Last week, Ben Bridge Jeweler announced that its president, Lisa Bridge (pictured, right), would take over as CEO on Feb. 1, succeeding her father Ed (pictured, left). Ed Bridge has headed the company since 1990, mostly as co-CEO with cousin Jon (who retired last year).
Here, Ed and Lisa Bridge talk with JCK about both the past and future, including the company’s new store design, what advice Ed gave his daughter, and why Warren Buffett doesn’t sign people to contracts.
JCK: How should we view this transition?
Ed Bridge: This is not a sudden decision. We have been in business for 106 years. We have always thought a lot about transitions. We have great people in the company and in the past, we have transitioned the business well and thoughtfully. So my grandfather Ben Bridge turned the business over to his sons, Bob and Herb, aged 23 and 29. They took the business where Ben couldn’t have and didn’t want to. They could relate to the consumer of the day.
They turned the business over to me and Jon, when I was 34 and Jon was 40. We built on the foundation that they had laid, which was a solid foundation.
It was always in both of our minds that we would not stick around too long and overstay our welcome. You want to relate to the consumer, and that’s easier if you are in that age bracket. And you want to be open to new ideas and have the energy and passion to grow the business.
We wanted to leave when the business was strong and in good shape and we wanted a successor who you’d have faith in and is ready to take over.
So this is something we have been talking about for about the past five years. This is not a surprise to me or to Lisa. Clearly, [owner] Berkshire Hathaway had to make the decision. We discussed it with [Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett] and talked about different options, and he picked Lisa to be the new CEO.
Lisa became president and chief operating officer a year ago. All the operating units started reporting directly to her instead of me over the last year. I’ve been down to two direct reports: Lisa and our chief financial officer. So now I’m down to zero. It was really important that the transition be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
For the last two generations, Ben Bridge has had co-CEOs. Lisa, do you feel any trepidation doing the job on your own?
Lisa Bridge: I’m lucky to have a great team. There’s a lot of opportunity for our whole executive team, and we continue with the same passionate people. I feel the opposite of alone. We have 1,250 associates who will make us a success.
You are a woman and a millennial. Do you think you will approach things differently?
I think I do bring a different perspective as a woman and a millennial. I look at our experience and how we’re communicating with a slightly different eye. I think a fresh perspective is valuable, and I think our business will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the new consumers.
Do you see a lot of changes?
Lisa: We have things moving in all directions. Everyone in our organization is working hard to come up with plans to appeal to the new consumer. We have new marketing, our new store design, our new [back-end] ERP system. I can’t think of a time when we had so many major initiatives happening.
Ben Bridge has remodeled a store in Seattle and said that is a template for the whole chain. What did you want to accomplish with that remodel?
Lisa: We feel the first store is true to who we are. We wanted a place where consumers can come and be educated and feel comfortable spending time, and we feel we’ve achieved that. We’ll continue to roll that out.
Ed: A few years ago, we were talking about store design and how our current store design was not relating to today’s consumer as well as it could. It’s perhaps too intimidating. One of the first things Lisa did is replace our design partner. It is illustrative of what she and her team were trying to create that she picked a firm that didn’t have a lot of jewelry experience but had a wealth of experience in hospitality. They wanted that warm and hospitable feeling where people want to come and spend time. That is a different approach than I had been taking, and it reinforced my idea that it was time to turn the reins over to Lisa.
How has the new store done?
Ed: The store has done extremely well since it’s opened. We have two more in the pipeline. That is what retail is all about. It’s constantly changing, and it’s always challenging. Whenever I complain about competition, my dad [Bob] says, “In the 1950s, we had 40 jewelry stores within two blocks.” You always have to try new things, and that is what this changeover is all about.
And you also have a new marketing campaign.
Lisa: We started our campaign last year talking about those pinnacle moments, all those perfectly imperfect moments. We have evolved it this year. We are really staying focused on our core differentiation. I’m not sure that customers know why one jewelry store is better than the other. I think that we have something unique to offer.
What do you think makes Ben Bridge unique?
Lisa: I think the first one is our people. We have incredible longevity. Some of the members of our team have been with us for 30, 40 years. I’d say also the deep care for our customers and the ability to personalize the experience for our customers. Plus, the professionalism that our associates can convey. We have more certified gemologists than any other retailer in the country.
Ed, do you plan to give Lisa a lot of advice?
My influence has been steadily waning since she was 10. I’ve given her a lot of advice, and I will continue to. She’s asked me to continue to have lunch with her once a week. I said, “If you want my viewpoint, I will be happy to share it. If not, we will have a wonderful lunch and talk about something else.”
When you look at what you’ve advised her over the years, what are the main things?
The number one is: You have to enjoy it. You have to have fun. Life is meant to be enjoyed. We have the 10 commandments around here, and number one is: You have to have fun.
Number two is that you can’t do it yourself. You have to nurture a strong team around you. I make a very small percentage of our store sales.
Number three is we share special moments with our customers. Jewelry has been around for 50,000-plus years. It meets consumers’ innate desires and needs. You go back to the cavemen, and there are drilled shells. What will change is what consumers buy and where they buy it and how they buy it. We have to stay relevant to our core consumers. We are pretty focused on the numbers. In retail we get a report card every day. We need to listen and be open to change.
Lisa doesn’t need my advice. She’s more than ready, more than competent. She is very organized, she has a great vision. We just did a long-range planning meeting, and she did a better job running it than I ever did. It just shows how brilliant it was to turn it over to her.
You were co-CEO in 2000 when the business was sold to Berkshire Hathaway. Was that a big change?
There was very little change, and that is unique to Warren and Berkshire’s culture. It’s one of leaving the operating units alone as long as they are doing a good job. When I talked to Warren in 2000, he said, “We don’t delegate, we abdicate. We don’t have time to meddle.”
In 2000, he said he would only buy the business if Jon and I would continue to run it. We had no contract and no non-compete. He said, “We don’t need a non-compete, because I know you would never do anything to hurt the business.” Well, when someone tells you something like that, you have to listen. He also said, “I don’t want to do a contract, because I don’t want you to stay if you’re not happy.”
He’s encouraged us to be better delegators. He has helped us analyze opportunities. He has allowed us to get bigger. We have had great financial strength behind us. We were strong financially before [Berkshire], but knowing [there are] billions in backing helps me sleep better at night.
How do you plan to spend your retirement?
Everyone says you need a plan for retirement, you have to have hobbies. My hobby has been my business. My wife says, “What are you going to do?” In my mind I have a little outline with four principles.
The first this is that if Lisa wants, I might give her advice. I might want to join some boards. I have tried to limit myself to two nonprofit boards, but I have turned down for-profit boards. So I might want to do that. If someone wants me to consult with them, I might do that. I might talk to a business school. I want to keep active in some way, though not to the same degree [as now]. I want to say involved with the community and philanthropy and the industry.
I also want to take some time…. [Wife] Pam has been my partner all these years. When the kids were small, she didn’t [travel on business] with me, but now I don’t travel without her. She has been a tremendous supporter of me and the business.
I will do a little travel. I will play a little golf. I have a home in Hawaii. I want to keep my mind active. I may take some classes at the University of Washington and read a little bit more. We’ll see how it goes. I haven’t done this before. I’ll probably wake up on February 1 and say, “Now, what do I do?”
Any parting thoughts for the industry?
Ed: The industry has meant a lot to me, the relationships I have had. There have been so many things that have been interesting and rewarding. When I became chair of Jewelers of America, all of a sudden conflict diamonds popped up. I had never heard of them before. Soon members were going to Congress and lobbying for the Clean Diamond Act.
There have been a lot of partnerships that have been meaningful to me. We have touched our customers’ lives. One thing that I have been very proud of is what [Jewelers for Children] has done in partnership with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. That has saved thousands of lives. I talk to our charity partners, and they say no other industry does what the jewelry industry does. The only one close to us is the home-goods industry, and they don’t do close to what we do in the jewelry industry.
It has been a great job working in this business for the last 45 years. It’s a fun business. We get the customer at happy moments. I have friends from other industries. I don’t know if they get as much joy out of their business as we do. It’s a special business, and we can’t forget that.
One final question: How has business been?
Ed: Last year was a record year, and we are on track to set a record this year. That’s nice to go out on.
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