How I made my first million: Rich Lister Sir Michael Hill didn’t find direction until he was 40 years old

Stuff’s series How I Made My First Million talks to millionaires about how they got there. This week, it’s jewellery mogul Sir Michael Hill.

Just over 40 years ago, Sir Michael Hill opened his first jewellery store in Whangarei.

The company now has 306 stores in New Zealand, Australia and Canada with global sales of of A$569 million (NZ$593m).

Hill doesn’t remember the moment he made his first million, but he clearly remembers the path, and the lessons he learned, along the way to get there.

Be frugal

“It wasn’t so much the million. I really felt that I needed $50,000. Making that first $50,000 was the most difficult thing to do,” Hill said. 

“I became very frugal. I wouldn’t consider buying my own lunch, I always took lunch to work. We [Hill and his wife, Christine] became very good at cooking. We could have afforded to go out but really, if you are so wanting something so desperately, then you have to make those sacrifices. I mean, I made a mean home brew for years.”

“We were always saving money, putting the money in the bank so making that first $50,000 in 1970, that was sufficient for me to have a crack at something. 

The million came after opening of his own store in 1979, though Hill could not remember exactly when.

Finding what you are good at

Hill never really wanted to be in retail, having his heart set on becoming a classical violinist. But his parents and uncle had different ideas. 

Millionaire jeweller Sir Michael Hill originally wanted to be a classical violinist.

“They, my uncle in particular, said you have been fiddling around all this time, wasting everyone’s money, you have got to get a real job so I am going to make a watchmaker out of you. That is how I joined the family business in the 1950s. 

“I was no good at watchmaking so they tried to make me a jeweller. I wasn’t particularly good at that. So they put me with my dad, who had joined the business as an Electrolux salesman and he taught me the art of selling.” 

Hill was with the family business, Fishers Jewellers, for 23 years.

Push boundaries

“I was always trying different window displays which were radically different in those days. That tweaked my artistic side,” he said.

Hill’s family were not particularly enthusiastic about all of his window dressing ideas.  

“A lot of them were quite controversial. I even put a window together of porcelain toilet bowls, he didn’t like that. I would have to rip them out but I kept doing it, then in 1969, when I won the Bulova international window-dressing competition, that changed him overnight. It changed me too,” he said.

Hill’s dad and uncle eventually retired from the business, leaving Hill to take charge. 

“I was running it and quite enjoying it but I always knew there was something more, but I was too scared, I was frightened,” he said.

A house fire in 1977, when Hill was 40, changed everything.

A decade after opening his first store Sir Michael Hill had opened stores across the country. In his Queen St shop, Auckland in 1989.

“I had gotten married and I was having a lovely life and when we had a house fire, as it was burning, I thought, I shouldn’t be doing this, I should be doing something more. That was the catalyst.”

He offered to buy his uncle’s store, but was refused. Hill set up his own operation just down the road. 

“Within 18 months we were making more than that business, which had been there for 50 years.”

Sir Michael Hill and Daniel Bracken. Bracken is the retailer’s new chief executive.

Hill said working at the family store gave him the experience he needed for his own store.

“A lot of young people expect to do things quite quickly and these days we don’t have a lot of tolerance for time. I think 10,000 hours is a good starting point, but its only a starting point,” he said.

Within 18 months Hill had a clear idea that he wanted to become much bigger. He visualised five stores and then seven.

Emma Hill, Sir Michael Hill’s daughter, is now the chairman of the board at Michael Hill Jewellery.

“I kept visualising and then things grew and the next thing we were moving to Australia and then I wanted 70 shops and on it went,” he said.

“One of the things that was put to me before I started was, you wait until you get the hard times. You know what, I was always worried in my uncle’s business because it was never 100 per cent my decision, but the moment I started up my own business, I never had the slightest doubt.”

Michael Hill Jewellers survived the 1987 global sharemarket crash, changing tastes, an unsuccessful foray into the United States and the advent of online shopping.

“Things were only really bad is when we went into shoes, that was a terrible mistake. It was a distraction that we didn’t need. You have to keep things simple and stay true to your brand.”

At 81, Hill has barely slowed down. His daughter, Emma Hill, took the role of board chairman in 2015 while he remained as a director. 

Hill’s plans include continued global expansion of the brand as well as sailing The Beast, a one-of-a-kind boat launched last year.

He also draws a weekly cartoon for the Mountain Scene, in Queenstown. “There is lots to do and lots to enjoy”, Hill said. 

Sir Michael Hill’s boat “The Beast” leaves Foxton wharf.

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