A diamond may be forever, as De Beers' famous advertising slogan contends, but is the same true of a business model? That was the question facing Gareth Penny, managing director of De Beers, in the late 19'90s, when the famed diamond cartel found itself beset by a series of events that ultimately forced it to examine and then retool its business strategy.
Since the company was founded in 1888, De Beers followed a strategy of supply control. In addition to mining its own diamonds, it bought diamonds from other producers and had what it called the "central selling organization," controlling some 90% of the world's diamonds. Its tight control over such a vast amount of supply enabled De Beers to keep prices high for a commodity that is neither particularly scarce nor useful. If a competitor offered diamonds on the market outside of De Beers' central selling organization, De Beers would simply flood the market with similar stones, thus eliminating any pricing power the competitor might offer.