Bringing Home the Basics

Terry Chandler, president and chief executive officer of the Diamond Council of America, Nashville, Tenn., has a passion for training and educating jewelers. That passion was forged through two decades of working in jewelry retail.

Chandler began his jewelry career with Michelson Jewelers, a Paducah, Ky.–based regional chain, in 1979. Starting as a trainee, Chandler moved up the ladder, managing stores, overseeing personnel, and even- tually becoming a partner in the company. At Michelson’s, Chandler was involved in virtually every aspect of the business.

In 2001, Chandler accepted the full-time role of president and CEO of DCA. He oversees day-to-day operations of this nonprofit organization, which serves as the industry’s “community college system” in providing basic courses and certification in diamonds and colored gemstones.

Chandler is active in many industry organizations. He served on the DCA board for 12 years before becoming president. He also is a member of the De Beers USA Carat Club, and serves as a board director of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee and Jewelers for Children. Chandler also sits on the advisory board of the Atlanta Jewelry Show, is a member of the 24 Karat Club of the Southeastern United States, and serves on the board and executive committee of that organization. In 1994, Chandler was inducted into Alpha Beta Kappa, the National Honor Society of DCA.

In an exclusive interview with JCK, Chandler discusses how his retail jewelry experience helped shape his career and prepared him for the role of running—and expanding—DCA.

JCK: How did you become involved in the jewelry industry?

TC: I was 30 years old with a wife and young child, running a small business in Tennessee. I decided to close it and look for another job. I had a friend who had a friend in the jewelry business—Michelson Jewelers, a family-owned four-store chain in Kentucky [where Chandler is from]. It sounded interesting, so I took the job in 1979, moved back to Kentucky, and started as a trainee working in a regional downtown store. Within six months, they were opening their first mall store, and they decided I was ready to run it. So I became the manager of that mall store. I ended up staying with them for almost 21 years, continually moving up—from store manager to supervisor, then senior vice president, and finally, an opportunity to buy an interest in the company as a partner.

JCK: What made you decide to pursue a career in jewelry?

TC: During the training process with Michelson’s, I found the jewelry business immediately exciting. It was glorious to deal with people during happy times. I loved the fact that I was able to help them mark the important, fun experiences of their lives with jewelry. Another thing that drew me to the business was a course I first took from DCA when I was a trainee. It really got me hooked on the industry.

JCK: What were some of the key things you took away from your retail experience?

TC: When I was with Michelson’s, I helped them grow from four to 12 stores. The last seven to eight years there, I was very focused on training, operations, and personnel. These are areas I am still focused on today. Michelson’s also was a DCA member, which introduced me to the organization. But the most valuable thing I got from my retail experience was my passion for the industry—it has been driven by my many years behind the counter of a mall store. It’s very hard, demanding work, and the people behind the counter deserve a chance to succeed. In order to do that, education and training is a must. With all the information the customer has access to today through the Internet, you have to be up to speed on your product knowledge and background of the business like never before.

JCK: What were the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your retail career?

TC: The most challenging thing was being able to find qualified people that wanted to invest the time to be successful. During my time at Michelson’s, I took a lot of seminars and courses and got to the point where I would work with groups of 10 to 15 at a time, training them to work in the store.

The most rewarding aspect was the excitement of the business, and working with customers behind the counter. Selling people beautiful items that brought them so much happiness was something I really loved. But I don’t miss the hours and grueling demands of retail.

JCK: How did your position with DCA evolve?

TC: I had been on the DCA board for 12 years and then was elected president. I was not satisfied with our courses and thought we could do more to serve people. So I went to the board and said we needed to rewrite our courses to make them more valuable, and also to invest the time and money necessary to be everything we could be. The board agreed, so I went to a friend involved in the American Gem Society and said I was looking for good writers to redo our courses. He referred us to Performance Concepts. We worked with them and other industry resources on updating our diamond course and colored-gemstone course and making them the best introductory programs in the industry. This was five years ago, and we just finished revising the courses again this year.

Our goal has always been to provide our students with the highest-quality introductory education at the most accessible price. We give them a six-month foundation on which to build upon. Many continue their education through GIA, AGS, DPS, and other organizations.

Back then, we had an association management company running the business. They had 20 to 30 schools they ran, and not just jewelry. I wasn’t convinced that we were doing all we could to help the students. So I told the board we needed someone that knows the industry, can put together a staff, and can work full time on taking DCA to the next level. Some of the board members came to me and asked me to take the job, and I said OK.

In January of 2001, we got 125 boxes of files from the management company and moved our headquarters from Kansas City, Mo., to Nashville, Tenn. I had a vision for expanding the organization and have worked hard since then to make it happen, but it really has been a group effort with the board. The members invested an inordinate amount of time to structure DCA properly and were extraordinarily concerned with giving students the highest-quality courses possible to set the stage for a successful career in jewelry retail. Our efforts have really paid off. I am proud of the fact that during my tenure, DCA has grown from 70 members representing 1,200 stores to over 200 members representing more than 4,000 stores.

JCK: How did your retail experience help you at DCA?

TC: After having spent more than 20 years in retail, I made a lot of industry contacts. My relationships from my retail days opened doors for DCA that we may not have had otherwise. The jewelry business is a relationship business. I made a lot of friends over a long period of time. This network of contacts helped me build our membership, and get the expertise, funding, resources, and background information we needed to grow the organization.

JCK: How do you view DCA’s role in the industry?

TC: Our role is to take the neophytes hired in the store with no jewelry experience and give them a solid base of product knowledge and independent certification. We also work with more experienced people who need a refresher course. I don’t see us in competition with any other educational organizations. We have our niche, they have theirs, and we have tremendous respect for what they do. We don’t have a gem lab, and we only have two courses: Diamonds and Colored Gemstones. We take responsibility with our students, making sure they have every chance to succeed. By giving them something to build on, we are helping to eliminate staff turnover, which is a major problem in this industry. If we give them a good background, they may do well, stay with a jewelry company, and make jewelry their career.

JCK: What do you see as DCA’s greatest challenge?

TC: The biggest challenge we face is fast growth. We need to serve more members, and maintain the same quality of service to them that we were able to provide as a smaller organization.

Another big challenge is getting people to finish the course while they are working. It can take a long time. That’s why our program focuses on distance education—we can teach them wherever they are, rather than requiring them to travel to a classroom. And we set standards when we started that require our network of instructors to get back to a student within 24 hours to grade and evaluate their tests so there are no delays.

Finally, cost is one of the biggest barriers to education in this industry. Because we are a nonprofit group, we can deliver our product at a price that’s not available anywhere else. Our challenge will be to maintain and even expand our range of services to a wider membership, and still keep costs down.

JCK: What are some of the new initiatives that DCA is considering?

TC: Over time, there is the possibility for collaboration with the other educational organizations. But I prefer to move slowly doing what we do well, rather than rushing into something we’re not fully prepared for.

We also are looking at offering a third course, but there are a lot of possibilities we need to consider before that can happen. We’re lucky to have a board that is very visionary, and I’m just trying to keep my finger on the pulse of the membership, so we can get something done quickly if we need to. We’re going right where we wanted to go. We’re offering basic courses to help people kick-start their careers.

The people I worked for at Michelson’s trained me and gave me the opportunity to go as far as I wanted to go. Through DCA, I can give something back to the industry and pay the family back for what they gave me when I was just starting out.