Steve Bennett leads a busy life. He’s chairman and co-founder of Gemporia, is branching out into health and fitness, another passion of his, and has recently become a father for the seventh time and a grandfather for the first.
He’s run almost 30 businesses over 30 years, so for our long-overdue catch-up, we’ve spoken to Steve about how he got here, what he’s doing now, and what's next for him by delving into three big pillars of his life: gemstones, business and family.
STEVE ON GEMSTONES
A lot of Gemporia customers ask how this all began. Well, Steve had been running his own businesses in the computer software and hardware sector for 15 years before the launch of Gems TV back in 2004, but the roots of his interest in gemstones go back much further than this.
What first sparked your interest in gemstones?
At school, I was useless at pretty much everything. When I was choosing what subjects to take in my fourth year, they introduced a course called geology and promised several field trips. This appealed to me because it meant several days out of the classroom. Little did I know that I would find it extremely interesting and that it would trigger a fascination with all things natural.
How did your path lead you to Gemporia?
I left school with pretty much no qualifications other than geology and maths. I first started out doing gardening, to fund my music lessons in an attempt to become a professional musician. The problem was, just like my ability in the classroom, I was not very good at this either. I had various jobs, and then at the age of 24, I started my first computer company. I grew this for ten years, and when I sold the business to Argos in the year 2000, we founded our first TV shopping channel. In 2004, having learned how to run a TV studio, we decided to set up a dedicated gemstone jewellery shopping channel – Gems TV – and this ultimately rekindled my passion for Mother Nature's minerals and gemstones.
This opened the door to your gemstone hunting adventures. You’ve been around the globe many times, so do you have any highlights or terrifying moments?
I adore travelling, I am the luckiest guy on the planet. Nothing quite matches the excitement of trekking to remote locations and digging for nature’s treasures. Terrifying moments? Lots! I was once in Madagascar, and at a roadblock we had a machine gun put through the window and pointed at my head. To make things even worse, at the time I was on the phone with my wife and told her that I had to hang-up because I had a gun to my head. Our guard and driver dealt with the situation calmly, and before long we were on our way. However, it took another six hours before I got phone reception and was able to tell my wife that everything was sorted. As you can imagine, she was more terrified than I was during this period. Once, in Hunan, China, while looking for Peridot with my son Matt, we were held ransom for four hours. If you look at Gemporia’s YouTube channel, the documentary of the trip captures this moment, and while it all ended peacefully, there was an air of concern during our captivity.
Are there any gemstones that we’ve had in the past that we may never see again?
Sadly lots. It’s just nature. Many other treasures are in limited supply and others, while they might not be as scarce, may lay hidden forever. Csarite®, American Fire Opal, Russian Alexandrite and many others are no longer being mined.
If you could travel back to the discovery of any one gem and be present when it was first unearthed, which would it be?
I suppose many people would assume that I would pick Diamond. After all, it is the most well-known gemstone on the planet. However, for me, it would be something like Chrome Diopside or Paraiba Tourmaline. These gems are discovered in alluvial deposits, and they look beautiful and gleaming straight out of the ground.
What’s your personal favourite gemstone and why?
I have so many favourites. My top pick usually tends to be a gemstone that I have recently visited the mining location of. When you’re out in the field, you tend to become extremely passionate about your latest find. All that said, there is one gemstone I have not yet seen at a mine. Unlike my team members David, Shane and Jake, I have yet to see Zircon come out of the ground, and I adore this gemstone. It is a real miracle, and no mineral on the planet has ever been dated older than Zircon. Therefore if you pushed me hard, I would have to say Zircon is the most significant miracle of all.
Who are your gemstone heroes?
All of them. Truly, I’m full of admiration for anyone who dedicates time trying to find nature’s coloured treasures. Searching for most gemstones is very different to looking for Diamonds. With Diamonds, once you find an old volcanic pipe, chances are you will discover a huge amount of Diamonds. However, with coloured gemstones, because Mother Nature created them in cracks and crevices, more often than not following a seam ends in disappointment. Exploring and hunting gems can sometimes be soul destroying. But for those that persist, occasionally the end result is blissfully beautiful. My heroes are those that persist.
STEVE ON BUSINESS
While it's essential to have the right ingredients and ideas when launching a business, our time working with Steve would suggest that more important than this is having the right attitude, and finding other passionate people that share these beliefs. So, how does this work at Gemporia?
There’s a heavy emphasis on teamwork and self-improvement within Gemporia. How important is this?
It’s everything. Our team are all very talented individuals and could get jobs working for almost any company. Therefore, I wholeheartedly believe that it is our responsibility to ensure that everybody both enjoys their time with us to the max and develops their skills as much as possible. Long gone are the days where you are doing people a favour offering them employment. The tables have turned, and therefore you must make sure that you make every day a pleasurable day for all.
What advice would you give anyone setting out to start their own company?
As long as your dream is to create something special and something different, then pour your heart and soul into it and just go for it. There is no such thing as a typical entrepreneur, just people with big dreams and sufficient confidence. I believe there is no such thing as failure, just stepping stones to success. I genuinely believe this and only ever see something as a failure if it’s repeated far too often. I think it’s important to choose the ideas that you're most passionate about and those where you think you can make a real difference. I started my first business when I got made redundant and still to this day I can’t believe how fortunate I have been. Also, measure your success on how much you give away. As our charity work only started in earnest about five years ago, I would say that Gemporia is our first truly successful business.
Who are your business heroes?
For many years Charles Dunstone, who founded Carphone Warehouse, has been a really good mentor to me. Even though his company is now gigantic, if I ever need any advice he’s always willing to free up time to meet me. He is a real inspiration and wonderful business leader. Without a doubt, my family have been so fortunate to become close friends with the Branson family. It’s not just Richard that is an inspiration but his son Sam, his daughter Holly and his wonderful mother Eve are all truly inspirational, and both my brother and I always treasure our time with them. I’m inspired by anybody who just gets out there and does it. It doesn’t matter whether it is sport, music or business, I’m inspired by doers as long as they are nice people too.
What’s next for you, Steve?
We have recently transferred 75% of the ownership of the company to our brilliant team. This has made the company what is known as an employee-owned trust, the same as John Lewis. We believe that this move will help Gemporia grow from strength to strength. With my brother now the managing director and myself taking on a chairman role, my task is to focus on the growth strategy of the business and at the same time develop other companies around our family's core principle of creating happiness.
On that note, you’re writing a book about living a healthier lifestyle?
Yes, I started writing the book a few years ago, but it began to come together in November 2017. When we had to close our TV studios in America, it hit me hard, and I decided at that point that I should step back a bit from the business as I had, that year, made mistake after mistake. I decided to do something that Richard Branson had been suggesting to me for several years, and start spending more time developing the talent within the business and the next wave of business leaders. I also got my head down and worked on the book, just occasionally looking up and checking on progress within the business. Just as Richard had predicted, Gemporia went from strength to strength and hasn’t stopped since.
What inspired you to pass on your knowledge of this healthier way of life?
When Sarah announced that we were having another baby a couple of years ago, I had been overweight for some time and decided that I needed to really understand about health. I wanted to be around to see my seventh child growing up. The book is very different to any other book around health and tells the truth about the pharmaceutical industry, food industry and even the motivations behind some of the government's misleading information. I have been privileged to work with some brilliant nutritionists and scientists, and in January 2018 we launched a collection of vitamins and minerals to complement the information in the book, designed to benefit all ages. One of my pet hates in life is big corporations that only care about profits, not people or the planet, so we have also committed that for every single supplement that we sell, we will give away a supplement to a child in an underprivileged community.
STEVE ON FAMILY, FREE TIME, PHILANTHROPY AND PHILOSOPHY
It’s clear from working with Steve that nothing is more important to him than his family, and the concept of continual self-improvement and giving something back to the world. It’s this attitude that has led Steve to launch a charity and to push himself in his endeavours to raise money.
How do you balance work and family commitments?
Firstly, I am very privileged that we are often able to combine both together. Plus, the bigger the company and the group gets, paradoxically it takes up less time doing things and more time thinking about doing things. We have such a fantastic team in the business, and they are all much, much more capable of running the business than I have ever been. So now my task is more thinking about how the company should grow and in what direction it should go, and I’m able to do this predominantly from home. Plus I believe that if you love what you do, you don’t really work a day in your life.
What principles do you want your children to live their lives by?
I want them all to have a positive impact on the planet. Some people say I am irresponsible for having seven children when the planet is already overpopulated, therefore for me it is crucial that they will all have a positive impact on others. In particular, I want them to be kind and to take complete responsibility for their own outcomes. Many people that know me well will know that my number one mantra is “if it’s to be, it’s up to me”, and I expect my children to live by this too.
What inspired you to set up the Colourful Life Foundation?
When you travel around the world and see communities that are way less fortunate than we are, and when you look at simple steps that can be taken to help, it’s not a difficult decision to make to give up some of your time to try to make a difference.
Which of the projects are you most proud of?
I wouldn’t say that I am particularly proud of our projects as I always think there is more to be done. Once you become a little more comfortable in life, it makes it much easier to have time to think about others. While it is fantastic that lots of business leaders, including myself, are now dedicating a lot of time to worthy causes, it’s important for everyone to realise that once we have taken care of our families, this is just the next logical step. I am filled with even more admiration for people who work very hard to put food on the table at home and yet still find time to be charitable. We have half a dozen brilliant team members at Gemporia who give up lots of their spare time to help out at their local schools. While these efforts might not get the same recognition, to me they are the ones that are truly charitable.
To raise money for charity, you’ve run marathons, sailed across the Atlantic with your children, climbed mountains, even been to the North Pole. What are your adventurer highlights and which one was toughest?
Without a doubt the North Pole was special, but we had an excellent guide that we had complete faith in. When we sailed across the Atlantic, I was skipper, and my own family crewed the boat, so that was probably the toughest of all.
You take part in competitive yachting too. How else do you switch off?
I competed in a world championship with my son Jack last year in Barbados. However, he is now studying for his A Levels, and we have not sailed since. I would love to start again with my son Tom when he is a little older. I love to play tennis and go to the gym, and in the winter I snowboard with my children. Plus, with my youngest son Louie, I find the time to get down on my hands and knees with him and push around toy cars. I find this entirely disengaging from work. I love travelling too, and try and see as many places as possible. For relaxing I love Switzerland and the Maldives, but closer to home I adore Devon and in particular Dartmouth, it's just beautiful.
What’s the one piece of advice you value above all others for living a happy, fulfilling, successful life?
You only live once, so try and enjoy every day. It’s not a dress rehearsal, so try and smile through both the good times and the hard times too.
What’s your philosophy on life?
Take responsibility for all of your own actions, and be good to others.
What drives you personally to keep improving?
I don’t yet think I have achieved, or given back to society enough to create a lasting legacy. Over recent years, the business has done so well that we’re now able to plan and sustain several charitable activities, and as we see these grow, it drives us to do more and more. I have seven children and one wonderful granddaughter, and I’m sure there will be many more. When I am long gone, I would hope to have done sufficient good that I am still remembered.
You can learn much more about Steve's new venture into healthy living, Primal Cure, by clicking here.