Legacy of Leadership

“Without a solid education, the potential for costly mistakes is high.”
Sanjay Kalsi, Founder, J. D. Solitaire

You have an impressive 30+ years of experience in the gem and jewellery industry. What influenced your decision to be in the industry?
In all honesty, I started out as a carefree, back-of-the-class kind of person. My thoughts were centred on finding a meaningful path for my career and in life. A pivotal point arrived when a dear friend of mine introduced me to the gem and jewellery industry. Taking their advice, I enrolled in a gemmology course, which turned out to be a fortunate choice. I also enrolled in various courses about gems and jewellery, and within a year, I had discovered my true calling. Fuelled by the knowledge and passion, I wanted to turn my endeavours into successful ventures. Though the term “start-up” wasn’t in vogue back then, I was essentially a start-up of the 90s.

Could you share some essential advice and lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs who wish to start their own business venture in the gem and jewellery industry?
My journey naturally led me down a path that I would recommend to everyone: the path of accumulating both theory and practical knowledge, especially during the initial years. This period, which might span three, four, or even five years, is crucial. It’s a time to immerse oneself in learning, undertaking numerous courses to grasp various aspects of the field, be it merchandising, gemmology, manufacturing or sales.

Discipline is equally crucial; the expectation of timeliness and dedication is mirrored by my team. These principles are woven into our daily conversations and actions, shaping our organisational culture. Leaders should lead by example. Starting alone and building a team has taught me that setting the bar is vital. Just as parents serve as primary role models, I recognise that a team observes their leaders’ actions and consistency. This belief resonates throughout our organisation, where actions speak as loudly as words.

What valuable lessons did you learn from a challenging period that you believe could benefit entrepreneurs who find themselves in similar positions?

Every business goes through different phases of growth. As a business, we experienced stagnation phase from 2014, prompting introspection. Recognising the need for change and improvement, we delved deeper with knowledge serving as a guiding light. We embarked on a journey of learning, and seeking guidance from consultants and coaches, we systematically identified obstacles and devised solutions. Central to our evolution was the realisation that best practices are the key.

We overcame challenges with the help of digital marketing, inventory management, and team expansion, fuelling a 360-degree transformation from 2014 to 2018. A crucial step was connecting with leaders and learning from their experiences. As a first-generation entrepreneur, I lapped up the opportunity to gain insights from anyone willing to share. That’s when, I learnt that the senior leaders in our industry are quite approachable.

Through action and innovation, results began to manifest, and a focus on customer needs proved instrumental. I strongly believe that if you focus on the customer, then competition, pricing, profit, everything takes care of itself.

According to you, when does a mere transaction with a customer transform into a meaningful relationship that fosters lasting connections?

In the realm of retail, a guiding principle to uphold is to listen to customers and resolve all issues in their favour, even if it poses a financial challenge. This approach, while potentially costly in the short term, pays off through customer retention and loyalty, an invaluable asset considering the high cost of acquiring new customers.

Once the technical foundation is solid, that’s when the real hustle begins. It’s about exploring both B2B and B2C avenues, finding where your true passion lies. Life tends to
guide you from there. The underlying truth is that mistakes in the gem and jewellery industry come with a high price tag – they cost you or someone else’s investment. Without a solid education, the potential for mistake is high. This is something I firmly believe in, and it’s the advice I would give to everyone.

How does a leader establish core values that are timeless for its successive generations of owners, leaders, managers, and individual contributors?

In the early years of establishing my business, I operated on instincts, passing down my insights to the team. Recently, I have penned down my thoughts and I am willing to share it with anyone who is interested.

At J. D. Solitaire, integrity and honesty stand as fundamental values – not just for me, but for everyone in my team. Empowerment and accountability also play vital roles. A strong work ethic has been key to our approach. I firmly believe that putting in the hours increases the odds of success.

I also feel specialisation is key. Every team member should excel in their role, surpassing the leaders’ capabilities in the area. Dependability is intrinsic and cannot be taught.

Our journey began in 1996 with small-ticket sales. As the transaction size grew, so did the customer’s journey. Customer evaluation is incremental, a positive experience with a small purchase prompts further engagement. Over time, customers test your product, pricing, and service, forming a gradual opinion. Loyalty develops as you consistently exceed transactional expectations. This process is not immediate; some of our longest-standing customers have been with us for two decades or more. Through actions beyond transactions, loyal customers emerge, becoming advocates who spread the word and offer referrals. While the exact number of purchases needed to establish loyalty
remains fluid, the key lies in consistently delivering positive customer experiences over time.

In 2018, you organised an education seminar – delivered by GIA India – on gemstones for your clients. What are your thoughts on the importance for gem and jewellery businesses, particularly those in retail, to actively spread awareness and provide education to their customers? How do you think these benefits both – jewellers and consumers – in the long run?

In reflecting on this moment, I recall that the seminar was a big hit among customers. I discovered a crucial lesson: building customer trust hinges on sharing knowledge. The education seminar conducted by GIA was pivotal in this regard because who better to talk about the 4Cs of Diamond Quality than GIA? The interactive session still resonates in the minds of our customers. In addition, the retail sales associate training programme by the GIA India team helped enhance my teams’ ability to communicate the 4Cs of diamond quality comprehensively, and aiding customers in making informed choices. Personally, I’ve pursued various GIA courses, including the ‘Introduction to Merchandising’ course that elevated my understanding of the subject to another level.

Consumer trust, I’ve learned, thrives on transparency. Providing all relevant details, such as diamond colour, clarity, and grading report, is paramount. Similar to the hallmark standard for gold, GIA is the standard for diamonds that customers trust. Educating the consumer and arming them with the necessary information to make informed purchases fosters trust, setting the stage for successful conversions.

Excerpts taken from GIA India’s Legacy of Leadership Knowledge Series interview conducted live on Zoom. Attendance by invitation only. Register on collective.GIA.edu as GIA alumni to get notified about upcoming events

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