Woody Justice wanted to be the jeweler to every person in Springfield, Mo. But in looking back at the 30 years he spent as the owner of Justice Jewelers, he was the jeweler to many of his retail peers and colleagues in the gem and jewelry industry.
In honoring Justice’s memory and life’s work, I had an exclusive interview with Joe Romano, president of Scull and Co., a jewelry retail consulting company that helped grow Justice’s jewelry retail business starting in the late 1980s. Romano is one of three protector trustees of Justice’s estate, along with Gary Cunningham, a lawyer and old college roommate of Justice’s, and Gary Wortman, a CPA who worked with Justice for many years. “We’re three people that make one CEO,” says Romano.
Romano spoke weekly with Justice, but the last time he saw him face-to-face was in late May. Romano met with Justice for an extended business trip to New York. During that time Romano cooked his long-time friend a down-home Italian dinner, complete with Italian sausages, beefy meatballs, and a main entrée of rigatoni. A bottle of Sassicaia, a “super Tuscan red wine,” according to Romano, was uncorked. It was the type of meal that was sure to please Justice’s penchant for fine food and good wine.
“At the time Woody looked great,” says Romano. “He’d lost some weight and was working out with a personal trainer three times a week, and was closely watching his diet.” Considering Justice’s good health, the stroke that claimed the 62-year-old’s life at his home on Oct. 24, came as a terrible shock to family, friends, and colleagues. “There were no signs that this was coming,” says Romano. “It was a total surprise.”
The suddenness of Justice’s death made his passing all the more difficult for those close to him. He’ll always be remembered as a humble, matter-of-fact man who worked hard and diligently to own a 10,000-square-foot super store with annual sales reaching $10 million.
But success was hard-earned for Justice. And even when he hit pay-dirt, it was never about the money. For him, it was always about his unwavering and infectious passion for gemstones and fine jewelry.
Justice grew up in the small North Texas town of Chillicothe. His father was a pig farmer who later joined his brother’s pharmacy business. Justice worked in the family pharmacy as a young boy alongside his father and his uncle. These were the years that formed Justice’s business acumen, when his father would “whack me in the back of my head” when customers weren’t treated right, as Justice tells the tale in the Justice Jewelers’ story video.
The Justice Jewelers story video has received more than 6,800 unique views.
Justice left home in 1967 to attend Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He majored in business with additional studies in finance and marketing. Even with this solid business-related knowledge, Justice couldn’t ignore his childhood fascination with rocks. Known throughout his life as a “rock hound,” Justice took gemology courses at GIA after college and later became an instructor at the institute’s New York City facility.
Starting Out in Springfield
He worked there for many years and decided to move to Springfield, Mo. The city originally had no special meaning for Justice. “it just seemed like a nice place to live,” says Romano. “Moving there in 1980 was a fairly random choice for him and his family.”
In 1982, Justice opened a small office where he sold fine diamonds and colored stones. He struggled at first, but eked out a living and eventually made enough profits to open a small corner store in a strip mall in 1984. Justice later met Roy Williams, who at that time “dabbled in marketing,” says Romano. Meeting Williams was a pivotal moment for Justice, as Williams later founded the Wizard of Ads.
Strapped for cash and with only a modest marketing budget, Williams convinced Justice to heavily invest in radio ads and to be his own store’s spokesperson. To conserve marketing dollars, Williams instructed Justice to take the “late night, date night” radio time slots (late Thursday evening through Sunday night). As many now know, Justice had a natural radio voice that allowed him to successfully brand himself and his store with the young bridal demographic tuning in during those late radio-listening hours.
The Multi-Million Dollar Store
Justice’s business soon grew in stature, volume, and sales. To advance his business, Justice created a committee comprised of Romano and Wortman. The group met for the first time in 1988. The goal of the group was to help Justice’s business grow, and expand on the sales potential the committee saw in the Springfield market. (The group formally met with Justice for the last time in April).
During the Christmas season of 1994 Justice hit his goal, becoming a multi-million-dollar store. The committee then worked with Justice to achieve an audacious goal: becoming a $10 million store. Romano recalls the day in early 1995 when the three friends drove around Springfield looking for possible sites to break ground on a superstore. A plot of land on top of a hill showed great promise.
“This location had great visibility and road traffic,” says Romano. “And being on Highway 65, everyone travelling to Branson [a popular tourist destination] would pass by his store.”
Justice opened his superstore in 1996. The committee estimated he’d do $4 million in sales his first year. To the shock and surprise of everyone, Justice and his staff had a $5 million year. “His staff doused him in champagne,” says Romano. “After that, his business grew like a weed.”
When Justice opened the superstore, he continued to be the spokesperson out of necessity. His genuine folksy delivery gave birth to the now famous “I want to be your jeweler” tagline. After that success, Justice worked tirelessly to expand his business, never afraid to take chances and innovate.
The Industry’s Jeweler
Open-minded and willing to take advice from anyone, Justice had a unique management style. His famous “wokka, wokka” diamond ads stemmed from watching Sesame Street on TV with his young daughters. He’d often meet with his staff, constantly asking how to improve customer service. A female staffer, several months pregnant, suggested Justice put in a drive-through pick-up window. And to make things easier on mothers, he did just that. He also created an in-store children’s playroom that is perhaps one of the largest and most creative play spaces of its kind for a retail jewelry store in the country.
His staff will always remember Justice for taking the time to listen to their suggestions and acknowledge their experience in the constant quest to improve customer service. But Justice had a no-nonsense side to him. “His passion for what he did made him a bit of a perfectionist,” says Romano. “He was always very specific about what he wanted people to do, and expected people around him to do exactly as he instructed them, and on time.”
Woody Justice sorting through a diamond parcel during a 2007 buying trip to Jaipur, India
If work wasn’t done to Justice’s expectations, people around him knew it. “He had a way of wearing his glasses down his nose, then looking up and saying, ‘mmm, hmm,’” says Romano. “That’s when people knew he wasn’t happy. He always strived for excellence and never, ever settled for mediocrity.” Customers never saw this side of Justice. “They loved him based on his genuineness and passion,” says Romano. But as Justice’s superstore grew, he needed to work on his business, and not in it, so customers saw him mainly on TV ads.
Justice eventually reached his goal of becoming a $10 million store. But the money never mattered to him, and the success never went to his head, according to Romano and other members of the store’s committee. His life was more than just an incredibly successful business. “Woody’s three greatest accomplishments in life were the many lives he impacted with his passion for this business, his two incredible daughters whom he loved dearly and became successes in their own rights, and being a trail blazer,” says Romano.
One such pioneering practice was never charging for watch battery changes. Justice changed watch batteries for free and asked customers to make donations to Camp Barnabas, a charity for handicapped children that Justice supported throughout his career.
Woody Justice, bass fishing: destination unknown (the way he liked it)
In the wake of Justice’s passing, Romano, Wortman, and Cunningham will keep the business going as usual. All ads featuring Justice’s well-known “I want to be your jeweler” tagline have been pulled off the air. In their place, staff members are the ones saying it. “Our goal is to honor Woody’s request of keeping his business and his legacy going,” says Romano. “Right now, we’re just concentrating on getting through a demanding fourth quarter. In 2012, we’ll review and reevaluate the business to see what needs to happen next year and beyond.”
In looking back at the many years he called Justice a friend, Romano says he will always remember: Justice’s love of good food and wine; his collection of fine art; the fact that he was a traditionalist who enjoyed engaging in political debates; his passion for fishing in remote destinations in Canada and Mexico; and, of course, his favorite (and only) piece of jewelry, a two-tone steel and gold Rolex watch.