While Sam Messiha comes from a long line of jewellers, the young owner of Gem Bijou has carved out a name for himself in a highly competitive industry. He’s done so by relationship-building – and espousing the tenets of first-rate customer service.
by Janine Druery
Photography by Lorne Bridgman
“In retail, it is often said: “If you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will.” While Sameh (Sam) Messiha didn’t invent that saying, the 36-year-old owner of Gem Bijou definitely lives and breathes it. In a world where everyone talks about “customer service,” but many only give lip service to it, Messiha knows the road to success lies in taking good care of clients.
“Our philosophy of extreme customer service is pervasive throughout our company,” says Messiha. “Every member of Gem Bijou is a part of delivering a superior experience. Whether in person, or over the telephone, every person is treated with professionalism, integrity and care.”
Gem Bijou is located downtown in the Simcoe Place office complex on Front Street, in Toronto’s underground path. It’s an attractive store with great brands. However, there are a lot of attractive jewellery stores in town with great brands. Messiha knows this, but he also knows that none of it means anything without customers.
“This might sound like a cliché but it is true,” says Messiha. “The key to success is great customer service, customer trust and fair pricing. If you provide customers with those three things, they will come.”
Messiha knows of what he speaks. He comes from a long line of jewellers, stretching back to his grandfather, Samy Messiha, who had a watch and jewellery store in Alexandria, Egypt where Messiha was born. His father and uncle eventually took over the business and became distributors for Orient Watches.
Things changed in 1987 when Messiha was 10 years old and the family moved to Canada. His father and uncle started up one location in Toronto called Sam’s Watches, and from there things took off.
His extended family – parents, brother, aunts, uncles and cousins – now own and operate seven independent retail locations in the GTA. This means that pretty much everyone in his family, in one capacity or another, is involved in the jewellery business.
“We’re known as the Sam family,” laughs Messiha as he talks about his family lineage – and his namesake. “I’m Sameh, my brother is Sami, my dad is Sany and my grandfather was Samy – the original ‘Sam,’
“My grandfather was a man who everyone respected – and not only people in the family,” says Messiha. We kept the name out of respect for him – that’s why we carried that name over.”
And it was his grandfather’s good name and business legacy that Messiha wants to perpetuate. “I think with any good jewellery business, and the secret of our business, is honesty,” he says. “If people feel you are being dishonest, you are never going to get repeat customers.”
OPENING UP SHOP
Messiha didn’t start out wanting to become a jeweller, although he knew the opportunity was there. “My father never threw the business in our faces and said, ‘This is what you have to do,’” he says. “It has always been left as an option.”
Before he became a jeweller he went to university to study Economics and then joined the Canadian Forces for a few years. Yet, he often helped out in his father’s business and ended up really enjoying it.
“At that time I helped introduce my parents to a few luxury brands,” recalls Messiha. “From those experiences I developed a love for the business. At that point I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
Messiha stayed in his father’s business until an opportunity came up to open a store at Toronto’s TD Centre office complex. He opened up as Prime Time Watchery in November 2002.
“It was the first experience for me to be managing a store,” says Messiha. “I was 26 at the time, so it was a big responsibility, and there was a lot for me to do in terms of attracting customers. It had its challenges.”
However, with some blood, sweat – and his intense desire to please his clients – the store became a success. He ran the store for 10 years until moving locations to Simcoe Place in December 2012. He changed the name to Gem Bijou (“Gem” for gemstones and “Bijou” for jewel in French). “Together it means ‘I like jewellery’ in French,” Messiha says, and it is a play on words inspired by his wife, Joscelyne, who is a French teacher.
His store carries jewellery brands such as Elle, Canadian Ice, Swarovski, Simon G., Zeghani and Gabriel & Co., and has a large assortment of timepieces, including Oris, Raymond Weil, Movado, Gucci, Bulova and Michael Kors. Gem Bijou also offers custom design, jewellery repair services and watch servicing.
Messiha says he’s happy he chose to get into the jewellery business in the long run, and would encourage other young people to get involved. “The industry needs more fresh ideas,” he says. “A young entrepreneur will introduce social media as a new marketing avenue.
A young entrepreneur will embrace the new branding craze.”
While Gem Bijou is located near Toronto’s high-end hotels, a multitude of office buildings and many tourist attractions, it’s not in a traditional location. It’s not in a mall; it’s not in a plaza; it’s not visible from the street. So how does Messiha make it work so well?
“We get steady traffic under Simcoe Place, so primarily it’s the same traffic, the same people everyday,” says Messiha, who runs the shop with four staff (and occasional help from his mother Marie, who has her own store). “So we’ve always got to make sure we give them excellent customer service so they come back. Because, here, word of mouth travels very, very quickly.”
In addition to traffic in the building – people visiting other businesses, people who work in the area, or those coming to grab a bite in the nearby food court, Messiha has a constant stream of people visiting the Metropolitan Toronto Convention Centre across the street. And, of course, he has clientele from his previous location.
“Jewellery is one of those industries where yes, you are going to have customers who shop for discounts, but primarily your good customers are the ones who have a good experience with you and end up being loyal to you,” he says.
Despite the mid- to high-level of his knowledgeable and savvy customer demographic, the customers who come to his store get something more than good service and a good price. “We give the experience of a mom and pop type of shop,” says Messiha.
“That sets us apart, especially in this area here – just being able to spend time with the customer.”
He says the mind-set at Gem Bijou is to create memories and lasting relationships with clients.
“Our clients allow us to help them enrich their own personal relationships by commemorating important events or simply expressing their love and admiration,” he says. “We become a part of the special occasions in their lives, and we do all we can to help make those moments wonderful. The beautiful products we carry are the means we use in building lasting bonds with our community.”
While Messiha is currently focused on getting Gem Bijou off the ground and well established, he says he would someday love to be able to expand it into a multi-location business. And he also dreams of uniting all of the stores run by family members and turning them all into one big, family-run business.
“I think it would be great if we could combine and give ourselves more buying power and make us a lot stronger as a brand,” he says.
For now, Messiha is content to spend long hours at family dinners that are dominated with business discussions. “It’s great because it allows us to share our experience together,” he says. “We usually share stories about different experiences with customers, new product releases and possible security issues.”
He also thinks about one day passing the business on to the next generation. While he doesn’t currently have children, he can envision a time when he might hand over the keys to his offspring.
Perhaps a young Sam? Or Samuel? Or Samantha? At that suggestion, Sam Messiha just chuckles. CJ