A slip in sales may have taken the shine off Signet, but boss Terry Burman welcomes tough times as a chance to gain market share.

It may be that Signet chief executive Terry Burman found an affinity to the jewellery market when he met his wife in the jewellery concession of his family’s department store.

He said he took a shine to his future wife “among the jockey shorts and Seiko watches”.

This was back in the 1970s when he was working in the family department store business Roberts, where he worked for nine years and learnt the fundamentals of retailing. He then spent 15 years at US jewellery chain Barry’s Jewelers.

The American moved from Barry’s to Signet – which has about 1,950 stores in the US and UK – in 1995, and has said he will retire at the start of 2011.

The quiet former US Navy lieutenant is described by one industry watcher as the “best retail chief executive in the sector”.

His conservative stance has served the group well through the downturn. With jewellery being the ultimate discretionary purchase, recent years have probably been tougher than any others the long-term chief has seen. But although like-for-like sales are down 5.3% in the 13 weeks to August 1, the Signet balance sheet remains strong.

Burman is aware there are opportunities in the downturn too. He has said there is a chance to gain market share with competitors hitting the buffers in the US – only last week jeweller Bailey Banks & Biddle’s parent company filed for bankruptcy protection and closed 118 underperforming stores.   

Some in the industry liken Burman’s way of working to that of N Brown chief executive Alan White and Home Retail boss Terry Duddy – very thorough and a micro manager. He is described as very measured and over his time at Signet has created a corporate and professional culture across the business.

Investec analyst David Jeary says: “It is very analytical as a company and knows very much what the market is doing and what works and what doesn’t. It doesn’t rush into things.”

Jeary says that in his opinion one of Burman’s best achievements in the business has been the successful roll-out of Signet’s Jared format. Jared Galleria Of Jewelry is an out-of-town concept that allows the retailer to have about four times more space than in its mall-based stores and has more than 170 stores across the US. “It is a pioneering format and has been very successful for them. It has given them two ways of attacking the market,” says Jeary. 

Burman’s departure from Signet will no doubt be a huge loss to the jewellery sector and although no obvious successor has been found some believe an internal appointment will be made – someone who really lives and breathes the culture and values of the business.

When Burman does step down the economy should be in a more robust state and few have any doubt that he will leave the business in good shape. Now 64-years-old, he likes to keep himself in shape – enjoying tennis and hiking near his home in Ohio.

Burman is not a flamboyant man and would rather not be centre of attention – often shunning the limelight. One source said he comes across as reserved but is very easy to talk to.

By all accounts he is no party animal and at the company conference he would not be convinced into joining in any gimmicks to increase morale. In one interview he gave he said that people wanted him to wear a toga. “You can get people enthusiastic and committed without acting goofy,” he argued.

And Burman, in what has been a glittering jewellery career, has certainly done just that.

Career history

1995-present Group chief executive, Signet Jewelers (effective March 2000)

1993-95

President, chief executive, director, Barry’s Jewelers

1982-93

President, director (1986) Barry’s Jewelers

1980-82

Vice-president, operations, Barry’s Jewelers

1971-80

Partner, Roberts

1968-71

Lieutenant JG, assistant navy exchange officer, Sangley Point, Philippines, US Navy