Diamonds and gold are king at this Steel City mainstay
“It would be wrong for a father to have a child in the business only because they are his child,” muses Jack Henne, the semi-retired patriarch of Pittsburgh-based fine jewelry store Henne Jewelers. “The owner has to feel confident that their child is capable,” he explains. “And if they’re not, it’s better to not start the process.”
When it came to handing over the business to his son, John, Jack says he couldn’t have felt more certain of his son’s abilities to grow the family business that his grandfather, Rudolph Joseph Henne, founded in 1887. “I just think, all around, he’s my hero,” adds the 83-year-old, who still works in the store a few days a week. “His character, the way he treats employees and customers—he’s just excellent all around.”
Jack: The business is evolving much more now than it did when I was the owner. But the highlight of what I did was move the store from a section of the city that was deteriorating to an upscale area called Shadyside—it’s only about a mile away, but the two areas are very different.
John: My grandfather was born in that building, so it was a very emotional thing for the family to move the store to a different location. I came into the business when I was 25, in 1992. I had been working as a CPA. My dad had only once mentioned that, if I was interested, I could work in the store—but he made it clear that there was no pressure. So I pursued accounting originally. But ultimately, I liked the lifestyle my dad lived: not a lot of travel, able to be home for dinner. I wanted to give it a try and it was a good fit right away. I’m more of a people person than a number cruncher. Dad and I worked together on a [daily basis] for around 10 years.
Jack: Now I’m verging on full retirement.
John: [Laughs] He’s been threatening that for about 10 years.
John: Dad taught me early on that the customer’s always right—that even when they’re wrong, they’re right. We need to do what we can to make the customer happy. If you’re going to argue, you’re never going to win. And he taught me to always do what’s right, even when it hurts. That’s one of our core values. We had an issue once where a client asked us to sell some tanzanite. We got the stones and evaluated them—the preliminary estimate was around $4,000. We sent them to a stonecutter who ended up losing them. He said, “Okay, I’ll pay you the high end of the estimate.” The customer said, “That’s unacceptable. I believe the stonecutter claimed that they were lost so he could keep my stones.” Then she claimed she paid $11,000 for them originally, which I didn’t think was true. But my dad very quickly said, “She’s right—we’re going to pay her $11,000.” We lost around $6,000 from that. But it was a great lesson. It was really clear to him what the right thing to do was.
Jack: I will tell you that I have learned much more from my son than he’s learned from me. He’s much more savvy in business as far as technology goes. I don’t even know how to ring up a sale anymore! But really, he’s taken everything to a completely different level.
John: I think dad demonstrated the most beautiful transition between the generations in a family business that I’ve witnessed or even heard of. My two sisters were involved in the store for around 10 years each—we’ve since worked out an amicable split—but dad said very early on, “You guys should make the decisions, because ultimately it’s going to be your business.” He never had an ego, and never felt offended or threatened by what we did. And he set a great example for us by living well within his means. He was never this guy who was living this high lifestyle, pulling all the money out of the organization. I see that sometimes—the patriarch takes the money while the next generation works.
Jack: The best thing I think we did was hire a family business adviser to walk us through the possibilities.
John: I think it’s very important that when you come on to a family business that you take the attitude of “I have to earn every bit of what I’m going to get here. I have to earn the respect of the customers and the vendor and my father. Just because my name is on the sign doesn’t mean I’m entitled to anything. I have to work harder than anyone here.” My first 10 to 12 years in the business, I was coming in early and leaving after everyone left. I think that’s important. I think it was also extremely helpful that I had worked somewhere else. I would caution anyone against just giving a job to anyone. It’s going to be hard for them to earn respect coming in that way.
Jack: The best part of working with your family is that you love your kids and you like to be around them—and the more memories and experience you have with them, the better. You get to know them in a way you would not have if it weren’t for the business.
John: Most of us spend so much of our time at work. It displaces time with your family. And your parents, in most instances, are the biggest influencers of your values. To have them there to lean on when you need advice and guidance is a tremendous privilege. It’s not unusual that what you’re doing in a jewelry store comes down to values—about the right thing to do.