A Fresh Start for HRD Antwerp: In-Depth with New CEO Ellen Joncheere

26/02/2020 13:46

The grading & certification lab HRD Antwerp is gearing up for a major restructuring with a fresh vision on the future. Its parent company, the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC), has approved the revitalization strategy proposed by HRD’s new CEO Ellen Joncheere, who was hired a month ago to turn the company around and appears ready to take the bull by the horns. “HRD Antwerp urgently needs to adapt to a changing environment if it is going to grow," she says. "We will continue to provide our core services, such as certificates, but will also offer our customers innovative digital products and solutions. HRD customers should expect much more engagement and efficiency from our side.” Any discussion of a potential sale of HRD Antwerp has been put on the back burner indefinitely.

From waste and cars to diamonds

Ellen Joncheere has been on the job at HRD Antwerp for just a month, arriving in the diamond industry after a decade in which she served as CEO of Fremach International, a supplier of innovative decorative auto parts, and Suez Belux, a large waste management company with nearly 2,000 employees. We had the opportunity to ask her about the transition to diamonds. “I was ready for a new challenge,” she told The Diamond Loupe. “I’ve always worked in heavy industry, in a production environment. After all those years in heavy industry, diamonds sounded like music to my ears. I have never worked for a feminine product that I really had an affinity with, and I have to admit this was a selling point. That, and the fact that I know it is an industry going through significant changes. The guiding thread throughout my career has been working in disruptive environments for companies undergoing great transformations. This is where HRD Antwerp finds itself and I’m ready to take on that challenge.”

The transformation taking place in the waste industry, for instance, was the arrival of the circular economy, with recycling waste back into the productive circuit the new business model. Joncheere explains that even when a business model changes, companies don’t always realize that the organization itself needs to change as well, or face being left behind. Like so many long-standing companies, HRD Antwerp seems to have been slow to react to the transformations of the digital marketplace. “Fortunately, I am used to turning companies around – both in terms of the strategy & the organizational structure. I knew this company was not in the best shape financially and thought my experience and history of strategic thinking would be of added value. Adding in the fact that the business is diamonds, which is outside my comfort zone, makes it particularly challenging. That attracted me.”

"My number one priority is to grow HRD Antwerp."

HRD Antwerp has seen its market share decline to about 1% in recent years. We asked the new CEO if she has been able to identify why the lab has been struggling. “They reacted too slowly to transformations in the industry. The polished diamond sector has largely shifted to India and I do not believe HRD was prepared to adapt. There used to be thousands of diamond polishers in Antwerp, now there are just a few hundred. The diamond-grading and certificate business has also shifted. Fifteen years ago HRD Antwerp had 240 employees, which has declined to 67 today. We now have labs in Mumbai and Istanbul, with 245 employees globally. Last year we grew by 25% in Mumbai and are expecting as much as 50 growth in Istanbul.” In other words, there is a strong basis for future growth.

“Fortunately,” she adds, “HRD Antwerp still has excellent name recognition. Everyone in the industry knows and respects HRD Antwerp and that has tremendous value. But we need to have a plan, identify market potential and get return on investment from different geographical locations. India is the real growth market and we are going to reinforce our services there. If I were to identify five things we need to do, I would say, first of all, there is a need for clever and innovative marketing. We are going to create a lot of buzz about our new direction and let the diamond world know we are back in business. I will be taking on the role of marketing and sales director myself. Secondly, we need to work on differentiating our company, identifying the types of products and services that will increase our market share. My number one priority is to grow HRD Antwerp. We are no longer one of the Goliaths of this business; we are one of the Davids, so we have to be clever and agile about how we do it."

“Naturally,” she continues, “we will continue to provide certificates, but we also have to offer innovative digital services, including automation of the labs and the interfaces with customers to speed up the whole process. We were more automated in the waste industry," she told us matter-of-factly. "So, that will the third point of emphasis. For instance, we are working on developing apps with videos and photos of jewels. The growing market for synthetic diamonds can also boost growth. Consumers want to know whether a stone is a natural beauty or comes out of a machine. We have a great deal of expertise here and should approach the jewelers, but this requires an investment in salespeople and a more streamlined distribution of our product offering. That’s number four. And fifthly, we intend to forge new partnerships with professional and active distributors. We need to grow our client base where the clients are located, and generate greater awareness of the services we provide."

The key for Ellen Joncheere, broadly speaking, is to once again introduce the right culture and mentality at HRD Antwerp. This includes encouraging creativity and rolling out new services, which she will announce after further market analysis - though she did mention that "jewelry grading is an excellent example of an opportunity for growth." She also made clear that ICT "will play a much larger role than it does now. We are going to be bold and innovative without losing sight of our traditional strengths, including our educational offering. When promoted and used effectively, HRD Antwerp’s educational offering can serve as an point of entry for new customers and help generate further growth. Again, this takes a stronger emphasis on outreach and smart marketing, two things you will be seeing from HRD Antwerp in the very near future."

Photo: Klaas De Scheirder