‘Things That Sparkle’

For Barbara Hight-Randall, president and co-owner of Hight & Randall Ltd. Personal Jeweler in Rochester, Minn., has always had a passion for jewelry.

But unlike most jewelers, her passion did not develop while growing up in the family’s jewelry business. A first-generation jewelry store owner, Hight-Randall initially learned her craft on the training side of the industry before making the move to retail.

After a 10-year career as a horse trainer, the Rochester native moved west to enroll in the Gemological Institute of America’s on-campus educational program, where she earned her graduate gemologist certificate in 1984.

Following a short stint in jewelry retail, Hight-Randall accepted an instructor position with GIA, where she worked from 1986 to 1988.

She then moved on to the Diamond Promotion Service as Midwest marketing director. Hight-Randall worked for DPS until 1995, when she decided to open her own retail store with her husband, Randy. She has since become one of the most successful and well-respected retailers in the industry.

Hight-Randall’s store is a member of the American Gem Society, and she holds the organization’s highest title, Certified Gemologist Appraiser. She has been a frequent presenter, instructor, and keynote speaker to the industry and many local service groups. Hight-Randall also serves on the national board of directors of Jewelers of America and is a member of the Minnesota Jewelers Association, the Downtown Rotary Club, and many community organizations.

In an exclusive interview with JCK, Hight-Randall discusses how her educational/training background with GIA and DPS helped pave her road to retail success.

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

BHR: I don’t have a family background in the jewelry business. I got into it because I love things that sparkle, and I was always drawn to the miracle of finding something in the ground that can be fashioned into something beautiful that speaks to people.

JCK: How did you start out in the jewelry business?

BHR: I had always loved horses and had run a profitable horse-training business for 10 years, but it just wasn’t who I was. One day I had an epiphany and decided to try working in a local jewelry store in Rochester, Minn., to see if I liked it. But I hated it. I found I wouldn’t be able to make a living in the jewelry business without having some education behind me. So I sold my horse business, drove out to Arizona, enrolled in GIA, and attended the school there. I was the only person in the class without a jewelry background, so I knew I had to really study and memorize everything. But it was a wonderful experience.

JCK: How did you get involved on the training side with GIA?

BHR: After graduating from GIA, I went to work for a retail jeweler with a small store in Boulder, Colo. I did everything, from sales and buying to working with vendors. Yet here I was, a graduate gemologist, and I realized I didn’t know anything about the retail side of the business. As it turned out, GIA called me and asked me to come out to California and teach as part of the Extension division [distance education]. I thought it was a great opportunity, so I accepted the position. I traveled throughout the United States, Canada, and even to Hong Kong, teaching diamond grading, gem identification, colored-stone grading, and appraising. I did that for almost two years, meeting jewelers who came to learn about gemology to better run their stores. It was a wonderful experience.

JCK: What were the key things you took away from your GIA experience?

BHR: I really developed my communication skills at GIA. I also developed my presentation and creative skills. Through the Extension division, I got to go to trade shows and help GIA Gem Instruments sell equipment. It seemed natural to me to sell the same equipment to jewelers that I was teaching them with, and I was the highest-producing instructor in terms of sales.

JCK: Why did you make the move to DPS?

BHR: My plan was to go back to Rochester and open my own little store. But before I could do that, I met Art Stiever, who was with DPS at the time. He told me I should apply for his job and invited me to come to New York for an interview. I wanted to settle down and be part of a community, but I met with DPS and realized that this was an opportunity that might never come around again. So I took the position.

JCK: What were your responsibilities at DPS?

BHR: I still lived in Rochester, but I was the Midwest regional director in charge of nine states. I traveled 48 weeks a year, helping jewelers increase their diamond business through the resources De Beers had available for them. I did a lot of speaking at trade shows and conventions, meeting with jewelers from all over the country. Then I would visit them in their stores and discuss partnering up with them to help increase their diamond sales. I also did a great deal of international travel. I was with DPS for eight years. I worked with many large jewelers, like Borsheim’s, Helzberg, and Henry Birks, and I also worked with small independent jewelers. But the independents presented the greatest challenge. While the chain stores were very advanced technologically, and they had people dedicated to training, independent store owners tended to be older, 55 to 60 years old, and they weren’t very technologically savvy. I wasn’t seeing enough young people coming into the business.

JCK: What were the main things you took from your DPS experience, and how did it differ from GIA?

BHR: At GIA, you had to teach a specific curriculum. At DPS, they gave you the message and the script, and you had to present it in a creative way. DPS also allowed me to expand my public-speaking skills and gave me a much larger audience. I made wonderful contacts at both positions, but they were different at DPS—in addition to meeting with retailers, I also met with manufacturers, dealers, and diamond cutters. I also learned about advertising and marketing from the experts at DPS.

JCK: What made you finally open your own store?

BHR: When I was teaching at GIA, I met Randy, my husband, who was in my class. He was from the Minneapolis area [Edina]. We kept up our interaction, which was professional at first, and I visited his store while I was at DPS. Our relationship developed; we fell in love and decided to get married. By then, he had sold his store and was working for GIA ARMS [Advanced Retail Management Systems]. Both of our positions required a lot of travel, and we felt the travel just wouldn’t work for us as a married couple. So he left GIA and I left DPS, and we decided to open a jewelry store in my hometown of Rochester, which we felt could benefit from the upscale, professional establishment we envisioned. [The couple celebrated their store’s 10th anniversary in September.]

JCK: How did your training experience help you as a retailer?

BHR: DPS and GIA allowed me to acquire the product knowledge I didn’t have. I also developed my public-speaking skills, which I have used making presentations at trade shows, before community groups, and for various promotions and events. Of course, I had a chance to make great contacts in all areas of the industry and learn from some of the greats, like Richard Liddicoat. Also, by meeting so many different jewelers, I was able to take away many things from their businesses that I incorporated into my own. For instance, Rogers & Hollands always called its customers “guests.” I took that. Harold Tivol always said to “make your customers your friends first, and the sales will come.” That also went into my hat. When I saw the details of a dirty, messy store, I vowed that my own store would always be neat and clean. I brought back so many bits and pieces to my store from other jewelers.

JCK: What was the biggest challenge in moving from an educational/training career to a retail one?

BHR: Of course, my previous experience owning a horse-training business taught me a number of things that helped me in jewelry retail, such as not being afraid to sell something that costs a lot of money, how to talk to people of all backgrounds, the importance of working hard and doing your homework, the importance of presentation, and other details of running a business. But that old saying about walking a mile in my shoes is very true. Running my own jewelry business after so many years working with retailers on the training side was a revelation. I learned about the importance of cash flow and the responsibilities you have when you hire people to work for you. I also realized why, as a trainer, you could work closely with jewelers, capture their attention away from the store, and get them to understand and accept that they needed to change—yet when they came back to the store, they never followed through. Independents wear so many hats, they often just don’t have the time to implement these changes. I never learned more than I did as a jewelry store owner.

JCK: What initial retail strategies you implemented have helped drive your success over the years?

BHR: Although we started our business on a shoestring, we had tremendous support from our vendors and customers right from the beginning, and those relationships have only strengthened. Also, we recognized we needed to develop our own niche, so we targeted professionals in the community with upscale products and services such as exceptional diamonds and colored stones, designer jewelry, custom design, and appraisals. Although we started with a very small store, we leased space in an old building to make us look like we’d been in business for a long time. We bought the property around us, which has allowed us to expand several times and control who is next door. When we started out, we wore every hat and sold every category, but we eventually did away with things that took too much time and effort and didn’t turn, such as baby gifts.

Finally, we made a conscious effort from the beginning to be as technically proficient as possible. We computerized our business, became members of Polygon, which gave us great diamond contacts, and implemented a CAD [computer-aided design] system, which allowed us to “speak the language” of the IBM professionals here. Technology has helped us do things better, faster, and quicker and has saved us a lot of money over the years.