Prize of the South Sea

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-By Claire Suttles

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but pearls have been enchanting tourists and consumers visiting Willie Creek since 1989. Willie Creek Pearls offers a complete experience – from witnessing how pearls are created, to purchasing the final product. The company grows its own pearls, designs and manufactures its own jewelry, and distributes the jewelry through its own retail shops. CEO Tony Maio reports that this system gives the company complete control over every part of the pearl jewelry production process. “We’re doing it ourselves every step of the way,” he says. “And we know exactly what every product is and how it’s made.”

The Willie Creek Pearls experience begins with a tour of the company’s pearl farm in Broome, where guests witness the pearl-cultivation process via a cruise down Willie Creek. The company has invested a great deal into the tour, and it has been the number one tour in Western Australia for twenty years. In fact, Willie Creek Pearls is the most awarded Tour Company in Western Australia. Accolades include winning three categories of the prestigious WA Tourism Awards three years in a row, consecutive wins which earned the company a place in the WA Tourism Hall of Fame in 2010. The company has also won the coveted Sir David Brand award for tourism twice, which honors the organisation as being the Best of the Best.

The Willie Creek Pearls tour has become a local icon with over 50,000 visitors each year including royal families, prime ministers, and A-list Hollywood celebrities. Furthermore, the operation has been integral in promoting tourism within Western Australia. The company has partnered with several other major players in the local tourism industry including airliners, accommodation houses, and cruise lines, to offer joint packages, launch more flights into Broome, and entice more tourists to the area.

Willie Creek Pearls also operates a Pearl Luggers tour located in Broome’s Chinatown. The attraction takes tourists through the history and dangers of pearl diving. Pearl Luggers boasts a multi-million dollar display of antique diving equipment and restored pearling ships to transport tourists into a bygone era of maritime adventure.

The pearl-cultivation process itself is a highly technical, time consuming endeavor strictly regulated by the government. In fact, due to stringent government policies, there are only 19 pearl farming licenses available in all of Australia. During the tour, guests learn firsthand how much effort goes into creating a valuable South Sea pearl. In the first step, professional divers gather wild oysters from the South Sea. These oysters are transferred to the farm and carefully nurtured for six months. After this time, the oysters are pulled back out of the sea for a precise surgical procedure. Technicians insert a special bead made from the Mississippi clam shell, along with some mantle tissue from a donor oyster, into the pearl-producing oyster. The oyster then goes back into the water for two years, during which time a pearl slowly forms around the implanted material.

During the pearl’s development, all measures are taken to ensure the best success rate for both pearl and oyster. Every six weeks the oyster is taken back out of the water and treated. Technicians check that it is healthy, clean the shell, remove barnacles, and put the oyster through an x-ray to monitor the growing pearl. The pearl is removed after two years and the process is repeated. After around eight years of pearl production, the oyster reaches the end of its life span and is harvested. The meat is sold for human consumption, the guts for fish food. The shell is used for jewelry production and as an ingredient in cosmetics and metallic car paint. There is “absolutely zero waste,” Mr Maio reports.

Visitors to Willie Creek Pearl Farm end their tour in a 120 square metre showroom, one of five that the company owns. Willie Creek Pearls can also be purchased through an online store, through partner stores that stock the Willie Creek Pearls brand. Willie Creek Pearls also operates the internationally recognised Autore boutique in Broome. When selling jewelry, Mr Maio explains that the “primary focus for us is on our customers and making sure our customers have what they want in our product line-up.” For this reason, the company decided early on to expand its offerings to lower price points. “It would be nice if everyone came in and wanted to spend $10,000.00,” Mr Maio laughs, “But it doesn’t happen.” Regardless of budget, Mr Maio reiterates that, “Every customer is an identical customer as far as service. Whether the customer has only got $10.00 dollars to spend or $10,000.00 dollars to spend, we need to be able to service every customer in the same format and provide the same level of service.”

In order to make its products accessible to all customers, the company began designing, manufacturing, and selling pearl jewelry made from freshwater pearls grown in China as a lower price point alternative. “Unfortunately I can’t sell a $10.00 customer a Broome pearl,” Mr Maio explains. “I’d love to [but it is] not a reality.” The fresh water pearls are much less expensive to produce than Broome pearls, partly because fifty can be grown in one fresh water mussel at a time, rather than just one pearl per oyster every two years. In addition, the oyster-grown pearl necessitates greater technique and care than the fifty mussel-grown pearls. The higher costs of labour and production in Australia over China are also a factor in the final retail price of the pearl product. Offering lower priced product “gives [everyone] the ability to wear beautiful pearls,” Mr Maio reports. A children’s line of freshwater pearl jewelry, for instance, starts at only $8.00. Overall, the bulk of the freshwater pearl product sells for between $10.00 and $500.00 dollars, and the highest priced pieces are no more than $2,000.00 dollars.

The real prize for sale in the Willie Creek showroom is the farm-grown Broome pearl. These pearls come in a variety of shapes, sizes and grades, but all start at a much higher price point than the freshwater pearls. From natural, or Keshi, pearls, to round, cultured pearls, Willie Creek Pearls offers something at every price point, starting at around $120.00. The company also produces across all levels of precious metal, averages 50 to 100 new jewelry designs a year and has a total of 5,000 designs in order to offer “something for everybody.”

Mr Maio believes that having a great team is an important part of the company’s success. “A successful company is only as good as the people are,” he emphasises. Willie Creek Pearls employs over 100 staff during the busy season and Mr Maio has a management strategy that he says helps keep things running smoothly. “Anyone involved in operational matters needs to actually work on every part of the business so they understand it,” he explains. “So when [the managers] are directing the staff, [the managers] actually know what they are talking about. There isn’t one job in the company I haven’t done myself,” Mr Maio reports. He doesn’t “just send a memo,” instead he and his management team lead by example and demonstration. “I can actually say I know how to do this,” he explains. “I’ve done this [job], and this is the way to do it better. I’ve been a tour guide, I’ve been a bus driver, [I know] every process in the company.”

Willie Creek Pearls’ success is also dependent on the quality of the South Sea waters. A number of factors including large tidal movements, pristine waters, water temperature, and environmental protections combine to make Australia one of the best places on the planet to produce high quality pearls. Mr Maio admits that his “worst fear” is an environmental disaster that damages the local seawater. The company understands its dependence on, and responsibility to the environment, and works to maintain the natural balance of the South Sea ecosystem. Willie Creek Pearls hopes that its efforts, along with stringent government regulations on pearl farming and related industries, will keep Australian waters healthy. And, as long as the South Sea remains healthy, the company will continue to produce stunning pearls.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

January 18, 2019, 3:31 AM AEDT