STORY BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND
Retail isn’t a bed of roses (as you may well know). So, when everything seems to fall apart due to a divisive divorce, a lousy location, an irrational customer or a quitting manager whom you treated like family, how do busy business owners carry on? Half a dozen jewelers share what they learned and how they bounced back from career-threatening crises.
Listen To Your Gut and Ask For Help
Andrea Riso’s store, Talisman Collection in El Dorado Hills, CA, had not been open very long when a couple came in looking for an expensive ring.
Riso learned later that the husband had had an affair and the wife was demanding recompense — in the currency of gold and diamonds.
“The husband was extremely on edge, but he was in the position where he had to buy her a ring, a much bigger diamond than she already had. The husband wanted to go with a high-quality smaller stone, but the wife wanted the highest quality and also a very large stone,” Riso recalls.
The husband was sweating, pacing and frequenting the restroom. The wife was in a foul mood.
They came in six or seven times before making a decision. Each visit was by appointment; they didn’t seem able to come to the store during regular hours. “I thought no way can a person be this nasty and weird and contrarian,” she says of the wife.
Riso says she explained in detail the difference between an EGL and a GIA report.
“The wife seemed to want a GIA stone for an EGL price and that’s not a thing,” Riso says. “Through the entire transaction, I kept thinking, at what time do you tell the customer you can’t help them?”
But ultimately she sold them a very large, very expensive diamond in a custom setting. The diamond was EGL certified as a D. Inclusions were artfully hidden under the prongs, and to the naked eye it was a very beautiful ring, Riso says.
When he picked it up, the husband said he loved it. But the wife took it to a local appraiser, who judged it — by GIA standards — two or three grades lower than the EGL cert. “The wife immediately threatened me with a lawsuit and a bad review on Yelp if I didn’t take the ring back for a full refund,” Riso says. “And I had already paid my rent and my bank loan with their money.”
“I was so blindsided because she had approved the diamond. I had told them ‘no refunds’ 100 times.”
When Riso called the appraiser, whom she knew, to ask for advice, the appraiser said Riso would have to return the diamond to the dealer and give the couple a refund for everything except the custom work on the setting. The appraiser also told Riso something she took to heart: “The minute you start to doubt the customer, you need to walk the sale.”
Riso says that without seeking advice, she never would have known that she could return a diamond to the dealer. The dealer wasn’t thrilled, of course, but agreed to take the diamond back, which led to a longstanding working relationship with Riso.
Riso refunded nearly $50,000 to the couple.
The return was such a blow to her business that she thought she’d have to close. Instead, she sent out an email to her entire mailing list saying, “If you want to see us here, we need business from you!”
“A lot of people came out and spent money. It was so scary and humiliating on a lot of levels, but I was absolutely at that point going to close.” The plea for help worked and Riso is in business five years later.
“It was absolutely the most resonating lesson I ever learned. No. 1, trust your gut, and No. 2, reach out for help. Ask your peers for advice.”
Training Can Turn Things Around
Peter Stavrianidis of Venus Jewelers in Somerset, NJ, says that when his sister decided to semi-retire to Florida, he suffered sleepless nights. “It caused tremendous headaches for me,” he relates. His sister had been the main sales producer responsible for about 80 percent of sales.
He stepped up to the challenge by creating a new culture focused on training. He created systems for everything. He started reading books and drawing from his own knowledge, while also seeking training from outside sources. “For a few years, I would be gone a few days a month, training with different people. I would come back and create templates for just about everything. Since then I’ve seen positive changes, higher income, and a very well-trained group of people.”
The closing ratio went up, too. “We have tremendous competition, especially from the Internet. There are rumors that this is the end of brick and mortar stores. I disagree with that. I think we just have to change the way of doing business. Millennials will still look for places to receive education. It’s up to us when they come to our store to create such an experience that they wouldn’t even think of buying a product over the Internet.
“I believe that we are in a noble profession. True professionals can make a difference, and that’s what I’m striving for.”
He’s also spoken at the AGS Conclave and IJO conferences and teaches business management, leadership and team-development courses occasionally at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
When Stavrianidis changed his approach to his business, he was driven by necessity, but there’s no reason to wait for a wake-up call, he says.
“The message here is that it would be nice for business people not to wait for an emergency to make a change. I wish I had taken these types of measures years earlier. But you know something? It’s better late than never.”
Family Heightens Level of Trust
When a key employee quit one day without notice, Mark Snyder of Snyder Jewelers in Weymouth, MA, was devastated. There was no one waiting in the wings to fill her shoes, and he had invested heavily in her training and advancement.
“It really rocked me to my core and I was pretty upset,” he says. “I had done years of training with her, paid for her GIA extension courses, paid her well and even extended her some extra hours and pay when her family got in a bind.”
His business was too small to pass along her duties to another staff member.
“So for a couple of weeks, I was unsure how the future of my business was going to play out,” he says. “Then I realized that it was me who built my business and it will carry on regardless of who I bring in or don’t bring in. I’ve done every job from emptying the trash to buying the diamonds to designing jewelry.”
His much-younger sister, Tiffany Ferrini, was already working for him. As she gained more experience, she became the store manager.
But he also turned to his wife, Suzanne Snyder, a physical therapist, for help.
“I said, ‘I should just hire you.’ We used to joke around about it, but we hadn’t been really serious. Her career and benefits had supported our lifestyle while I built the business to a great point. I always knew she could carry us if I made a mistake or had a downturn.” But she was ready for a change, the business was well-established, and it’s been a great fit, he says.
Working closely with his family has made his life easier. “Who do you trust more than your wife and your sister?” he says.
They work full time and bring in occasional part-time helpers, including a niece.
“We made lemonade out of what I really thought would be a devastating occurrence,” Snyder says. “It wasn’t easy at the time, but it does give you confidence going forward.”
It’s the Bottom Line That Really Matters
For Linda Brown of Heritage Jewelers in Shelbyville, TN, her 2010 divorce was a turning point.
“Our store had been his dream, but I had been working and learning the business since we opened in 1985. He said he was burned out and didn’t want to continue.”
So she took over. The store had a lot going for it. It's on the historic Shelbyville Square in a 150-year-old building oozing with character. She also has two loyal employees who have worked with her for 10 to 12 years.
On the down side, inventory and debt were out of control at the time of the divorce.
“I took on a store with tremendous debt, and have kept it alive and successful,” Brown says. Revenues were up 10 percent in 2016, debt is paid off and inventory and staffing are tightly controlled now. While her husband was every sales rep’s favorite customer because he bought something whenever they visited, she is more interested in buying selectively.
“I cut expenses and stopped overbuying. Our sales volume is lower than when my ex-husband was involved and running promotional fliers for every holiday, but my profit margin is higher. I have learned that volume does not always equal success; the bottom line is what really matters.
"I run a smaller, more profitable operation with only two employees, instead of six or seven.”
Don’t Let Anyone Say You Can’t Do It!
Lori Roy, owner of Jozach Jewelers in Claremont, NH, says she has been through hell and back in the past decade and came out on the other side with her own jewelry store.
“I’ve been through a divorce, lost everything,” she says. “But in a matter of seven years, I rebuilt my personal life and my career.”
In 2006, she owned a florist shop and she and her husband owned a jewelry store. But when they split up, her finances fell apart. He got custody of the jewelry store, she lost her home, and she had a daughter in high school to support on her own for nearly a year before they went to court. In order to make ends meet, she worked as an event planner while trying to keep her florist shop afloat. “I was working two jobs, seven days a week, 18 hour days, constantly, for a year. I hung in there somehow for 10 months before our first court date.” Eventually, she was forced to close her florist business. She continued to work as an event planner, but became totally discouraged when her daughter called her at work at 3 a.m. one day to tell her their apartment had flooded.
“When we finally went to court, I was able to breathe a little bit,” she says. “But I was playing catch up all the time.”
Determined to get back into the jewelry industry, she was hired by Pearce Jewelers in West Lebanon, NH. “That was the beginning of thinking, ‘OK, I think this is going to work!”
Still, life wasn’t simple. She had an hours-long commute for two years till her daughter graduated from high school. She managed Pearce Jewelers for six years and married again. Her daughter, Jordan, graduated from the GIA and encouraged Lori to open her own store. She gave her notice in March 2015 and by May, her store in Claremont, NH, was open.
“If you set your mind to a dream that you have, and it’s something that you know in your heart of hearts that you want to pursue, because it’s what you worked for your whole life, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. You never want to wake up and say, ‘Wow, I wish I would have …’”
Give It One More Shot
Stew Brandt of H. Brandt Jewelers in Natick, MA, was close to bankruptcy 15 years ago. The business was suffering from a lousy location and another economic downturn. He thought about going out of business, but he couldn’t find a job in the industry that he thought he could live with.
The problem began when the mall that housed his business was sold and he had only 90 days to move out. He decided quickly on a strip-center location, which worked well for a while. Then the dot.com bust came along and dot.com millionaires no longer had disposable income. “I honored my lease and did my best to keep my head above water,” he says.
After much soul searching, he and his wife decided they’d give it one more try.
“I was in so much debt anyway, it didn’t matter if I went into more debt to do another buildout and try to save the business.”
When a rare spot in downtown Natick, his hometown and a suburb of Boston, became available, he grabbed it. The store is in a building built in 1864 with 170 year-old oak floors, exposed brick walls and a 900-foot showroom.
“My wife was working full time at the time, and she kept us going, so we took the shot. Today it’s great, it’s wonderful. I am no longer in debt, and my youngest child will graduate college in May. We managed to educate all of our children and have a reasonable life and a good business, and we look forward to a few more years on to retirement.”
Faith, Staff & Family Bring Healing
Life has left Debbie Barnhardt with one shattering loss after another since 2008, when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. As his disease progressed, she had to leave her business, Barnhardt Jewelers in Spencer, NC, with her staff while she cared for him until he died in 2010.
Her sister, for whom she had cared for years, too, died three months later as a result of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“I went to the Bible book store and got the book Hope Found In Paradise Lost. The author, LuAnn Grambow, turned out to be a Christian therapist, who counseled me through the grief.”
She lost her mother in 2013. Finally, a child of a friend that she had mentored and employed in the store committed suicide in 2015. And Barnhardt found the body.
It seemed like the last straw. She suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and didn’t think she could go on.
“It was like I’d get up and a wave would knock me down again,” she says. “The suicide just about drowned me.”
But the power of prayer pulled her through. In a way, her business has become a ministry, she says. “I stop and pray with people who are hurting.”
Meanwhile, her son, Josh, who has an MBA, concentrated on the nuts and bolts of business management.
“I had lost my dreams when my husband died. But Josh came in, computerized everything and taught me how to set up systems. He modernized the business.” Barnhardt relied heavily on her staff, who stepped in and made the business work during her extended absences. “My bench jeweler, who has been with me 20 years, is my biggest mentor and my prayer partner. My office manager is the most organized person I’ve ever met.
“I learned it’s not about me any more. I would like to be remembered not for a beautiful ring I made for someone, but for what I have done to help someone through their pain.”