Retailer News


A new president outlines his plans to raise the profile and expand the market of this venerable Richmond, Va., jeweler

by William George Shuster, senior editor

The new president of Schwarzschild Jewelers is a jeweler well-versed in reviving and growing retail companies who envisions the four-store Richmond, Va., firm becoming a small, strong regional chain.

Wilfrid A. Schein, 48, officially became president of the 97-year-old company in August after holding the chair as a temporary consultant since April. He succeeded Jack M. Kreuter, who led Schwarzschild for 13 of his 33 years with the company.

“It’s a very good company, with a lot of strong expansion opportunities,” says Schein.

Barrie D. Birks, owner and chairman, concurs. With almost a century of service behind it, Schwarzschild is entrenched in the 600,000-population Richmond market. “Now we’re in a position to expand into new markets, building a local chain into something more regional,” he says.

Plans: Immediate plans are to raise the company’s community profile, improve and adjust its merchandise selection and expand, says Schein.

Regarding community profile, for example, Schwarzschild in October hosted a traveling show of treasures recovered from the sunken Atocha galleon. The event included an exhibit and slide show in two stores and several presentations at local high schools. More than 3,000 people visited the stores over a three-day weekend. In addition, the exhibit received extensive local TV, radio and newspaper coverage.

Schein wants to make such high-profile events a regular part of Schwarzschild’s marketing efforts. “We’re only 11Æ2 hours from Washington, D.C., and Tysons Corner [a suburb in Virginia known as a retailing center],” he notes. “We want to bring such shows here on a continual basis to keep people [in Richmond] interested and buying here.”

Regarding merchandise, Schwarzs-child wants to build up and promote platinum jewelry, which is becoming “an important metal in the industry,” says Schein. The company also will spotlight the collections and custom pieces of its in-house designer. “It’s a response to customers’ desire to buy more unique pieces of jewelry rather than items available in any store,” he says.

And as far as expansion is concerned, a fifth Schwarzschild store is planned in Richmond’s south side (the current stores are north of the James River). The company also will investigate other markets in Virginia in the next couple of years. Schein and Birks say Schwarzschild probably will expand to two or three states adjoining Virginia in the late 1990s. Schein also doesn’t rule out acquisitions as part of Schwarzschild’s growth plan, though none are pending now.

Getting started: Schein is a 30-year jewelry industry veteran and a former director of the Jewelry Industry Council (now called the Jewelry Information Center) and the Jewelers’ Security Alliance. But it was a career by accident, not one for which he planned as a young man.

Born in Egypt to a civilian in the British Army, he moved with his family to Canada in 1963 in the wake of turmoil and Egypt’s nationalization of businesses. In Montreal, his job-hunting brought him to Henry Birks & Sons, one of Canada’s leading jewelers, where his knowledge of French, Armenian, Italian and Arabic and foreign currencies was just what Birks needed in its auditing section (at the time, Birks imported significant amounts of jewelry from around the world).

Schein spent the next 13 years rising through the ranks of Birk’s financial operations. Despite his success in finance, he switched to store operations in the mid-1970s. “I saw the excitement in our business is on the front line, not in the back room,” says Schein. “I asked my boss to move me to where the business is happening, not where it’s reported after it happens.”

Job training: To gain the jewelry and sales expertise he needed, Schein worked evenings and Saturdays for most of a year as a salesperson in Birks’ flagship Montreal store. At the same time, he worked during the day as an assistant to the vice president of store operations, studied business in night school and even held down a midnight-3 a.m. job at the post office. “I had a lot of stamina in those days,” he says with a smile.

The late 1970s were years of rapid growth for Birks in Canada and the U.S. Impressed by Schein’s drive and skills, his bosses put him in charge of two newly acquired small Canadian chains – O.B. Allen and Doucet Jewelers – which he expanded within three years from 16 stores to 65.

In the early 1980s, Schein was sent to Minneapolis, Minn., as vice president of store operations for Henry Birks Jewelers, the company’s U.S. subsidiary. The subsidiary owned and operated a number of well-respected retail jewelry firms, including J. B. Hudson in Minneapolis; Schwarzschild in Richmond; J. E. Caldwell in Philadelphia, Pa.; C.D. Peacock in Chicago, Ill.; and Thomas Long in Boston, Mass.

But in the 1990s, recession and a slump in jewelry sales in Canada forced Birks to sell its U.S. holdings. Schein – by then president of U.S. operations – oversaw the sell-off. The dismantling of the U.S. operations was, he recalls, “very frustrating – but it meant the survival of the parent firm.”

Another Birks: When the last store was sold in late 1992, Schein left the company and became a consultant to floundering retail tenants in malls and multiuse urban projects. Barrie Birks, who had bought Schwarzschild from his family’s firm in 1990, hired Schein as a temporary consultant to run Schwarzschild while he sought a permanent replacement.

Within a few weeks, though, Birks realized Schein was the perfect choice for the job. Schein has “sound integrity and business judgment, and I needed someone I could rely on and trust from a great distance,” says Birks, who lives and works in Montreal.

Just as important was Schein’s experience in virtually all areas of jewelry retailing. “We needed someone who understands the financial, retail, management, people and merchandising sides of the business,” says Birks. “He brought all those skills in one person.”

“Finally, he’s a great team-builder,” says Birks, “able to earn loyalty from his people and to give clear direction.”

Schein resisted initially, not wanting to uproot his family. But Birks still wanted Schein for the job and in August, after reconsidering, Schein agreed.

“The high ethics and good values” of Schwarzschild were factors, says Schein, but the months he spent getting to know the business also had an impact. “I like the people, the positioning of the business, the high regard it has in the community and the great customers,” he says. “You don’t find this type of business every day, and I felt so comfortable working here.

“My biggest challenge now is identifying those unique opportunities that lie ahead for us.”

Birks puts a slightly different spin on the challenge for Schein: “to grow the company into a chain big enough to match his qualifications and experience.”