It’s All Relative: Lee Read Jewelers

Larry Read didn’t give his daughters the family business; he made them work for it

Growing up in West Salem, Ohio, Lee Read liked to stand in front of his local jewelry store’s window and observe the watchmaker at work. Little did he know he was planting the seeds for a family dynasty. In 1963, at age 38, Read opened his own store in downtown Boise. Within a decade, his son, Larry, joined him, eventually assuming responsibility for the business. In 1986, when Lee retired, Larry maintained the six stores his father had opened, but shut them all in favor of a single 10,000-square-foot superstore that opened in 2000. “When I suggested going down to one store, it was something my father couldn’t dream of,” recalls Larry, now CEO of Lee Read Jewelers. “To this day, he is still amazed by the growth in sales.”

Larry and his wife, Nelda, have three daughters, all of whom are involved in the business today—Rachael as office manager, Rebecca as assistant sales manager, and Sarah as director of sales and marketing. But they all tested their mettle in other fields first. “Before joining our business, each of them held different jobs, from being a dishwasher in a restaurant, to a credit collector at Sears, to a cashier at Target,” Larry says. “I think one of the big mistakes jewelers make is trying to force their kids into their business. They also don’t let them go out and see what the job market is really like. Perspective is a wonderful thing, but you only develop it through experience.”

Starting Point

Larry: I started working in the family store in high school and have never worked in another business. My father was in charge of sales. He didn’t like management or advertising, so I did those tasks. It was what I liked to do, and it allowed me to work independently of him so I could learn the business my way.

Sarah: As a young girl we had three stores, but I’d go to the downtown store after school and clean glass and eventually sell jewelry. After graduating from college in 2001, I wanted to live in Boise and work with a marketing or advertising firm. I was helping out in the store while looking for work. Three weeks later my parents asked if I wanted to work in the store, and I began working in our current 10,000-square-foot location. I’ve been here ever since.

Rebecca: I was a single mom early in life and wanted a stable job, so I joined the business when I was 22. I worked for five years in the repair department, where I had to deal with a lot of customer problems. I got burnt out and left at 27. I went to a dental office to find greener pastures, only to find a gravel pit instead. I left that job after 18 months and returned to the store. My parents made me work my way up from the bottom, just like any other newbie. Eventually I worked in sales, where I work with people in happier moments.

Rachael: After high school I worked in the store part time in a number of positions in receiving, guest services, and merchandising. After five years I wanted to take a sabbatical to get a different perspective on life, so I worked in a commercial construction company as the assistant to the owner and part-time secretary. The experience was a real eye-opener. I appreciated the family business much more when I was away from it. When I talked to my father about coming back, we spoke about job responsibilities, mutual respect for family members and co-workers, and having to start at rock bottom—again.

First Big Thing

Larry: I knew I’d come into my own in the jobs I was performing when I purchased advertising with a plan in mind. My father’s plan was if he had a good day in sales and an ad man walked in the store, he’d buy ads. If my father had a bad day, he wouldn’t. I set a budget, researched the mediums, and wrote my first marketing and promotional plan in 1973.

Sarah: I spent a lot of time in the shop in the early days as a full-time employee. It was very instructive for me at an early age because I learned how jewelry works and what people expect from jewelry. Taking in repairs and actually doing the repairs helped me learn what customers like and appreciate about jewelry. I learned the back end of the business first and then facilitated marketing and advertising with my dad.… My parents never showed favoritism. Each of us had the same starting wage like anyone else, and each of us had to work our way up. I knew I had to earn the respect of non-family members in the ­family business. I had to get my “street cred.” 

Rebecca: After I had worked a year or so in the shop to improve my link between the jeweler and our guests, I went to jewelry-making and repair school. This made the repair department a logical step for me to start: It was also where Sarah started. In the three years that I managed the department, I gave an unstructured department much-needed structure. I streamlined and improved processes and procedures with many suggestions coming from my staff.

Rachael: Since returning to the family business, one of my chief goals is to have procedural systems for each store department. For consistency to happen there must be a list of established procedures, and to document everything. This helps with setting clear company policies and job responsibilities, while reducing costs and liability issues.

Family Values

Larry: When it came time for me to take control, my father let me do what I needed to do without looking over my shoulder. His approach, as is my philosophy today: Teach and prepare the next generation, and get the hell out of the way. I was much more ­effective on my own. If it worked for me, it’ll work for our daughters.

Sarah: Always be patient with family. They’re really the best asset you have. Working with family can be a challenge because family members know what buttons to push. But they are almost always the most dependable. Work hard, be patient, and most things will more than likely work themselves out.

Rebecca: Patience is huge when working with family members. And just as important is separating family matters from business issues. When you walk into the store, check family matters at the door. We’re here for our staff and our guests first and foremost.

Rachael: My parents have always placed a high value on our views, insights, and opinions. That’s why we’re entering the business at such a young age. I’m stunned when I go to trade shows and people in their 40s and 50s still haven’t taken over the family business. [Considering] the level of freedom, trust, and respect our parents give us, that is so foreign to me.

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