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Sir Michael Hill’s girl takes over

Diamond guru Sir Michael Hill passes the reins to his youngest.

Emma Hill is the picture of a powerful woman. Wearing a crisp-cut blazer, with a mix of jewellery glittering at her neck and wrists, she's standing in Queenstown's retreating winter sun with hands on her hips, chatting animatedly about her jewellery business' next venture.
Yes, her jewellery business. It's the dawn of a new era for the Hill family, or as Sir Michael (76) likes to think of it, the start of an empire. In November, Emma – Michael and wife Christine's youngest child – will succeed her dad as chairman of the board.
"Maybe I'll just be chair," Emma (43) says, smiling. "I don't like 'chairman' and 'chairperson' sounds weird. I'm very excited, though. Ever since I was a little girl, I knew this is what I wanted to do."
It's certainly a step up from her first role at Michael Hill – glass cleaner.
"Actually, my first job was helping Mum dry the paint at the new store the day before it opened," she remembers. "We had to use hairdryers to get it ready in time. Once that was done, I'd try and 'sell', but I needed a stepladder to see over the counter."
Taking over one of New Zealand's best-loved companies has been a long time coming for the mother-of-two but, as Michael points out, she had to earn it.
The close-knit family live on the same sprawling Arrowtown estate, with their family pet Sneaks.
"No nepotism here," he says firmly. "Emma is remarkable. She has a Masters of Business Administration, she's been with the business, well, since the very beginning. And it's a young person's world. It's time to see her fly. She's quite capable."
Emma laughs, "There's not going to be a day where Michael doesn't call me with some insight or comment!" Yes, she calls him Michael, because "'Dad' doesn't sound that great in the boardroom."
While she's proven herself to the other members of the board – she was previously deputy chair and before that, ran Michael Hill's Canadian operation in Vancouver – Michael has always known his daughter is an incredibly strong and intelligent woman. There are remarkable similarities between the pair, from the way they speak – very quickly but rather thoughtfully – to the shared passion they have for jewellery.
"We're alike in many ways, and in some we're not," Emma says. "I hope I'm not exactly like you!" she laughs, putting an arm around her father.
"My goodness no," he replies grinning. "She's certainly very driven, like me. We're both Capricorns which definitely helps."
Emma nods in agreement. "We climb the mountain, but we're never fully satisfied."
It's because of her parents that Emma possesses this powerful sense of determination.
"I've actually been reflecting on why I'm so driven – and I think it comes down to the house fire."
When Emma was only seven years old, their hopelessly underinsured family home in Whangarei burnt to the ground, leaving the family with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
"I lost my favourite stuffed toy," she remembers. "She was a mother pig. Mum made it for me – you unzipped the tummy and there were all these piglets in it. It was quite devastating, and a very significant part of my early life. But I saw how Michael – sorry, Dad – and Mum worked so hard after that, and how they managed to make so much out of nothing. I think that's why I'm wired the way I am."
While Emma takes after her dad in a business sense, it's her older brother Mark, an artist, who inherited the creative gene shared by Michael and fellow artist Christine – "although I have to have one in here somewhere!" Emma laughs.
"They're quite opposite," Michael says of his two children. "Mark's more like Christine, he sees everything in pictures. So do I, mind you. We're all different, which is amazing. You'd think, considering we're from the same family, we'd be all the same. And we're lucky that we have two completely different kids who are perfect for the brand!"
For Emma, there have been many lessons learnt at her father's side. While discussing balance with a working mother is somewhat of a cliché, Emma – who has seven-year-old twins Chloe and Jacob – says Michael was the one who taught her how to juggle a successful career and motherhood.
"He's always been great at balance," she begins, before Michael interrupts.
"Balance?" he asks incredulously. "That's surprising. I thought I was unbalanced!"
"Well, it depends on how you define balance, isn't it?" Emma smiles wryly. "Dad was always home for dinner and we always went fishing on the weekends. God, there was so much fishing," she recalls smiling.
Emma says she's learnt a lot from her father, including how to be successful in business and parenting.
"We had a dinghy and we'd take it out all the time. I also really love to run, and Dad took me on my first ever competitive run. We did 10km. I actually discovered the certificate for it the other day!"
Long-distance runs, including marathons, are Emma's way of decompressing after a day in the boardroom and she makes a conscious effort to pound the pavement every day.
"Perspective is absolutely key," she explains. "You need to operate at 30,000 feet, not three. For that, you need time out to reflect and have clarity of thought, to make sure you're spending and investing your time wisely. That's what my running is for."
Her new role does mean she'll have less time at home with her partner and children. Like her brother, she lives on the same sprawling estate in Arrowtown as her parents – but the trade- off means she gets to immerse herself in the business while also helping other women reach their own career goals.
"We'd like to see more women in leadership positions," she says, adding that both she and Michael will be speaking at the University of Auckland's Women's Business Association – an organisation they've just donated $10,000 to.
"That is exciting," Emma says. "The world would be a better place if more women were running it. It would certainly be more peaceful!"
"Well, I mean…yeah. Okay," Michael concedes with a reluctant smile. "I can't argue with that, really!"
So with his daughter taking over the reins of his beloved company, does that mean it's finally time for Michael to call it a day at the ripe age of 76?
"What, retire? Don't be ridiculous," he says. "It's an awful word. I hate it. It's not even in my vocabulary."
"Dad and Mum worked so hard to make so much out of nothing," says Emma. "I think that's why I'm wired the way that I am."
Indeed, Michael insists things won't change too much for him. He will still be sitting on the board, and he's returning to his first love – actually designing the jewellery. He's just finished a bridal collection, inspired by his love of music.
"Each range is named after a musical term – aria, adagio, amoroso – and every ring is embedded with a little pink Australasian sapphire. It's a nod to our roots, so no matter how much we expand, each ring has a little piece of where we
come from."
He's had as much spare time as he's wanted for a long time, but one thing Michael is looking forward to is spending more of it with his grandchildren – the twins, and Mark's two children, Oliver (15) and Nathan (13).
"Both Chloe and Jacob play the violin and they're very good, actually," the proud granddad says.
"It's how they earn their pocket money," adds Emma. "They go busking. If they want money, they can earn it, just like I did. It's very important they learn the value of a dollar and how hard it is to make. They're very successful, actually. I'll take them down to Arrowtown and they'll put their little cases out. They're already saving for their first cars!"
But despite their musical talents, it seems the Hills' youngest members already have their sights set on the family business – much to the delight of Michael.
"They keep asking me when they can go and work in the store," laughs Emma. "They want to start cleaning the counters. I should take them down there at Christmas."
"That's a brilliant idea," Michael replies. "Let's do it."
And with that, a brand new empire begins.

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