Michael Hill left school at 16 in 1954, but not to become a jeweller – he wanted to become a concert violinist. Working in his uncle’s jewellery store was a backup after he was told he was too old to be a virtuoso.
Hill was successful as a salesman and a manager, but was certainly no runaway success in his early years. He worked happily for 23 years in the store in Whangarei. He married and had two children, before fire destroyed the family home in 1977. Taking stock of his life Hill decided he had been playing too safe and not taking enough risks.
Although financially stricken after the fire, he managed to raise enough capital to offer to buy his uncle’s business. When his uncle refused to sell, Hill set up his own shop down the road in 1979, named Michael Hill Jeweller. It was a store ahead of its time – Hill deviated markedly from conventional jewellery store wisdom with his displays, and dispensed with watchmaking, clocks, porcelain and silverware which most stores at the time sold.
His methods were a success, and Hill was ambitious from the start. He managed to outstrip his goal of seven stores in seven years, opening his eighth store in 1986.
In 1987 Michael Hill Jewellers floated on the New Zealand Stock Exchange and raised enough money to expand into the Australian market.
In 1988 Hill set himself the goal of 70 stores in 7 years – a goal he also met. The 1990s were a period of expansion for the chain, which culminated in the opening of the first North American stores in Vancouver, Canada, in 2002. Hill has the ambition to open 1000 stores by 2022 and has further expanded into the United States.
Although he didn’t become a violinist, Hill still maintains a strong love for the violin, and in 2001 he founded the biennial Michael Hill International violin competition for emerging violinists.
In 2011 Hill was knighted for services to business and the arts.
In 2015, daughter Emma Hill succeeded her father to become Chairperson of Michael Hill Jewellers.
Sir Michael Hill attributes much of his success to his willingness to take risks. He says that the worst aspect of NZ culture is that we back off before we reach our full potential.