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Cover Feature

Published on: Oct. 8, 2023, 7:57 p.m.
Joyalukkas: A Legacy of Trust
  • Joy Alukkas: Man with the Midas touch

By Maya Lalchandani

Every morning, I wake up thinking, ‘What’s next?’” said Joy contemplatively. Business India was at breakfast, speaking to Joy in his home in Dubai. Globalising a home-grown brand has not been easy for Joy Alukkas. The UAE not only inspired him but also shaped him, as it has been an exciting destination for many entrepreneurs. It was a country whose rules and regulations transformed it into the land of opportunity.

In 2004, Joy, who is today the Chairman of the jewellery retail chain, Joyalukkas, wished for his company to have 100 showrooms in 10 countries worldwide and achieve a turnover of $1 billion by 2010. He accomplished that by 2008. Over the last four decades, this brand has remarkably stood the test of time. This is the phenomenal story of how a single owner from a little town like Thrissur created a world-class brand.

Joyalukkas is now one of the largest chains of privately-owned jewellery brands in the world. Joy was an early pioneer in corporatizing the jewellery industry, which was still unorganised with a mom-and-pop culture. His initiatives in the early nineties paved the way for others to follow. Today, several other family-led businesses in the sector, like Kalyan, Malabar, and GRT, stand on the platform he created. Of course, Titan has always been the giant.

An interesting fact to note is that Joy’s company was privately-owned, while the rest were either franchised, crowd-funded, or company-owned. “We have been the forerunners in organised retailing in India and the Gulf since 1988.” The growth has been phenomenal over 35 years, with double-digit growth almost every year.

His continuous drive ensured that the brand firmly established itself. Today, Joyalukkas Jewellery boasts a network of 160 showrooms, spanning across 11 countries. Out of these, 100 are located in India, with the rest scattered across the GCC, US, UK, Singapore, and Malaysia. The group has made it a point to maintain its Indian headquarters in Thrissur, Kerala, while the international operations remain headquartered in Dubai, UAE.

But does the continuous expansion of stores mean growth for Joy? “Numbers do prove a point, but at a certain stage, saturation can be observed with an excessive number of outlets,” he explains.

Burning ambition

Business India paid visits to both Thrissur and Dubai to gain a deeper understanding of the man and his business, getting to know him on a personal level. Behind Joy’s gentle demeanour lies a burning ambition, an unwavering drive, and shrewd business acumen. Similar to many Indian businesses, the international operation based in the UAE and the one in India are entirely separate entities as a matter of strategy.

The overseas business transactions have a history of 35 years (now being led by his son, John Paul), while the Indian company is only 21 years old. Joy has been listed by Forbes as one of the 100 richest Indians.

Despite his successes, he has remained humble and straightforward — a man of few words, careful about his mistakes, with a keen awareness of the future. His character embodies the values of sharing and giving, even to the competition. Joy calmly states: “This applies to any business nowadays, not just the jewellery industry. Competition is essential, and its existence is imperative. It drives improvement in the business, particularly in terms of quality control.”

The Group placed a strong emphasis on building a solid foundation for the Joyalukkas brand. They set it apart through quality products, superior service levels, innovative promotions, celebrity endorsements, and the introduction of loyalty cards — many of these being firsts in the industry. Joy also implemented standard operating procedures and computerisation. He actively engaged his employees in all aspects of the business, offering competitive salaries, focusing on staff welfare, training, grooming, and uniforms.

Back offices were corporatized, and experienced professionals were brought on board. Joy never feared healthy competition. He had a knack for understanding the market, dedicating considerable time to visiting various locations, staying tuned to the competition, engaging with industry leaders, and participating in jewellery exhibitions, among other activities. He was never content sitting behind a desk; he remained hands-on. Even in his sixties, he clocks in a full day. Joy breathes the business.

The family business

Joy comes from a large family of 15 children, including 10 sisters and 4 brothers. He was the 11th son of the late Alukka Joseph Varghese, who opened a 220 sq ft jewellery retail store the year Joy was born in 1956. Like many in business families, Joy began working in his family’s business at a young age, shadowing his father. Although it all started with a modest 220 sq ft jewellery retail store in Thrissur, even at the age of 15, Joy found it interesting.

Did Joy ever consider joining another industry? He shook his head, albeit sadly, and explained that Kerala offered limited opportunities to its youth. The state lacked significant industries or factories, and the government provided few incentives, especially under the Left-wing administration, which historically had an anti-business stance.

Graduates typically sought further education abroad, leading to a large Keralite population settled across various industries worldwide. Kerala was primarily known for exporting manpower. However, Joy himself remained apolitical, and has lived in a neutral climate, adapting to whatever circumstances came his way.

Similar to much of India, the people of the southern states were enticed by the allure of gold as an investment. Kerala and the Gulf shared a strong connection in this regard. The Alukkas family received positive reports about the Dubai market in the 1970s, with the influx of workers due to the oil boom causing a population boom in the Gulf. Additionally, high custom duties and restrictive economic policies in India made gold prices approximately four times higher than those in Dubai. Even today, the price difference stands between Rs5,000-Rs7,000 for 10 grams of 24-carat gold.

Venturing into the UAE 

Encouraged by these factors, the Alukkas family decided to venture into the UAE market. They opened their first store in Abu Dhabi in 1988, realising the burgeoning expatriate population did not have their own, home-grown styles to meet their jewellery needs. Traditional Indian jewellery designs were scarce in the UAE, and the local market was fragmented and disorganised. Joy recognised this gap and saw the potential for growth.

He observed that most jewellery stores had buyers and salesmen from Kerala, further motivating him to expand his presence in the UAE. In the heart of Dubai’s gold trade, they opened their second store in ‘The Gold Souk’ in 1988.”

  • The Alukkas family

    The Alukkas family

Overcoming additional challenges, including the aftermath of the Gulf War and his temporary withdrawal, Joy returned to the UAE in 1991. He re-established his brand’s presence, showcasing his unwavering determination. Despite intensifying competition, Joy reasserted his position as a formidable player.

He had demonstrated courage in the early years when setbacks plagued him. Fortunately, he faced limited competition, with only small retail outlets in his vicinity. Nobody was offering classic designs like Joyalukkas. He imported traditional Indian designs to Dubai, earning a strong reputation for purity and exceptional customer service in the mid-nineties, following the Gulf War. This placed him significantly ahead of other jewellers.

The separation 

As happens in many large families, Joy separated from his brothers in 2001, subsequently renaming his business ‘Joyalukkas’ in 2005. This strategic move marked a significant step forward in his journey. With unwavering determination, Joy continued to work relentlessly towards achieving the ambitious targets he had set, including the one for 2010.

He directed his focus towards his ventures in the UAE, as by 2008, the Gulf region was home to more than 2.5 million Keralites, providing a ready-made market for 22-carat Indian jewellery. The market was ripe for a serious player, but there was no rash expansion. Each store was meticulously planned, taking various factors like location and potential footfall into account.

Compared to the risks associated with establishing and running shops in India, the Gulf presented fewer challenges. Dubai offered excellent infrastructure, and the start-up process for setting up shops, whether for textiles or jewellery, was considerably faster in the Gulf.

Since the gold jewellery retail market was highly fragmented and disoriented, Joy organised his systems by corporatising the marketing, retailing and distribution aspects. He did this by hiring professional teams and formulating marketing and branding strategies then unusual in the industry. Eye-catching promotions and Celebrity Brand Ambassadors became the order of the day.

He also introduced games and raffles and a give-a way of cars as prizes. Joyalukkas was the first jeweller in the UAE to offer cars in mega prize promotions. They even gave away a Rolls Royce! 

Way ahead of peers 

These promotions gave the brand a spring and a new life. They also became the first jewellery brand to advertise in cinemas. People made a beeline to his stores, intrigued by the jeweller’s fresh ideas. His ideas took him way ahead of the other Indian jewellers.

On his part Joy wanted everything in order. He made sure to obtain ISO certification. He wanted his shops to excel in service, quality of jewellery, and ambience. He paid his employees one of the best industry salaries and provided good perquisites like accommodation. He firmly maintained that the staff returned the compliment through commendable service to the customers, paving the way for repeat buying.

He went on to hire KPMG, a Big Four audit firm, even at a relatively higher fee to establish credibility for the brand’s financial performance. Joy left no stone unturned. He had decided that if he was going to be one of the big players, he needed to do everything according to the book.

Bringing on KPMG also encouraged higher standards in his office, the IT systems, and business operations. Reliable numbers greatly helped in getting the brand large working capital limits from the banks. This allowed Joy to scale his business. He introduced dedicated departments like IT, engineering, accounts, purchase, personnel, etc, to look after each area in a professional manner. All these were the building blocks of his success.

  • None

    Joyalukkas Jewellery has played a pivotal role in the transformation of Dubai into a regional retail powerhouse, particularly its contribution towards showcasing Dubai as the “City of Gold”

    Laila Suhail, CEO – Strategic Alliances/Partnerships Sector, Dubai’s Dept of Economy and Tourism

Strong quality control 

Today Joyalukkas’ customer service is amongst the best in the industry. He is known for his strong quality control, competitive prices, designs, free after-sales service. The buyback policies give the customers confidence in the resale value of the products. Since diamonds were an expensive commodity and people were hesitant to invest in them, Joyalukkas was the one of the first jewellers at the time to offer diamond studded jewellery. 

Joy realised that even in the jewellery business there were economies of scale. At that time many competitors just focussed on manning the cash counters, while he ventured out for further expansion. While the scale brings its own economies, only expanding the number of stores is not always the only answer. His team focused on higher sales per store, so that only variable expenses increased. This meant additional margins available for larger sales promotional campaigns.

And the larger the promotional campaign, the larger would be the increase in their sales. This resulted in higher profits. Today the entire industry is moving towards organised retailing. In fact, as per research, organised retailing in India by 2026 is going to be 42 per cent of the market compared to 15 per cent in 2008.

While his other brothers also continued to run their stores in India, Joy too had a dream of bringing his brand home. However, he knew he would face some challenges. The whole time he was out of the country, the Indian consumer had changed, and jewellery tastes had begun to differ from state to state. What he realised was that many Indian consumers had moved away from the local family jeweller to other methods of buying. Joy slid right into this new trend.

Back to Kerala 

Joy opened his first store in Kottayam, Kerala in 2002. He differentiated his business from the rest with the ‘Wedding centre concept’ with jewellery and textiles under one roof – then a unique offering in the market. His success in Kottayam gave him confidence that he could cater to the public in the ways he knew best. He thus ventured outside Kerala in 2004, by opening his next store in Coimbatore. 

That was something rare in the jewellery industry. Businesses usually only operated within each state. He steadily made moves in Tamil Nadu and opened a big store in Salem. This was followed by Tirunelveli, then Madurai, followed by Thanjavur, Karur, Vellore and Kanchipuram. In 2008, he opened the largest jewellery store in Chennai. That won a place in the Limca Book of Records which declared Joyalukkas, T Nagar, as the largest gold jewellery showroom in the world. All the while that India was growing exponentially, so was Dubai. 

Today, though the brand has a large global presence they attribute their success first to the country that nurtured their growth in the first place. Of course, their willingness to adapt and stay ahead of the curve, retaining their quality and their personal touch all reflected in staying on top. To what does Joy attribute his success in the business?

He states that a few factors have helped, like the choice of location, good, trained, loyal employees, including individuals who have recently graduated and are happy to climb the ladder in the company. A good variety of products and displays, consistent quality, and marketing, are, of course, key. 

  • Joyalukkas' success lies in a good variety of products and displays, consistent quality and marketing

Joy emphasises it has never been only about the bottom-line or the balance sheet. It was also about the people at the heart of the business. “We take care of our people so that they take care of our customers.” He points to his core strength of 9,000-odd employees. The myriads of satisfied customers that they have across geographies and the numerous awards they have received for quality attest to the effectiveness of his approach.

It has also been about taking calculated risks. But at the same time, he knew he could not afford to be foolhardy and put people’s livelihoods at risk. All his decisions have been quick but also data-driven.

Gold as an investment

Post pandemic, India is seeing a boom in jewellery demand like never before. Investment demand comes from people, who see the potential of gold as an investment, much like a safe haven during the time of crisis. Especially from groups who never considered gold as an investment before. The aspirational demand is from the young crowd (who are fitfully employed and cash-rich) who want to live a world class lifestyle and acquire luxuries. More demand for diamond jewellery, studded stone jewellery and designer and 18K jewellery is the need from this segment – these are the millennials and Gen Z generation.

Jewellers are reaping the dividends of a rising women work force, more disposable income and a younger demographic of the buying public. This has accelerated the growth of organised retailers in India. The stock market has also witnessed a sizable addition of listed companies. Kalyan Jewellers, Senco Gold and Diamonds, Thangamayil, are amongst listed jewellers. And of course, the first retail listed player, the big brother of all, is Titan with its Tanishq brand, backed by the Tatas. Joyalukkas India Ltd seeks to emulate Titan in its operations.

The future according to Joy

All businesses need to keep an eye on the future, to cater to the incoming generations, the millennials and GenZ. Their tastes have to be taken into account to stay relevant. So, Joyalukkas has expanded its collections to include both traditional and lightweight modern jewellery targeting the younger generation that currently prefers 18-carat jewellery. They had started digitally early in 2002, staying ahead of the curve. But they are considering fresh approaches to the online jewellery stores.

The pandemic then completely transformed the concept of retail as we know it by accelerating digital growth. However, the bricks and mortar stores are still important. Joy shares his growth plans saying: “There is going to be an increase of 30 new stores in India and 10 internationally by end of FY25-26.”

All Joyalukkas’ Indian showrooms are going to be larger, and more luxurious. And the jewellery display will be the highlight. A comfortable back office for the staff, clean restrooms for visitors, a coffee area for the customers and even a children’s play area are all parts of the plan. They are also considering one big showroom in the capital city of each state and satellite showrooms so that everybody can reach a Joyalukkas Store. 

Joy is also looking forward to expanding into Bangladesh and Canada (a completely new territory). He emphasises whichever county they move into, the brand follows all rules and regulations. More stores are to be opened in the USA, London, Singapore.

  • None

    Joy Alukkas is a visionary entrepreneur who, despite his immense success and global recognition, remains grounded, approachable, and genuinely interested in connecting with people.

    Sachin Jain, MD – De Beers India

For Joy the Customer is King! The brand will incorporate changes and will go according to the times, but not compromising their core philosophies. He wants all his stores to offer the same hospitality whether in Dubai or in a small town like Karur in South India.

By 2024 he wants to see the turnover at $3.2 billion. This should help the group achieve more profits. With much of it in the GCC areas, much of this would be tax-free!!

Along with all this, is his serious dream of building a high-quality hospital in Thrissur where treatment will match the best. But Joy believes that the rich should pay, as this will help aid the poor to get highly subsidised or even free treatment. There’s no telling what Joy might do next.

Looking back, Joy Alukkas, has been known for his reserve and taciturnity. His transformation from then to now: “When I came to Dubai there was no playbook to follow. Banking, store operations, procurement, recruitment, internal control, understanding the numbers, improvising the customer services, etc. Everything turned out to be by the trial-and-error method, literally starting from scratch.

Whatever I did in 1990s had built a strong foundation for the brand, and it transformed the entire jewellery industry. This refined knowledge defines me. This is important in decision-making. The ability to respond with changing scenarios is very important. Especially when we live in the VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity).”

Joy is a true businessman with ideas mulling in his head all the time, even though he shares that he sleeps more than 8 hours a night. He doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels but continuously raises the bar for himself and everyone around him. All this and more will be available in his autobiography by Harper Collins before the end of the year.

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