The jewel in Newbridge's crown
Eyebrows were raised when Naomi Campbell was appointed brand ambassador to Newbridge Silverware, but CEO William Doyle is used to taking risks
in a social media-driven era where celebrity endorsements mean everything, brand ambassadors play a crucial role in raising a company's profile. Newbridge Silverware's previous ambassadors include Andrea Roche, Rosanna Davison and Amy Huberman. The company sponsored The Rose of Tralee for 12 years and is a huge supporter of Irish suppliers and charities.
So when Amy's contract ended and Naomi Campbell was announced as the company's newest brand ambassador, eyebrows were raised, including mine. I penned an opinion piece for Independent.ie querying the reasoning for hiring the sometimes controversial British supermodel over another Irish personality.
"We're challenged at the moment because of increased competition and we need a bigger market and more of a global opportunity," explains CEO William Doyle over lunch at the award-winning Silver Restaurant in the Visitor Centre in Newbridge.
"We needed a splash to give us an opportunity," he said, "and I decided to make a really big bang. Naomi is one of the most instantly recognisable faces in the world and she brings a global presence." He added that they are hoping for greater things "now that we're collaborating with one of fashion's biggest icons."
Then he makes the surprising admission that the company almost hired Naomi eight years ago, but she couldn't make it to the press day and was replaced a week beforehand by Yasmin Le Bon.
"Naomi has been in my head since then," he admits. "It's not a rejection of Irish women as ambassadors, as they're wonderful and we'll continue to work with them, but we'll do anything we can do to keep this show on the road.
"Naomi will post about us on her Instagram and she has two million followers. We've never had an international opportunity like that before."
Was William surprised at the mixed reaction her appointment generated, and how did he find working with the model, who has hit the headlines (and the courts) in the past for her behaviour?
"Naomi has certainly created a debate - more so than I would have expected, to be honest - but maybe a debate is okay because people are talking about us a lot more than before," he says. "I was worried in advance by the diva reputation, but Naomi was very easy to work with and she proved to be so gracious and gentle. This is a two-year relationship with an option to continue and she seemed to particularly like the jewellery."
He may be the man with the bright ideas and innovative streak, but if he had followed his original plan, the dynamic 57-year-old CEO wouldn't have become involved in the Kildare-based jewellery, giftware and homeware company.
"I started working here every summer from 14, as my dad Dominic was running it, but once I left school, I had planned to go to America," he says. "Dad asked me to give him one more summer and I agreed, but he became quite ill after that, so I stayed on. I was dropped in the deep end, as it was a very difficult 10 years, because the company struggled and receivership was threatened on a couple of occasions."
The story of Newbridge Silverware is a fascinating one, as it is a real example of how innovation and constantly reinventing yourself is the key to success and longevity. In the early 20th century, Newbridge was a prosperous garrison community, with 3,000 troops based there, but when the British army vacated in 1921, it left a huge economic vacuum. As the British had left behind all of their equipment, local senator William Cummins came up with the idea that their metal-forging and finishing equipment could be used to make cutlery.
Five families were brought from England to share their knowledge and train others and 15 years later, 600 people were employed at Newbridge Cutlery. All was going well until Ireland joined the EU in 1973 and the opening of the borders brought increased competition.
"The company got into terrible trouble and a bunch of local businessmen, including my dad, came together to bail it out," says William. "They put some shareholding together and bought the company."
William's dad Dominic left school at 13 and built up a healthy business in the meat industry, but eventually he had a heart attack and had to sell up. After becoming involved in Newbridge, he worked as a production manager initially before becoming CEO.
Staff shrank from 600 to 100 and while the company struggled through the 1970s, there was a bit of a boom in the 1980s and it did okay. By the 1990s, everything became more casual, and fancy silver cutlery went out of vogue.
Dominic Doyle passed away in 1993 and William and his team urgently needed to find a solution to the company's increasingly straitened circumstances.
"We saw an opportunity to make other tableware from the scrap material left over from the cutlery and then one of the guys suggested that a bracelet was really only a bigger napkin ring," he says. "We thought we'd have a go at producing jewellery, but it didn't work initially because people couldn't get around the idea that Newbridge Cutlery was now doing jewellery. It just didn't add up."
The company was in trouble at this stage, which meant that staff were laid off or had their hours reduced.
"One day I spotted Barbara McMahon, presenter of RTE's Head to Toe," says William. "I brought her around the factory and she told me she loved the story of the jewellery and would like to do a programme on it. I explained that we were done with it as it wasn't working out, but she was persistent.
"They produced a lovely programme on it and then customers started asking for the jewellery, which put the retailers under pressure to stock it. That was when we evolved into Newbridge Silverware and we held on by our fingertips."
It was a real family affair, as William's sister Oonagh has also been hugely instrumental in the company's success as sales director, and their mother Mona was also very much involved. Once they embraced jewellery in earnest, William realised they didn't really know how to make it, but as it happened, the biggest costume jewellery manufacturer in Europe was based in Portarlington and it closed down around that time.
William went to buy some of its equipment, and came back having hired 10 people and an engineer to give him the know-how to design and produce the stunning jewellery ranges.
"We were in the deep end and had to sink or swim," he says. "I was responsible for a lot of people's livelihoods, not just my own, so it was a lot of pressure and I would have been run out of the town if it had failed."
Rather than failing, the company went from strength to strength, although of course there were challenges, not least the recent recession. The ability to survive is down to the constant reinvention of the brand and the input of a staff who are truly dedicated and loyal. Some of them are there over 60 and framed photos of long-serving staff adorn the showrooms.
Indeed as I take a factory tour, I'm blown away by how seamlessly it all works and how proud the very long-serving and gorgeously welcoming staff are of their operation.
"And I'm proud of the fact that we have kept it open and that a lot of the guys I started out with years ago are still here," says William. "Four of them retired recently and they had been here an incredible 250 years between them. Loyalty and family are what have kept this company going."
In tandem with running Newbridge, William married his wife Monica and they have four children. David, 22, is in America and wants to be a professional golfer, Conor, 20, is at Trinity College, Maedbh, 18, will do her Leaving Cert in June and Dominic, 17, is in fifth year. Does he think any of them will ultimately join the family firm? "I don't know," the genial William replies. "Maedbh wants to study marketing and then go to London to study fashion, as she's mad about it. She's great for advising me on who and what is in. I love my job, but hopefully all of my children will go off and do their own thing without getting trapped as quickly into the family business as I did."
While the Newbridge showrooms are stunning and the restaurant serves sublime food, the piece de resistance is undoubtedly the Museum of Style Icons. It hosts numerous collections and artefacts relating to stars and icons of the silver screen and modern day.
Be prepared to marvel at dresses worn by Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Grace and Princess Diana, among others.
Newbridge recently unveiled its new Ti:Amo range as worn by Naomi Campbell. It's a stunning rose gold and silver-plated collection in which symbolism features strongly. It would be fair to say that the company's jewellery has never looked more striking or cutting-edge than when showcased by the beautiful supermodel.
"Naomi is an exceptionally good model in front of a camera, the best in the world," agrees William. "Our jewellery is looking better than ever before, not that Amy didn't make it look good, as she was marvellous too.
"It was a gamble, but everything we have done for the past 80 years has been risky. We've been on the edge countless times, but we got through a war and countless recessions so I hope for the sake of everyone employed at Newbridge that it will work."
And if ever a group of people deserve that success and security, it's definitely William and his team.
The Ti:Amo range is available from Newbridge Silverware retailers nationwide and from www.newbridgesilverware.com
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