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Changing of the Guard

Updated: Feb 3

 


Two human resource announcements caught my attention last week, each marking the end of tenure for two industry stalwarts.

 

The first, that David Bouffard was stepping down from his position at Signet Jewelers and as chairman of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) was somewhat expected. Bouffard had gradually taken a back seat at Signet in his most recent role as fellow of industry affairs. He previously served as the company’s vice president of corporate affairs for 11 years where he steered much of the retailer’s corporate social responsibility policy. It was an open industry secret that he would soon step down from the RJC after five years at the helm.

 

The second, that De Beers executive vice president and chief brand officer David Prager (pictured right) was leaving the company was more of a surprise.

 

From an outside perspective, it seemed that Prager was being groomed to fill the vacancy left by Steven Lussier, De Beers’ long serving brand guru who recently retired. As recently as October, Prager took over from Lussier as chairman of the Natural Diamond Council (NDC), a position Lussier kept after leaving De Beers in 2022.


Of course, no one is irreplaceable. The RJC will elect a new chair, the NDC will find a successor, and the companies will fill those roles in some capacity. But the shift in personnel does represent a change of the guard, particularly at De Beers, which has seen several other adjustments to its executive branch. All that began with the appointment of Al Cook (pictured below) as CEO last year. Along with the Prager announcement last week, De Beers unveiled its new executive committee showing many new faces on the roster.

 

The changes serve as a reminder that these are corporations that operate in executive cycles. That’s important because we tend to think of De Beers, and, to a lesser extent Signet, as industry bodies, particularly with such prominent trade-like personalities as Bouffard, Lussier, and Prager.

 

But De Beers as part of Anglo American, and Signet as a public company, are beholden to shareholders and rightly operate accordingly. We need to keep this in mind as India ends its two-month freeze on rough imports later this week.

 

The slump in rough trading since October has helped to realign the market. Midstream inventory levels have reduced and there are signs that trading is improving. Petra Diamonds reported a 20% rise in prices on a like-for-like basis at its recent rough tender.

 

And with that, we start to wonder how De Beers will approach the market in the new year.

 

De Beers has built up inventory during the market slump, Anglo American’s CEO Duncan Wanblad said in an investor presentation on Friday. That should not surprise, as the company kept production as planned while sales declined in the second half of 2023. In fact, it was mainly in the fourth quarter that sightholders left goods on the table. Before that, the company sold about 700,000 carats more than it produced in the first nine months of the year.

 

Holding a stockpile of diamonds is a sensitive issue for De Beers, but it might not be the worst thing for now, given the company will have access to less of Debswana’s production in 2024. Under the recent deal signed between De Beers and the Botswana government, parastatal Okavango Diamond Company will be entitled to 30% of Debswana in 2024, up from 25% currently, and that will rise to 40% and eventually 50% over the next decade.

 

The extra 5% translates to about 1.2 million carats a year shifting from De Beers to Okavango, based on Debswana’s current production levels. Sightholders are wondering whether De Beers will be able to fill the potential void. It should not have a problem doing so in the near term, given its stockpile.

 

But it will need to garner value from that inventory for shareholders. De Beers cannot dump goods on the market, even as it plans production of 29 million to 32 million carats in 2024, just slightly lower than the 32 million carats it recovered this year. It always defends its pricing, and we should expect robust valuations in the first half of 2024.

 

De Beers will walk a fine line between maintaining the market’s new-found equilibrium and managing its built-up inventory, all while maximizing shareholder value and driving desire for diamonds.

 

That’s quite the task for a new intake of management. But one expects Al Cook to exert his personality on the company in 2024 after a settling in period. The recent executive shakeup may have been his first step.


Meeting those challenges either begs for an entirely fresh approach that new personnel tend to inspire, or tapping the legacy of those industry players who came before. Based on the recent human resource decisions, my money is on the former.


Image credit: De Beers

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