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Keep Korman Weird

Former street vendor becomes an upscale retail icon in Austin.

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Russell Korman Fine Jewelry Diamonds & Watches; Austin, TX

URL: russellkormanjewelry.com; OWNER: Russell, Hank and Monica Korman; FOUNDED: 1974; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2013; AREA: 6,200 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 11 full-time, 5 part-time; TOP BRAINDS: Rolex, Omega, Breitling, Roberto Coin, Ippolita, Marco Bicego, Raymond Weil, Tissot, Ritani, John Hardy; YELP RATING: 3 stars; GOOGLE: 3.7 stars; ALEXA GLOBAL TRAFFIC RANK: 6.9 million


WHEN UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS student Russell “Rusty” Korman began peddling African trade beads on the “Drag” in front of his school in the early 1970s, his aspirations were simple: Be his own boss, and make a profit. Today, he has the same goals, but he achieves them in a permanent, much larger space. Perhaps more important, he now shares the business with family: His brother, Hank Korman, the company’s vice president, and Hank’s wife Monica, who handles events and marketing.

Russell prefers to stick to diamond buying and cash flow, so when it came time to move into a new location after nearly 40 years in a smaller space with little parking, Hank and Monica were put in charge of finding the space and designing the store. “It’s the first jewelry store that Monica has designed,” says Hank proudly. “And Rusty was great; he gave us a pretty open budget.” The result is a far cry from that small table on the UT Drag.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Russell may have begun with beads back in 1974, but he soon added silver to the mix, and ultimately, after selling out of his apartment for a time, he moved into a true retail space in an early Austin mall. The store moved from mall to mall before eventually settling into a 4,200 square-foot space just north of downtown Austin. There, the store flourished, becoming known as the largest Swiss watch retailer in central Texas. But while his entrepreneurial spirit was strong, Russell never enjoyed the long hours. And he wanted to work with his brother, who lived in Dallas for many years. Eventually, Russell found a way to get Hank down to Austin and into the business.

“I was in commercial real estate for 30 years, but I was starting to become burned out,” Hank says. Russell knew an opportunity when he saw one, and so, about 15 years ago, he asked Hank, “Will you come help me in the store? We have a lot of customer service issues.”

“It was a trick,” laughs Hank. “We had almost zero customer service issues.”

Hank went to work in the showroom learning the watch business. Eventually, he eased into the role of vice president and began managing the store. He married Monica, who then brought energy, marketing know-how and a knack for networking into the business.

Cowboy Boots Encourage

Marble, tile, or carpeted floors might be cool in some parts of America. But in Texas, you’re not cool unless you’re a little bit country.

“At some point during the design process, I said, ‘If all we have are wood floors, I will be happy,’” says Monica. “When people walk through the door, I want to hear their cowboy boots hit the ground.”

And so, Hank and Monica agreed on a mesquite wood floor. While mesquite is native to Texas, the flooring company was unable to obtain it in the quantity needed in time to have the store ready for Christmas — so they went with Argentina mesquite instead, which offered the same quality at the same price.

The color of the custom-made showcases was matched to the darkest knotholes in the wood floor. Then, molding was added to the contemporary showcases to make them more traditional. The showcases are staggered slightly in the center aisle to make the space feel less modern.

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“The style in most jewelry stores these days seems to be contemporary modern,” says Monica. “But we fought our design team a little bit because we wanted something that was more like a throwback to the 1940s. We would go out and buy furniture for the store, and our designer finally said, ‘You know this is going to be a jewelry store, not an antique store!’ So there was a lot of compromise.”

In the Kormans’ minds, “traditional” meant something akin to an old library or bank in a small Texas town — but with the life and vitality of a jewelry store. In addition to the wood floors and fixtures, the store features a POS station that resembles a bank counter. Three of the store’s chandeliers are leather-strapped wrought iron. And molding is visible throughout the store on cases, columns, doors, windows and ceilings. Not to mention the tin ceiling and faux fireplace in the entryway.

“We splurged a little bit on the tin ceiling,” says Monica. “And we like to decorate the faux fireplace for the holidays. The entire entryway is supposed to make it feel like you’re walking into someone’s home.”

To add to that homey feeling, the right wall of the entryway is covered in old photos of the Korman family, including one of Russell and Hank’s grandfather. Other family pictures include Hank at Washington University in St. Louis, where his fraternity pledge father was Harold Ramis, who later co-wrote Animal House based partly on the brotherhood’s exploits. The left-hand wall features photos from the store charity events, including many with former Texas Longhorn coach Mack Brown and notable Longhorn football players. “We want customers to know who we are right away,” says Monica.

No Detail Left To Chance

As homey and comfortable as the store is, many practical issues have been addressed as well. The shop features three benches for jewelers, and there’s a separate “clean room” for the watchmaker to handle Rolex repairs. Six safes are scattered throughout the store, so that no thief could ever know exactly where to begin. “Our insurance company loves us,” laughs Hank.

Next to the watchmaker’s room at the back of the store is a break room for staff, which they never had in the old location, with storage space for each employee. Each principal and the accountant have offices, and then there’s what Hank calls “the largest executive bathroom on the planet,” which is also accessible to those with physical disabilities. The staff restroom features an antique scale and one of Hank’s special additions, an airblade-design hand jet dryer. (“It sounds like a jet plane taking off!” jokes Monica.)

To the side of the showroom, an elegant diamond office features pocket doors, a small refrigerator and blinds on the floor-to-ceiling windows. “Monica came up with the idea for these blinds, which was big,” he says of the semi-opaque blinds that allow in light while blocking Texas’ infamous summer heat.

All told, the Kormans were able to build their dream store without breaking their budget. Says Hank: “We recently talked about it, and after a year in the new space, there’s nothing we would change.”

PHOTO GALLERY (7 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Russell Korman Fine Jewelry Diamonds & Watches

1. GIVE IT AWAY NOW The Kormans are involved with more than 500 charities and have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. “Anytime we do an event, we always pair it with a charity, no matter what,” says Monica. “Whether it’s a watch show, a trunk show, or an autograph signing, we always have a charity involved. Ninety-five percent of the time, when a charity asks, we find something we can do.”

2. LONGHORN TIES When the University of Texas calls you to get the phone numbers of their former athletes, you know you’re doing something right. “We work with ex-players so often on charity events that we have all their contact information, so every so often, UT will call Monica and ask her to round up some players for an event,” laughs Hank. The store is the largest licensed University of Texas jewelry retailer in the country, having co-developed about 30 different Longhorn-related watches and a Roberto Coin diamond longhorn.

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3. RULERS OF REPAIR When Hank arrived at Russell Korman, repairs were a small part of the business, but he soon realized that he was staffed for more and that other jewelry stores didn’t want the business. With three excellent watchmakers and a jeweler on staff, it made perfect sense, especially during the recession. “We’ll do $600,000 in repairs this year,” he says. “We do about 5,000 repairs a year because no one else wants to do it.”

4. COMMISSION-FREE The Kormans want clients to enjoy a no-pressure environment, so when it comes to paying their salespeople, they use salary, not commission. “If we have one fault, it’s that we’re laid back in asking for the sale,” says Hank. “But we like that. Yes, some customers like to be pressured to make that buying decision, but we don’t do that.”

5. OLD-FASHIONED ROOTS In addition to the old-timey feel of the showroom itself, the Kormans have infused authenticity and integrity into each customer’s buying experience through touches like handwritten receipts and a casual dress code. The entrance also features a sign that reads, “Hats Welcome. Dress Casual.”

Try This

For athletes who have finished their careers at the local university, invite them to sign autographs for charity at your store — and give them all the credit for the money raised. This looks good on their resumes, and they’ll draw traffic to your store.

Trace Shelton is the editor-in-chief of INSTORE magazine. He can be reached at trace@smartworkmedia.com.

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