my schooling in Espoo which was then a very quiet suburban district near the capital city.
My two brothers and I were quite sporty kids, always running, jumping, climbing, hanging from trees, in the playground or out on our bikes.
I remember thinking that our neighbourhood was quite wealthy as I used to see people buying fancy things for their houses, nice cars and travelling around the world. I saw that as freedom, that in life you can do whatever you want and go wherever you please; travelling is the ultimate freedom.
2. How would you describe yourself as a teenager and going into student years?
I was pretty much an average teenager, maybe more active than most, and I guess a hard worker. I was conscientious and always willing to help. I must admit that school wasn’t so exciting for me; I did my homework but not much more!
I had my first summer job, working in construction at the port of Helsinki, at the age of 13. That was so educating, seeing ships loaded and unloaded; very impressive. When I was 16, and in high school, I had a job in a nightclub as a Restaurant Assistant. I loved that; it introduced me to the adult world and I worked there every weekend until I was 19 and went into the army.
3. When did you realise you had entrepreneurial skills?
I have been in retail all my life. When I was still in school I started working in a hardware store, went on to a grocery store as an apprentice and then to business school. I worked hard and played hard and already had a strong idea of what I wanted to be.
I knew I wanted to be my own boss, an entrepreneur.
I started my first business in 1987, continuing my day-time work and study. During that time I learned that you can stretch yourself into almost anything as long as you are excited about what you are doing.
In 1991 I jumped into full-time entrepreneurship; I bought a bankrupted grocery store with a remarkable loan (16% interest rate). My orientation in business school was accounting and I really had to think about budgeting as a tool to manage the business. Numbers don’t lie, but you must understand them. I followed my business module: plan, execute and adjust.
A year later the company made very good profits. I went on to renovate four food shops by 2000, when I had 65 employees and a €10 million turnover.
4. Let’s consider your move into the jewellery sector in 2000? How, where and why?
I wanted to move into something smaller, with higher margins and without expiry dates, so I sold the supermarket and bought a jewellery shop. I decided to become a diamond man, realising that if you know how to run a shop profitably, success does not depend on what you sell.
I had compared many different business models strictly as numbers, concentrating on investment, business costs and expected profits. I just wanted to go into a business where goods are not delivered in trucks and they don’t have a sell-by date.
5. You are a self-confessed “numbers man”. Can you explain that?
I am passionate about numbers and believe there are three processes, three ways of using them correctly in business.
First is the internal process, the selling and marketing, which is mainly expenses and what I call ‘minus money’. You have to work out what cost they may or may not cause.
Through numbers I can consider various options of costing and outcome, and choose the most appropriate for any situation. I do different models, and they all remain in my ‘toolbox’ just in case I need them later.
Next come the sales numbers, the only ‘plus money’ for any company. Looking carefully at sales and inventory reports allows me to control and adjust my business in a purposeful way, without using feelings, just hard facts: this works, that doesn’t work. Clear numbers!
“Numbers don’t lie, but you must understand them”
Feedback from people of course is important; that helps us to develop better processes. And auditing is essential. If we plan processes in numbers and then in real life execute them in a totally different way, the whole system loses meaning.
The third side of my number system is the accounting used for tax authorities, owners and management. So you see numbers can be totally different depending on their purpose and that’s why annual or quarterly reports generally do not give a good picture of how a business is going.
6. If you hadn’t gone into retailing what other career path could you have considered?
That’s a difficult one. Maybe I would have gone into construction. I made my best salaries ever working on a construction site before going into the army at the age of 19. But working in a dirty and dusty environment wasn’t that appealing to me. Even the bosses had to get out on the site regularly and I knew then that I wanted to be a boss one day; just not a boss in that kind of business.
I always wanted to make something tangible and see results of my work; rather like building cathedrals, but not laying the bricks.
7. What makes your F.I.N.E jewellery brand stand out from others in travel retail?
Firstly its name stands out: Fine.Inspiring.Noble.Elegance. I named the brand after all the traits I strive to offer in the duty free channel.
When I was looking to set it up I realised that a jump into a demanding world class business needed something extraordinary. My target was to be the the best duty free-exclusive jewellery brand in the affordable luxury category. It meant we must have the best of everything, something with a ‘wow’ factor. And I believe we have just that.
After working with diamonds I didn’t want to get into fashion jewellery, brass and synthetic stones. It had to be a precious metal, silver, and real stones.
The wow factor is in the packaging as well. It took many years to develop the patented box which really displays the jewellery. I believe our piano-black display stand is pretty distinctive as well.
And, last but not least, we have backed the product with a smart business (my numbers again) plan which streamlines the whole ordering, buying and delivery set-up.
These all add up to making F.I.N.E outstanding.
8. From Finland to Hong Kong; huge differences in cultures and climates. What do you love and hate about Hong Kong and where do you consider home?
Finland is and always will be my home. It’s cold and very quiet, the air is fresh and I can walk or ski 10km in forest from my backyard.
Hong Kong, where I work and live, is definitely my favourite city because of its dynamics and its rhythm of life. For business Hong Kong is number one; everything is within my reach. No matter what I need, I can easily find in less than a day. Developing a world-class product you are bombarded by good ideas and everything must be tested. Hong Kong is the city to do that; it’s multinational and fits perfectly with my business mindset.
The bad side? Probably the rain and the humidity. I never considered just how many rainy days there are in Hong Kong.
9. Wing Chun Kung Fu: when did you get involved with this Chinese martial art? What role does it play in your life?
I was active in the gym in the early ‘80s, mainly doing heavy weights so I wasn’t very flexible, even though I stretched a lot. I really wanted to use my body in a diverse way so I started to compare many different sports. Being the middle brother of three, all kinds of wrestling were already very familiar to me!
I started with Jujutsu (Jiu Jitsu) in 1986 and the main reason was because of its versatile techniques. And it’s fun.
When I’m training Wing Chun my mind is totally empty. It gives me peace of mind; it’s a path of life, inner peace. And it is the most effective close combat technique.
10. What advice do you have for your 17-year-old son?
When my son Antti was seven he and I travelled to Estonia on a Tallink ferry. There was a huge duty free shop with tons of candy; everything that a child could dream of.
Antti asked me: “Dad, what can I have?” and I replied “Take whatever you like son”, and he disappeared behind the candy shelves.
There were some women, product tasters I believe, who had overheard our conversation. They were aghast and started to judge me. “You can’t do that! He’ll take everything. How can you tell him that!”
I assured them that I believed he knew what was right and good for him.
Why make artificial limits, and, anyway, what’s the worst that could have happened? If he had reappeared with tons of candy I would have paid for it! But he would have to eat it all as well and wouldn’t need candy for a long time.
Antti returned with one small chocolate bar in his hand. He looked me in the eye and asked if he could have it. I believe that we all know deep inside our hearts what is right and what is wrong; we just need the opportunity to show it.
So, my advice to Antti, is to do whatever makes him feel good; to never compare himself to other people; to enjoy life and not worry about other people’s opinions.
You can achieve anything in your life, just work a bit towards your dreams. And always, always have fun!
*PREVIOUSLY FEATURED TEN EASY PIECES PERSONALITIES INCLUDE: