Legacy of Leadership

Meenu Subbiah, GIA GG, Meenu Subbiah Diamonds LLP

I strongly believe that awareness drives business growth. When consumers are informed about a product, it becomes easier for them to make decisions.”

Ganeshan Suppiah, GIA GG, Meenu Subbiah Diamonds LLP

Having clarity in roles and responsibilities, playing to each individual’s strengths is essential for running a family business smoothly, much like any other professionally managed business.”

Adithi Ganeshan, GIA GG, Meenu Subbiah Diamonds LLP

“Since the age of two, I had two aspirations: to follow in my mom’s footsteps and become a businesswoman, and to study at GIA.”

Q1. What got each one of you interested in this sparkling world of gems and jewellery? And what role do you think GIA education played in it?

Meenu Subbiah: Hailing from Chettinad, a region rich in culture and heritage, my ancestors travelled extensively to Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, and Indonesia, where they established businesses. They were connoisseurs of art, importing Burmese teak, Czechoslovakian furniture, Belgian glassware, and other exquisite items. The mansions they built were adorned with treasures from around the world.

Growing up, I admired the beautiful jewellery worn by my mother, aunts, and grandmother, often embellished with diamonds, Burmese rubies, Colombian emeralds, or Kashmiri sapphires. I was fascinated by the bright colours and intricate designs, often redesigning them after attending weddings.

My interest in gemstones was further sparked during visits to my father’s granite mine, where I discovered overlooked coloured gemstones. This childhood fascination, combined with my family’s background, fuelled my passion for gems and jewellery.

Understanding the significance of knowledge and trust in the jewellery industry, I pursued my gem and jewellery education earning GIA GG. This opened doors for me to assess historic jewellery pieces from princely states, providing invaluable experience and enhancing my credibility.

Ganeshan Suppiah: My family was not from the gem and jewellery industry. My entry into the industry was inspired by Meenu, whom I met in 1998. She sparked my interest in gems and jewellery. Transitioning from a corporate background to the gems and jewellery business, I realized the importance of academic knowledge in this trust-based industry. So, I decided to pursue gem and jewellery education through GIA. As Meenu rightly pointed out, trust is essential in this business, and academic qualifications is crucial for properly guiding clients. I completed my GIA GG at the Bangkok campus, which equipped me with the necessary expertise. This journey into the jewellery industry was a significant turning point for me.

Adithi Ganeshan: I grew up around our jewellery business. From its humble beginnings in a single room, I witnessed its expansion across cities and countries. My parents and grandparents were deeply involved in the business, and from a young age, I knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps. By the age of two, I had two aspirations: to become a businesswoman like my mom and to study at GIA, although I didn’t fully understand what that meant at the time.

As I grew older, I realized the importance of a GIA education for my future in the gem and jewellery industry. I was always fascinated by the process of transforming raw materials into exquisite pieces of jewellery. Whether sketching designs or observing the manufacturing process, I found every step captivating, from the initial rough stone to the final piece worn by a customer. This fascination motivated me to pursue a career in the industry.

Q2. Meenu-ji, can you tell us about the legacy of your eponymous business? Who is your role model?

Upon my return from Carlsbad after completing my GG, my father and I established Meenu Subbiah and Company (later Meenu Subbiah Diamonds, or MSD) in the early 1990s, starting in just a 120 sq. ft. room in our house. I accompanied my father to international shows in Brazil, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, where I learned invaluable lessons. He always emphasized integrity, saying, “You can lose anything but never your integrity.” This principle became the foundation of MSD.

My mother, a remarkable businesswoman, managed a company with 35 to 40 employees while my father travelled. Her seamless transition between office and home life made her my role model. I admired her dedication and efficiency, aspiring to emulate her in both business and personal life.

L-to-R: Meenu Subbiah in GIA New York campus circa 1993 and Adithi Ganeshan in Carlsbad campus 2023. Adithi Ganeshan: “This turned into a class activity as everyone helped me in recreating this picture. It was so beautiful.”

Q4. Could you take us through the growth phase of MSD? Particularly, walk us through any challenging times you’ve faced in the business and what did you learn from it?

Meenu: In 1993, we established MSD, marking the beginning of our journey. For the next ten years, from 1993 to 2003, our office was based in T. Nagar, Chennai, and we were operating from home. During this time, I personally designed jewellery for every client, offering a very personalised experience that made our clients feel like part of our extended family. In 2003, we opened our first showroom in Chennai. By 2006, we had started manufacturing for B2B clients, and by 2009, we expanded our market to supply to big corporates both domestically and globally. Recognizing the need to expand our manufacturing capacity, we established a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in 2010. This allowed us to increase production, leading to the expansion of our showrooms. In 2011, we opened our first branch in Trichy, followed by Coimbatore in 2012 and Karaikudi in 2013. Until 2010, MSD exclusively dealt in diamonds, but in 2012, we began researching traditional Chettinad jewellery, combining it with the Chola style, and integrating other gemstones like natural rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Our focus on expansion continued, with us incorporating in the USA in 2019 and launching our e-commerce platform in 2021. Throughout this journey, we have continually embraced new technologies, with Ganeshan playing a significant role in implementing these advancements. Despite the inevitable challenges, our manufacturing team has always provided a strong backbone, ensuring the retail operations run smoothly.

Ganeshan: One significant challenge we faced when we started manufacturing in Chennai was the difficulty in finding skilled craftsmen. In those days, most craftsmen preferred to work in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, or Surat. Since there were few such units in South India, recruiting skilled craftsmen was a challenge. To overcome this, we collaborated with local institutes recruiting freshers and providing on-the-job training. Additionally, we partnered with head-hunters in Mumbai to source experienced craftsmen. While this challenge took time to overcome, once we established ourselves, we encountered no further issues in attracting talent.

Q5. How do you ensure clarity of leadership, especially in a family business?

Ganeshan: Having clarity in roles and responsibilities, playing to each individual’s strengths is essential for running a family business smoothly, much like any other professionally managed business. My father-in-law emphasized the importance of discussing and collectively making decisions. We listen to everyone’s perspectives, giving importance to each point raised. Although some decisions may not always be successful, we see them as learning opportunities. Our approach is always professional, prioritizing business operations over emotions or sentiments. This mindset has been crucial for our success. My advice to anyone in a family business is to define clear roles and responsibilities based on everyone’s strengths and limitations. Every member should be respected for their contributions and opinions during decision-making discussions.

Meenu: From a young age, my father believed in me and instilled a strong sense of freedom and self-confidence. In a family business, freedom and trust are crucial. When each member understands and respects each other’s strengths, everything runs smoothly. It’s important to pass this ethos onto the next generation, encouraging them to freely express their opinions and suggestions. This mutual understanding and respect make the operation of a family-run business much easier and more effective.

Q6. Meenu-ji, what according to you has changed with the Indian consumer? Have you seen design and buying preferences evolve? As a legacy business, how does one adapt to these evolving consumer preferences?

Thirty years ago, buying jewellery was a meticulously planned affair, often involving parents or grandparents sitting with me to create designs. While it was an exciting time, most clients preferred traditional, close-set jewellery, with only a small portion of them exploring newer design styles due to limited awareness about designs, diamonds, and quality.

In the last 10-20 years, things have changed as we introduced the concept of “I Design”, where the ultimate consumer, often the bride, sat with me to create jewellery. This marked a significant shift from previous generations’ buying patterns. Jewellery purchases transformed from planned to regular, sometimes even impulsive. Also weddings now comprise multiple events, each demanding different styles of jewellery. Also, technological advancements have enabled us to create any piece that the customer has imagined in three-dimensional. This evolution excites us, as we continually adapt to new trends and styles, exploring fusion designs and embracing change.

Q7. Adithi, how did your parents encourage or motivate you throughout?

With many people bringing ideas to the table, differences of opinion are inevitable. However, convincing my parents is not difficult. Most of the time, if I’m convinced, they are too. My mother appreciates the artistic aspect, while my father focuses on practicality. They find common ground easily, making it simple to reach agreements. Since childhood, they’ve encouraged me in everything I’ve done. Even if something didn’t work out, my father’s response was always supportive, saying, “You tried, and that’s what matters.” This encouragement has stayed with me, helping me immensely in business. Whether it’s launching a new jewellery collection or experimenting with something new, they support and encourage me. As a child, my parents would even turn my jewellery sketches into wearable pieces for my birthdays, further boosting my confidence. Their unwavering support and openness to my ideas have been instrumental in my success.

Q8. What does one do differently to make their jewellery business attractive for their next generation?

Meenu: In our experience, it’s crucial to give children space and autonomy as they grow up. While we can present the advantages and disadvantages of joining a family business, it’s important not to pressure them. The next generation is smart and understands the benefits if they’re given the freedom to choose. It’s also important to let them explore their options. Just like when we started, we explored different paths before settling on a business. Many family businesses struggle with hierarchy and how it’s perceived by the next generation. Therefore, it’s essential to give them a clear position and responsibility within the business from the start. This approach ensures they feel valued and engaged from the beginning.

Ganeshan: In every family business, the potential for the next generation to join is innate. We can’t predict when they’ll get the spark, but we can shape their thoughts and provide the right education. Also, we need to make our businesses attractive for the next generation. Today’s youngsters want multifaceted careers. Family businesses should be professionally managed with well-established systems and processes. This will allow them to easily learn and manage while pursuing other interests. We shouldn’t force them into the business; instead, let them enjoy the journey. Our goal should be to continuously evolve the business to meet today’s technological demands. This way, the next generation can handle not only the family business but also multiple businesses, becoming serial entrepreneurs. By providing them with space and helping them evaluate their options, we prepare them for success.

Adithi: The first thing my parents did was not to pressure me during my school years. They never said, “You have to join the family business.” Instead, they let me enjoy the process. Despite my passion for dance and art, my parents never forced me into anything. They supported me as I pursued my interests. Eventually, I decided to learn jewellery designing professionally, without any pressure from them. After completing my jewellery design course and a manufacturing internship in Dubai, I felt ready to pursue my GIA GG.

Q9. How do you ensure your sales associates also are accurate and consistent in educating consumers?

Meenu: I strongly believe that awareness drives business growth. When consumers are informed about a product, it becomes easier for them to make decisions. From the beginning, I prioritized educating customers about the different qualities of diamonds. I would show them cards with various diamond qualities to illustrate this. Over the years, we have conducted numerous awareness programs. For instance, I hosted a one-hour live program with Radio Malaysia, answering questions about diamond purchasing and stressing the importance of buying from an educated source. I frequently emphasize the importance of buying GIA-graded diamonds. I have also been interviewed by media outlets in Malaysia, Singapore, and Doordarshan in India – all aimed at educating consumers about diamond purchasing.

Whenever we hire a new employee, we train them on is how to answer customer queries. Typically, customers ask about the quality of diamonds and whether a specific diamond is suitable for them. Initially, I personally trained all our employees on how to educate customers effectively. Today, we conduct regular staff training programs where we explain the nuances of the industry and teach them how to educate customers. This emphasis on customer education has always been a crucial aspect of MSD. Prioritizing consumer education will ensure sales naturally follow.

Ganeshan: We have a well-structured training program for our staff. We provide them with a comprehensive training manual covering everything from diamond basics to gemstones and jewellery. This includes information on diamond clarity, gemstone varieties, gold purity, and the functional aspects of jewellery. Additionally, we have a detailed Frequently Asked Questions FAQs manual to guide them on how to respond to customer inquiries effectively. Any new questions that arise are added to our FAQ database, ensuring continuous improvement. Recently, we introduced an artificial intelligence chatbot on our website, trained with the knowledge base we acquired from GIA, to handle initial customer interactions.

We prioritize customer education because their trust is paramount. Customers need to be well-informed about their purchases, especially since jewellery is considered an investment asset class in India, often passed down through generations.

Q10. Meenu-ji, is there a design or manufacturing technique that you’ve witnessed gaining prominence over the past few years?

Jewellery is an essential aspect of Chettinad culture, with specific pieces worn from birth to death. One remarkable example is the Gauri Shankaram, a symbol of Hindu God Shiva and Goddess Parvati adorned with Rudraksha beads, typically presented to men on their 60th birthday. Chettinad jewellery transcends gender; we offer specific pieces for men, such as the Gauri Shankaram, and even our Mangalsutras are exquisitely crafted.

Chettinad jewellery is renowned for its intricate designs, often drawing inspiration from nature, featuring floral motifs and peacocks. The Poocharam style, characterized by its beautiful floral patterns, is a quintessential expression of Chettinad craftsmanship. We also incorporate Victorian-inspired lace patterns into our designs. Our jewellery mirrors the architecture, motifs, and paintings of Chettinad, incorporating high-quality diamonds, Burmese rubies, Colombian emeralds, Burmese sapphires, and other precious gemstones.

Q11. Adithi, for someone who has been around customers ever since your childhood and continues to do so, would you care to share a few interesting customer stories?

For us, being a jeweller means more than just selling jewellery. We become stylists, therapists, and confidants for our customers. Over the years, I’ve seen families grow, with kids becoming our customers as they get married. One of my favourite experiences is working with brides and their families. It’s not just about the jewellery; it’s about creating an entire look. We help them choose the right outfits, decide on makeup looks, and even advise on hairstyle. My mother places special importance on the bride’s mother, who often feels neglected amidst the wedding preparations.

One particularly memorable moment for me was when the President of Mauritius visited our showroom. Her visit was a unique experience, with tight security measures and elaborate preparations. Despite her hectic schedule, she spent nearly 45 minutes with us, and her warmth and humility left a lasting impression.

Q12. What is one of your most-cherished moments while on-campus at GIA?

Adithi: I have many fond memories from my time on campus. As the student body president, I had a fantastic learning experience, organizing events and interacting with alumni and esteemed speakers. One significant memory stands out: attending JCK during my GIA program last year. We drove down to Las Vegas for the event, and it was an unforgettable experience. Despite the hectic schedule, we had a lot of fun and marked the beginning of my career journey.

Another memorable moment was my first week at GIA. Due to visa delays, I arrived two days late and had my first exam on the following Friday. My instructor was understanding and helped me catch up. It was a whirlwind experience, booking flights and accommodation at the last minute, but it’s a part of my GIA journey that I’ll never forget!

Meenu: I vividly remember my time at GIA, especially the moments behind the microscope. I used to wear glasses, and my instructor, Pat, would point out inclusions at 3 o’clock. However, I couldn’t see them clearly. I’d ask, “Are you sure it’s at 3 o’clock?” Pat would reassure me, saying, “The 3 o’clock position is the same in India and America.” My struggles with my glasses made focusing difficult. It’s a memory that has always stayed with me.

Ganeshan: Studying at GIA in Bangkok was an incredible experience for me. The instructors were fantastic, and I made some great friends. However, the highlight was the access I gained to renowned gemstone traders and manufacturers in Bangkok. This access was only possible because I was studying at GIA. I was able to interact with them, establish relationships, and learn firsthand from experts in the field.

Q 13. Lastly, I’d love to know from each of you which is your favourite gemstone and why?

Meenu: You know, every time I see a ruby, it energizes me. The combination of red rubies and white diamonds is one of my favourites. I just love how vibrant and energizing it is.

I hail from Chettinad, where we follow the tradition of naming children after their grandparents. Since my grandmother’s name is Meenakshi, all my first cousins share the same name. To distinguish me, people started calling me “Vairam Meenakshi,” with “vairam” meaning diamond in Tamil. It’s amusing how this name stuck. In fact, I was honoured to receive the title, “Vairam Mamani” meaning an authority on diamonds, a significant recognition within our community.

Adithi: I am currently captivated by gemstones, particularly moonstones and labradorites. I find myself completely drawn to them, fascinated by the way they display various optical phenomena. Working with these gemstones and seeing how they appear when set in jewellery has become an enjoyable experiment for me.

Ganeshan: For me, diamonds will always be my top choice for two reasons. Firstly, because I am born in April, and diamond is my birthstone. In the traditional setup of an arranged marriage, families take an active role in finding a suitable spouse for their son or daughter. In my case, our families initiated the process, and before I went to see Meenu for the first time, my mom mentioned that the girl I was going to meet was involved in the diamond business. So, I naturally developed a fondness for diamonds!

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