‘Hard-Wired’ for Retail

The one thread that has run through Kate Peterson’s illustrious career is a passion for training and helping jewelry companies achieve their goals.

Peterson is the president and co-founder of Performance Concepts, a Montgomery Village, Md.–based firm dedicated to providing innovative solutions to retailers and manufacturers in organizational design and development, operations, human resources management, sales and consumer behavior, and staff training/education.

Peterson brings 30 years of retailing experience to the table—in every capacity of management, operations, and training, with companies ranging from small independents to national chains.

She started her career with J.B. Robinson Jewelers as a teenager working behind the sales counter in the mid-1970s, and saw the Cleveland-based company through two acquisitions: The retailer first was bought by Kay Jewelers and later by Sterling Inc. During her tenure under three different owners, Peterson moved up the ranks, from the sales floor to store manager to regional manager to director of training.

In 1993, Peterson made the move to Elangy Corp., where she served as vice president of training and development for the company’s 135 Littman Jewelers and Barclay Jewelers stores. She decided to strike out on her own and launched Performance Concepts with former partner Janice Talcott in 1997.

As a training consultant, Peterson has worked with numerous industry organizations as well as individual companies. She is executive director of the Jewelers Education Foundation of the American Gem Society; a member of the board of directors of the Diamond Council of America; the training and performance consultant to the Leading Jewelers of the World buying group; and she frequently conducts educational workshops for The JCK Shows, JA International Jewelry Shows, JA regional conferences, the Centurion Show, Couture International, and other trade venues worldwide. Peterson also is a contributing editor to JCK and Instore magazines and is a member of the curriculum advisory board of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

In an exclusive interview with JCK, Peterson discusses how her background and past retail experiences helped prepare her for a successful training and business-consulting career.

JCK: How did you first become involved in the jewelry industry?

KP: I was a college student in Kentucky in the mid-1970s, and I wandered by a soon-to-open J.B. Robinson store. Larry Robinson had begun his expansion then. I had always loved jewelry, so I applied, and I was hired to work in the store.

JCK: What kind of impact did working for Larry Robinson have on your career?

KP: I can’t even begin to describe what it was like working for him in those early years. His stores provided the ultimate in customer service, and he was a fiend about training—he would make you practice something 100 times before you did it in the store. The importance of customer service and training was ingrained in me right from the start. I was a biochemistry major at the time, and was on a path toward medical school. Larry told me he saw a passion in me for the jewelry industry. He advised me to do what I love as my career. He was right, and I ditched plans for medical school and went to business school instead, working with Larry all through school. First I worked in sales, then I was a store manager, then a regional manager in Chicago. When the business was sold to Kay Jewelers in 1987, I stayed on and was elevated through the management ranks and on to the position of training director—all while I worked to finish graduate school.

JCK: How did your experience under Kay differ from your J.B. Robinson years?

KP: When I started with J.B. Robinson, they only had 11 to 12 stores. By the time they were sold to Kay, they had more than 90 stores. I was 25, 26 years old and running a lot of stores when Kay asked me to work out of the main office as director of training. When Kay was bought by Sterling in 1990, I moved to their headquarters in Akron, Ohio, and continued to work as training director. But I wasn’t happy with the corporate environment at Sterling—it was not what I did best. After serving as training director for a number of years, I went back to running the Robinson stores as a regional manager.

JCK: Why did you leave Sterling for Elangy?

KP: I wasn’t having fun working in a big corporate environment. I talked to Leonard Littman and ultimately took a position with Elangy Corp. as director—and eventually vice president—of training in 1993. At the time, Elangy had 135 stores. It brought me back to my roots—a midsize company, family-owned, where everyone there had their thumbs on the heartbeat of the business. They did things with a strong set of values, with a real focus on helping people. I learned so much from Leonard and Herb Littman. The Littmans and Larry Robinson were my main mentors.

JCK: When did you decide to strike out on your own with Performance Concepts?

KP: Diamond Promotion Service had a trade-education conference that I was consistently involved with, meeting with training people and other experts to discuss how to improve the industry. At one meeting in Toronto in 1996, I met another speaker, Janice Talcott. We had the same reaction—we both loved what the other had said. By the time the conference was over, we had some great ideas. After doing a lot of research, we started our business the following year. The most difficult part was telling the Littmans I was leaving. But they understood, and they never rehired my training position—they outsourced it to us! We were busy from the moment we started, and now have more than 15 associates working in various capacities. [In April 2005, Peterson bought Talcott’s share of the business, after Talcott accepted a full-time position with Hearts On Fire.]

JCK: What made you devote your career to training?

KP: I started in sales and then moved into management. I kept seeing that people had no real understanding of the impact they had on others. Also, I had studied behavioral science, and I was tired of hearing that retail was a job you held until you got a career. I knew that certain people were hard-wired to be in retail. Everything we do with our clients is centered around this hard-wired philosophy. Because of my corporate-training background, I had people all along asking me to help them. I had to say no then, but once I started the business with Janice, we jumped right in. We learned that what the industry needed most was people like us to go in, hold their hands, and get the job done. Our clients put a high level of faith in us, and I have a tremendous respect for them, along with a passion to help them by giving them even more than they expect.

JCK: What are some of the major differences in working as a trainer within a corporate organization and doing it as an independent consultant?

KP: At a corporation, you are basically trying to steer a steamship. Things happen very slowly at corporations. Working independently, we can have an immediate impact. That’s why we work mainly with independents and small chains. We find them very responsive and willing to do what it takes to improve their operations. A lot of what we do now also has a wide-ranging industry impact [as opposed to just a companywide impact when working for a corporation]. We have written a lot of the training programs that industry organizations have put out there for the trade—we produced the seminars, books, in-store literature, and other materials.

JCK: What is the fastest-growing area of your business?

KP: Individual-store-operations consulting is growing the fastest, by far. We assess the people, their communications, their operations. We look at everything—from the company’s relationship with its customers to the performance of their people behind the counter. We also see exponential growth in working with manufacturers to develop training programs to implement new product launches to retailers. We are teaching them about branding and developing in-store programs and showing them how to present those programs to retailers. In this respect, De Beers’ Supplier of Choice program has been a real boon to us. We come in, design their program, implement the training, create the materials, and show them how to train their retailers. We have a team of experts in every area, and we have an incredible understanding of the retail business and how retailers think.

JCK: What is the most challenging aspect of your business?

KP: Being away from home and a constant changing of our whole perspective are big challenges for me. In this business, you need to have a real flexibility—the lessons you learned working with one client yesterday might not fit with another client today. Another challenge is keeping up with how fast and large we’ve grown the last few years. Another would be staying focused on specific tasks and not trying to be all things to all people. For instance, while we are very involved in training personnel, team building, and improving in-store communications and store operations, we don’t get into outsourced recruiting or staffing, even though it may seem like a logical outgrowth for us. We want our clients to learn for themselves how to hire the best people. I would much rather have the top-placement-service people in my pocket and refer clients to them than to do the placement work myself. We have consistently partnered with the best people, and it’s been a big part of our success.