Beryl Raff has been chair and CEO of Helzberg Diamonds since 2009. Her incredible career includes executive roles at Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Zales, and now Helzberg. Last month, she announced she was retiring. Here, she talks with JCK about how she got her start, the ups and downs of her career, and eating Cheetos with Warren Buffett.
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you start in the jewelry industry?
My first job in jewelry was in 1972. I was Christmas management help at Emporium Capwell in San Francisco. That’s a long-gone department store. Maybe that was a forebear of what was to come.
Then, in 1983, I went to the jewelry department at Bamberger’s as the [district manager]. We were a little tiny business. With my amazing team, we grew it to what Macy’s ultimately became, a powerhouse in the industry.
In 1994, I become president of Zales Jewelers. I ultimately progressed until I became chairman and CEO of [Zale Corp.]. That was a turnaround situation, and, if I do say so myself, we very successfully turned that company around. And, in a boardroom brawl kind of thing, I got fired. Life isn’t always smooth and that’s not new news in the industry.
I went to J.C. Penney as part of the turnaround team. Jewelry [had been] rather fumbled, as all of Penney’s business were at the time. And if I do say so myself, I turned that business around, rather successfully.
In 2009, I got a phone call asking me if I would be interested in Helzberg Diamonds, [as] Warren Buffett was going to make a change. And my response was, “I don’t care if he hires me, just to have the opportunity to meet Warren Buffett would be beyond amazing. Of course I would be interested.”
That was on Thursday night. On Sunday morning, I was on a plane to Omaha where Mr. Buffett himself picked me up himself at the airport, behind the wheel of his car. And I spent the day with him, and over lunch, he offered me the job.
He asked me if I had any questions. And I recall saying, “Would I report directly to you?” He said, “No, you don’t report to anybody. It’s your company, you run it, you do what you think is right. You want to talk to me, give me a call.” That’s pretty much how it functions.
Have you reached out to him?
Maybe a couple of times a year.… If you pick up the phone and call Warren, he answers and gives you his undivided attention, regardless of how big or small the company you’re running is. On many occasions in my early years, I would call and ask him if I could come up present the year’s plan and my strategy, and always, he would say yes, and we would spend a good half a day together.
On several occasions, I asked him if he’d mind if I brought my team, and would he have lunch with my team and he always said yes. That’s a big thrill for anybody, having lunch with Warren Buffett. I think they just auctioned his last lunch for $19 million. So we’ve had many free lunches.
I can give you a little anecdote. I went to see him one time. And I got there early, and when I went into the cafeteria, I asked, “What are Mr. Buffett’s favorite cookies? I’ll be seeing him shortly.” And they said, “He loves Cheetos.” So, I bought two bags of Cheetos, and we sat in his office, each with a bag of Cheetos, drinking Cherry Coke, and getting our fingers yellow, and having our conversation.
When you took over at Helzberg, what opportunities did you see?
We had many opportunities here. We hadn’t defined a vision or a focus. My key focuses were the real estate portfolio, the condition of the stores, and the merchandising. Our selling organization has always been our great strength. But our portfolio needed an enormous amount of attention.
Helzberg is currently one of only two remaining jewelry chains with over 100 stores that isn’t part of Signet. Do you think there is room for a new mall jewelry store?
I would not think a new mall chain of jewelry stores would be a particularly good idea. The dynamic of the mall, particularly post-COVID, is very different than it was. There is a lot to still shake out on what malls are going be successful in the future, and which are not. I don’t think the time is now for another chain to come into play.
You were an early adopter of lab-grown diamonds. Are you surprised by how well they’ve done?
I am surprised by how well they’re doing. I have always been of the mindset that you need to try things; that’s why tests are invented, that’s why they exist. Until you try, you don’t know. We were a very very early adopter in testing loose stones in lab. Our feeling was the success would be color. We were dead wrong. We had some minor success with that, but not enough to continue on.
It was several years later that we ventured into it again, with finished jewelry and smaller stuff, and read what the consumer told us, and went from there. I think lab diamonds are here to stay and I think it’s a choice for the consumer to make, and it’s our job to educate them.… A lab diamond doesn’t say I love you any less than a mined diamond says I love you.
At J.C. Penney, you were successful with moissanite. Even though they are not the same product, did that inform your decision to start lab-grown?
With my moissanite experience, I made a decision to step out and try something, and it was a success. [With lab-grown diamonds], I knew there would be interest in the consumer side, because I had already lived it with moissanite.
I just saw a documentary which made it seem that lab-grown diamonds will eventually dominate natural diamonds. Do you believe that?
I think there will always be a place for both lab and mined. The industry is changing and there is disruption. If I go back to my beginnings in fine jewelry, pre-Argyle, we only sold SI goods, because that’s what there was, and 1 ct. cocktail rings were $1,000. Back in the day, that was the trend. When Argyle came around, they made diamonds affordable for everybody, and changed the industry significantly. What was popular, what was sold, what was merchandised changed.
Argyle is not producing those goods anymore. Lab exists where they didn’t. Maybe mined diamonds will go back to that more elevated space. There’s a lot of different ways that it could all play out. It’s still reasonably new. But there’s still a place for both.
Is there any accomplishment at Helzberg you are particularly proud of that perhaps hasn’t been well-publicized?
I am very proud of the overall organization, and where we have come from. In 2009, when I walked in the door, we hadn’t made a [comp] day in 10 years. We have come a tremendously long way from that. We have come through COVID with flying colors. We are a disciplined origination. We understand our mission. We are a well-oiled machine. I’m most proud of my people and my team. It takes a village, and we have a terrific village here.
When you think back to the beginning of the career, are you surprised how this all turned out?
Absolutely. If, in the beginning, someone said to me, “This is how your career is going to land,” I would have said, “What are you—crazy? That’s not going to happen. I’m going to live in the suburbs and have two kids and a credit card.” I would have never predicted this in a million years.
I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve had some luck along the way. I’ve also had some hard knocks along the way. But you learn from everything that happens to you.
That raises an interesting point. It’s now more common to see more women CEOs in this industry, but you were one of the first. Did that impede you?
I truly never felt that I ran into barriers, and I’m probably naive in that statement. When I was chairman and CEO of Zale Corp., in 2000, on the Fortune 1,000, I was the eighth or ninth or 10th female CEO.
I never ran into [someone saying], “God, you’re a female, you can’t do that.” And I never believed it myself.
Any advice for the industry?
In general, you need to have an open mind, need to be willing to see things from multiple perspectives. In the industry, there is something of a closed thought process. It isn’t up to us to decide what the customer wants. As long as we are always 100% open and transparent, and portray things as they are, then we need to be open-minded, and we need to take calculated risks.
Do you intend to stay involved in the industry?
I am staying on as nonexecutive chair at Helzberg, so I will still be involved, though not day-to-day. The industry has been my family for many years. It will always be near and dear to my heart. I have great friends that will continue to be my friends. I don’t know if I’d go to [trade shows] necessarily. But I wouldn’t be shocked if I show up at the 24 Karat Club dinner.…
The industry is full of wonderful people, and lots of creativity, and there’s very much a family feel. It’s a warm, welcoming place to do business, and to be involved in and to be part of. I appreciate every minute I have spent in it. It has shaped much of me. I have been in it since I was a kid. I am tearing up right now.
Do you have any immediate plans now that you’re retired?
My most immediate plan, is [Friday], my daughter-in-law is going to give birth to my first grandchild. And we’ll be on our way to meet that baby.
Photo courtesy of Helzberg Diamonds
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