Advisory boards aren’t just for big businesses. In 1995, first-generation jewelers Kathy and Gary Bigham had ambitious plans to open a store but needed some help with key management decisions. A trusted CPA told the couple to form an advisory board that would function as a sounding board for everything from accounting to advertising. Over the years board members have become vital advisors to Bigham Jewelers, a successful business in a large, palatial location operating in an affluent market (Naples, Fla.).
“Our CPA is a tough, very driven man who at that time set a goal for us to be profitable from the first year forward,” says Kathy. “Being successful from year one would require some help. That’s when he suggested we form an advisory board.”
Fortunately for the Bighams, Naples is a popular destination for retired executives. That was one of the first things the couple learned about the city when they decided to do business there in the mid-1990s.
Key areas where the Bighams needed advice were marketing, merchandising, banking, accounting, and retailing; they declared experts from inside and outside the gem and jewelry industry welcome. As money matters rule the roost for most store owners, Kathy’s first advisory board member contact was a banker, a business acquaintance of the couple’s CPA.
Kathy’s modus operandi from that first lunch meeting established a sound strategy for networking with professionals who could help her and her husband grow their jewelry business. Kathy remembers the first advisory board member lunch meeting back in 1995—the year the Bighams opened their 2,800-square-foot store—like it happened yesterday.
“Paying for a meal was always my way of letting then potential and eventually existing board members know how much I appreciate their time,” says Kathy. “I’d bring whatever documents, files, or dossiers were required to get the advice needed. These lunch or dinner meetings helped us not only determine if we were on the right path with certain business decisions, but also helped me identify people that would make up the store’s small advisory board.”
As beginner’s luck would have it, Kathy’s first lunch meeting with her CPA’s banker friend proved to be quite fruitful. She shared key business plans and financial statements with him and walked away with a solid advisory board member in mind and a contact for a friend of the banker’s, a woman who was a former Tiffany’s executive. She had worked with the famed jewelry retailer for many years and could give Kathy and Gary loads of useful advice.
Kathy and Gary Bigham (left) and members of their staff
During her lunch with the former Tiffany’s exec, Kathy discovered that the key area where this new contact could help most was merchandising. As always, Kathy’s meetings with advisory board members ended with a request for another networking contact to fill another advisory board position. Through this individual Kathy got to know a former Fortune 100 executive with an extensive marketing background.
“This was huge for us,” says Kathy. “Marketing is always a challenge whether you’re an established or new business. And this gentleman’s input was invaluable in growing our business. He also had a lot of ‘big picture’ business advice for us, giving us a larger, more impartial view of our business.”
The former Tiffany’s executive also offered another key suggestion. Kathy, who was born and raised in the Midwest, had purchased a lot of the store’s initial inventory to match tastes that she knew from that region of the country. “I quickly learned that I needed to start carrying jewelry and watches people in Naples wanted to buy,” says Kathy. “She also provided me with jewelry display and visual merchandising advice.”
Kathy’s star search started well, but not every contact resulted in a winner. As board members were evaluated each year, some stayed on while others moved on. And a good number of lunch or dinner meetings didn’t result in a business connection. In assessing potential advisory board members, Kathy and Gary had to be able to take praise along with constructive criticism and dish it out.
Bigham Jewelers’ store front
The goal each year was to have six to eight board members advising Kathy and her husband in key areas of the couple’s jewelry business. The agreement to be an advisory board member was an informal, verbal one. The board met each month in the store’s conference room. And in the week leading up to the monthly meetings agendas were circulated and meeting goals were established.
Advisory board members would arrive at 6:30 p.m. The group would socialize and dine for about an hour then get down to business. “Some meetings were neatly wrapped up by around 9 p.m, while other meetings went much later, sometimes until 10 or 11 at night,” says Kathy.
Bigham Jewelers’ showroom
Compensation for board members was discounts on jewelry and watches similar to price breaks employees get. “I did this for the first year and then in the second year I gave them $100 each month plus the jewelry discounts,” says Kathy. “But all of them came to me and said, ‘Keep the money, the dinner and the discounts are fine.’”
In looking back at more than 15 years as jewelry store owners, the best piece of advice Kathy and Gary received from their board members came in their first year in business. Open just nine months in their first store, their advisory board pushed hard for the couple to become authorized Rolex dealers.
“We were hesitant at first,” says Kathy. “We hadn’t even been in business for a year. And we didn’t have the cash flow or working capital to buy into the brand even if we were made authorized Rolex dealers. Still, the advisory board pushed us and encouraged us to find the money somehow.”
Rolex watches helped grow Bigham Jewelers’ business
Beginner’s luck once again smiled on the young couple. Allen Brill, who eventually became Rolex Watch USA’s CEO, was then a regional sales manager whose territory included Florida.
“Allen listened to our presentation, reviewed the numbers and simply smiled at us and closed the meeting by saying, ‘Rolex is going to help you grow your business to become a big success in Naples.’ And he was right.” (Brill, sadly, died in November.)
The advisory board monthly meetings lasted about five years. Kathy and Gary didn’t outgrow the board’s advice. The need for monthly coaching simply changed as the couple and their business matured. Active with a number of charities and nonprofits as part of their community outreach efforts, the Bighams also networked with a number of local business leaders as board members of charity groups, which supplemented advice from the advisory board.
Advisory board members since the first meeting in 1995 still meet with Kathy and Gary, but these days,“it’s more of a one-on-one exchange,” says Kathy. “Over the years I’ve networked with a lot of prominent business leaders and know who to tap for advice when I need it. In addition to exchanging business advice over a good meal, I also send along nice items from our extensive giftware department on birthdays or anniversaries or I send out a bouquet of flowers in the event a jewelry purchase isn’t in the cards for them. It works out well for everyone.”