Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Neil Ventura

Neil Ventura is Executive Vice President, Strategy & Innovation, at De Beers Group, an international corporation that specializes in diamond exploration, diamond mining, diamond retail, diamond trading and industrial diamond manufacturing. The company, which controlled up to 85% of global rough diamond distribution from 1888 to the start of the 21st century, operates in 36 countries and reported 2018 revenues of $6.08 billion. Ventura joined De Beers Group in 1989, working in market-facing roles across Asia, Africa and Europe before being appointed Executive Vice President of Auction Sales in 2007. In this role, he pioneered the industry’s first successful physical spot sales of rough diamonds using online auctions — an innovation that has transformed the company’s auction sales business– and has been a catalyst for change in selling and pricing practices across the industry. In February 2018 Ventura, who is based in Singapore, took on his current role, focusing on both the development of De Beers Group corporate strategy and overseeing its implementation. This includes leading De Beers Group’s corporate innovation agenda and shepherding start-up businesses such as TRACR, Lightbox and GemFair, through the next stages in their life cycle. He recently spoke to The Innovator about De Beers Group’s digital transformation.

Q: Where is De Beers in its digital transformation: the beginning, the middle, nearing the finish line?

NV: We are early in our journey but it does not have a defined end point. It is quite difficult to pinpoint when there was a precise starting point. We are a couple of years into this. Our strategy is constantly evolving and being refined. What is clear is that digital transformation will be a big directional driver in the years ahead, impacting different parts of our business.

Q: What part of the company’s digital transformation is the most challenging and how are you trying to overcome that challenge?

NV: I would split the challenging aspects out into internal challenges and industry challenges at large. Internally we have a fairly expansive range of activities: mining, rough diamonds sourcing and sales, down to retail ventures. The biggest and most challenging aspect internally is how do you bring all these fragmented digital initiatives into one coordinated platform and connect up our internal value chain across De Beers? In terms of the broader industry our product is complex and our industry is complex. As an industry we have not always been the earliest adopters but I would stress that is starting to change. There is a focus on connectivity along the value chain, moving from rough diamond forms into a polished form, making it possible to track the physical assets by creating a digital counterpart, a digital twin that captures the unique physical characteristics of any given diamond and then create digital IDs. When you combine physical with situational — ie where it is in the value chain — we can create more assurance through layered data sets.

Q: Can you bring us up to date on Tracr, a blockchain platform developed by De Beers to establish provenance, authenticity and traceability throughout the entire value chain?

NV: De Beers developed this digital means of tracing a diamond’s journey from the point of recovery all the way through the point of sale primarily for the industry well over a year now. Until recently it has not been possible to do this sort of asset tracking. It is not just a blockchain platform. Four main technical competencies come together here: distributed ledger technology, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence algorithms that can help us with traceability; and we use technology to help us respect significant privacy considerations, giving participants a significant degree of control on exactly what information is shared. It is really the blending together of these four technical competency areas into a digital platform for the industry. The focal point is to enhance trust for consumers because consumer demand is the main source of value. In addition to consumers Tracr can also provide a number of benefits to counter-parties because it makes it possible to conduct transactions with greater confidence. It also gives relevant stakeholders outside the industry, such as lenders into the diamond sector, enhanced levels of transparency, supported by digital records. This is a cutting-edge endeavor that will help fast track the industry into the digital era. We have a platform by the industry for the industry, we have leading producers and leading players and the largest manufacturers all actively participating and learning how we can collectively evolve to the future.

Q: In October the World Economic Forum, along with De Beers and six metals and mining companies, announced a blockchain consortium to enable supply chain transparency and develop sustainability solutions. How does this fit with De Beers’ Tracr blockchain project?

NV: The World Economic Forum initiative is looking at responsible sourcing of mining and metals and how we can share knowledge and learning about some of the challenges and think about how those things may be common or unique. Tracr can help with this. But the main drive for us with Tracr is to create a single diamond industry standard to create provenance, traceability and authenticity, ultimately culminating in trust. It is very clear that the next wave of technological solutions will include distributed ledger technology.

Q: What are some of the other ways that technology is changing the mining/diamond business?

NV: We are looking how to use breakthrough technology when we mine new deposits to come up with new approaches that are more cost effective, safer and minimize environmental impact. We see a lot of potential in safety applications such as assessing driver fatigue in mining trucks and to identify structural issues before they occur. We are also looking at how technology can be used to transform rough diamonds into a polished state. For example, how do you model a stone in rough uncut form and extract the best possible outcome by automating the cutting and shaping of rough diamonds. There is also a lot going on in the go-to-market approach, all the way downstream. De Beers pioneered online diamond auctions and technology is really transforming the consumer experience through VR and AR and omnichannel. It is also being used for the personalization of diamond jewelry in a compelling way, so yes there are a lot of applications for technology across the value chain.

Q: What is the most important thing you have learned in your role as EVP of strategy and innovation?

NV: If you look at my role it is really interesting because it spans strategy and innovation. You need to be always on in terms of strategy development. As the business transforms and there is transformations across sectors with new products, services and business models, it is increasingly critical to assemble and maintain a balanced portfolio through the market cycle. You need to optimize your core business and also test new business models. We need to continually hone what we do and create the right kind of company culture that allows us to safely experiment and test and evolve these new possibilities and approaches.

Q: What advice would you give to peers at companies in other verticals who are trying to tackle digital transformation?

NW: There are two main things. It is really key at an early stage to test and prove quickly that a new approach is going to work. There is a growing body of evidence that is good to have a grand plan but it is good to start small. It is also critical to be as inclusive as possible when you work on a grand plan. If you are not inclusive I think it is harder to get fresh ideas and you need fresh ideas to start really moving forward.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.