Taking Care of Business

With a passion for people and for nurturing professionals willing to share their business and personal success stories, Charlotte Preston is perfectly suited for her job as education conference consultant.

Preston is the president and founder of Charlotte Preston Catalysts, White Bear Lake, Minn., which provides practical, education-oriented programming for jewelry industry groups. Preston produces educational programs for some of the industry’s largest events and organizations, including The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas, AGTA GemFair Tucson, Retail Jewelers Organization, Jewelers Education Foundation of the American Gem Society, and World Trade Fair in Hong Kong.

Preston started her career in academia, teaching writing to college students for three years. Looking for a bigger challenge, she took a position with the American Gem Society as publications manager in 1984. At AGS, Preston got her first exposure to the jewelry industry and learned about the business from the inside out. She was promoted to assistant executive director in 1987 and remained with AGS until 1993, when she moved from California to Minnesota and started her own consulting firm.

Working on The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas launched her career in conference programming. In 2004, the Women’s Jewelry Association honored her with its annual Award for Excellence in Special Services.

In an exclusive interview with JCK, Preston examines how her background in teaching and working with AGS jewelers led to her success in organizing educational programming, and she discusses educational challenges and opportunities facing the jewelry industry.

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

CP: After getting my master’s degree in English from Kansas State University, I taught for three years and became an assistant professor at [now defunct] Marymount College in Salina, Kan. Then I moved to California to work on a doctoral program in rhetoric at USC. But before I completed the doctorate, I went to a career consultant who looked at my credentials and suggested I would be best suited as a publications manager. AGS was still in Los Angeles at that time, and they were looking for a publications manager. I applied for the position and was hired in 1984. I worked for AGS until 1993.

JCK: What were your primary responsibilities at AGS?

CP: I developed all of their communications, including writing the Spectra newsletter and brochures, and editing [Cos] Altobelli’s Handbook of Jewelry and Gemstone Appraising. I was responsible for member service plaquing [developing the plaques that jewelers mount in their windows to show their AGS membership]. I also wrote the Re-registration Exams and assisted at trade shows and other events.

JCK: What was the biggest challenge you faced during your AGS tenure?

CP: I was very interested in the people of the industry and learning about jewelry retailing. But it took me a while to become comfortable with the industry because I came from a small town in southwestern Kansas where jewelry purchases weren’t part of my context.

JCK: What were the key things you took away from your AGS experience?

CP: Al Woodill, who was the head of AGS at the time, recognized that I wanted to know more about the people. So at trade shows and events, he told me to “stick by him,” and he would give me this little summary of every jeweler as they approached him. Al gave me this little introduction to hundreds of jewelers I met during that time, and it really helped to give me a mental picture of who they were and the type of businesses they operated. I also had the opportunity to visit many AGS stores to see their operations from the inside, and I often went into a store incognito to help decide if they were AGS material. In addition to Al’s teaching, I also had access to other members of the AGS leadership. And since I was in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to sit in on some GIA classes. The experience gave me an extremely good grounding in what retailers needed and the issues they faced; it was the basis for my understanding of the industry and for my contacts.

JCK: Why did you leave AGS?

CP: My partner and I have a child, and we needed to relocate to a political environment that was safe and wholesome for our family and offered good schools. We made the decision to move to Minnesota in 1993. While at AGS, I became a Certified Association Executive through the American Society of Association Executives. I opened a small association management company in Minnesota with the intention of using my ASAE credentials. I had no intention of remaining in the jewelry industry.

JCK: How did you become involved in organizing educational programs for the jewelry industry?

CP: At the time, I had one client: JEF [Preston served as executive director of the organization in the early 1990s]. I was looking to develop new clients, so I asked [former JCK editor-in-chief] George Holmes for some recommendations and advice. He told me he had a project he was working on that he could use my help with. It turned out to be the JCK Las Vegas Show. I started working with him on the educational program for the show in 1994. Working with George brought me into the planning segment, talking to speakers, arranging the program, and deciding on content, and it’s become the scope of what I do.

JCK: What other educational events do you organize?

CP: I have been organizing the conference program at JCK Las Vegas since 1994. I also did the JCK winter show, first in Orlando (1997–2003) and then in Phoenix (2004–2005). I have been doing the AGS Conclave program since 1998, though AGS has decided to develop the conference program internally starting in 2006. I have been doing the AGTA GemFair in Tucson since 1996. I started working with RJO on their program in 2002, and I have been developing programming for the JEF Management Group [a select group of AGS jewelers who meet periodically] since 2003. My newest client is WTF, which will hold its inaugural show in Hong Kong in January 2006. [Preston has developed English-language-based programs on world jewelry markets for the event.]

JCK: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the educational needs of the jewelry industry over the years?

CP: When I first started working with The JCK Show, GIA was providing valuable product information through its programs, and AGS offered a strong Conclave. But many stores were owned and operated by people who established their business through the GI Bill, and they were trained in a specific skill, not business. There was a real need for continuing business knowledge and skills. I believe I have contributed to helping jewelers develop their business skills and learn from what others are doing. People now understand the need for business skills and training, and the current generation of owners tends to be more sophisticated and tech-savvy than their predecessors. But this is still basically a reactive industry, not an “early adopter” one.

JCK: How do you select new speakers and find relevant new topics to cover in your programs?

CP: I develop programs in consultation with the staff and members of my clients. They can identify people who carry the message for their organization. I also often get recommendations from jewelers and other industry sources about speakers they’ve heard before or topics they want to know more about. Reporters provide me with contacts they have found to be substantive and articulate. And people approach me who want to speak at an event I am involved with. As for topics, I stay abreast of industry issues. I read all the major trade magazines, both in print and online, I get press releases from many sources, and I have a solid working relationship with many trade associations.

Sometimes, I will see someone quoted on a key topic, and I will research them through my network to see if they are credible. If they are, I may contact them to see if they are interested in, and capable of, speaking.

I look for speakers that have credible experience on a particular topic or area. Of course, it’s desirable that they have good public-speaking skills. The best speakers are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to be prepared and put together a compelling presentation. If I’m dealing with a speaker from outside the industry, they need to understand that many jewelry venues don’t pay their speakers, and that they will be addressing an industry that facilitates emotional experiences.

Through my research and experience, I can get a good sense of whether a speaker has been overexposed, or has gotten repetitive or tired in his or her presentation.

I do the best job I can to recommend to my clients the speakers and programs that I feel will be appropriate for them, the audience, and the theme or focus of the event. But the client makes the final decision.

JCK: What is the most challenging part of your business today?

CP: Getting jewelers that everyone wants to hear from who are not comfortable speaking and sharing their story is the biggest obstacle. One of the real delights of my job is finding jewelers who don’t recognize they have a great story to tell, talking to them, and helping them get to the point where they are willing to share their knowledge and experience with others. It may take several years before they are ready. Also, some people don’t want to share information as corporate policy. As a businessperson, I understand, but as part of a small industry, I don’t, and it’s frustrating. Another challenge is that there are many women I would love to place on my programs, but they are reluctant to participate because they have so many competing responsibilities.

JCK: Where do you see the biggest areas for growth in your business?

CP: Working with international organizations on foreign shows is an area I really hadn’t considered before taking on WTF as a client, but it’s certainly an opportunity for growth. In terms of programming, I would like to see the industry address more issues of social and ethical responsibility in areas such as racism, environmental impact, fair treatment of employees, and cultural issues between countries—which has become more of a factor as the business has gotten more globally connected. As an industry, we are starting to address these bigger issues, but we need to do more.