It’s creating—not necessarily selling—that drives the men behind Charles Koll Jewellers
Malcolm Koll, co-owner of Charles Koll Jewellers in San Diego, never guessed his youngest son, Richard, would join the family business, which was founded in South Africa in 1946. Actually, “he swore up and down he would never do it,” recalls the retailer, who operates the shop with jewelry designer David Armstrong, head of the design workshop for the store’s sizable custom business. But the South African–born retailer, who helped his father, Charles Koll, move the business from Pretoria, South Africa, to San Diego in 1991, said Richard’s 2011 arrival in the shop was “perfect timing.” Malcolm explains: “When I joined my dad in the business [in 1977], we were strictly a retail store in South Africa. I was anxious to start manufacturing. Richard came along when it was clear that the company needed to be run like a real business and not a design studio.” Richard, a graduate of the University of Colorado–Boulder with a degree in business, decided to join the company after a prolonged trip to South Africa, where he connected with far-flung family members and did some soul-searching. Like Malcolm, it was fabrication—not retailing—that drew him to the industry. “Jewelry was never an interest for me,” he says. “The reason I love [what I do] so much is that we make it.”
Richard: My title is general manager, so I wear a lot of hats. I try to create efficiencies and promote communications. I’m currently taking photos for the website, helping people with clients.… But really I try to stay off the sales floor. I’m more supporting the sales floor and making sure all the pieces talk to each other. I’ve always run my own businesses. I had a painting company, a deck refinishing company; I’ve always been an entrepreneur. When I came on, I was open to everything. Like my dad, I love the design side of jewelry. We carry Hearts On Fire and I think it’s a great product—but my heart is in our brand.
Malcolm: David is focused on CAD and the workshop side. Richard is focused on general management and—more and more—on accounting. And I just buzz around and have fun. I kind of grew up in the business and assumed that it was what I was going to do when I got older.
Richard: Malcolm is a Microsoft Excel whiz. He’s better than I’ve ever been at it. His right and left brain work really well together. Sometimes he’ll be in left-brain mode, other times he’s thinking broad-spectrum. He has that ability, which is very cool.
Malcolm: Richard is 27 going on 40. He’s a quick learner and is brutally honest. The first thing I did with him was give him free rein to do whatever he chooses. When he goofs up he’s careful to say, “I goofed up.” I learned when he was young that if you ask him a question, you’re going to get an honest answer. So you have to be careful what you ask.
Richard: My dad is very much a thinker. He’s a visionary and he’s rebranded the way we sell diamonds. And I am very much an implementer. So it works well because he has a vision and I can help implement it.
Richard and Malcolm at the bench
Malcolm: Richard’s a serious people person. He understands delegation better than I ever have. He recognized that putting the right people in the store is the only way to grow this thing.
Richard: I came into the store and made some good hires, and they’re making us all a little better.… I’ve delegated [buying] to people we’ve hired, and it’s something my dad used to do. I’m really trying to delegate to great employees. I trust their abilities, and I believe they do a better job than we would—they’re incredibly talented people.
Richard: For people coming into their family’s business, I would say make sure you’re not stepping on each other’s toes. Have clearly defined roles, and know who’s in charge of what. And communicate. I sit next to my dad all day, and we still have to work on our communication. We disagree on stuff, but it’s all healthy. We have a meeting once a week on Thursdays where we have directors of each of the departments present. A lot of times it can get heated, but it’s always helpful.
Malcolm: Either have total trust in the person who’s coming in, or you treat them like an employee. Them’s the options. You have to allow them to make mistakes.
Richard: Malcolm does a really good job of giving me space. I truly think my dad has a good way of teaching; it’s really hands-off. So though I definitely feel pressure, I know it’s okay to make mistakes as long as I learn from them. I have my own plans for expansion, and I think putting in a good team to make us bigger and better is where my head is. I’m lucky in the sense that I stand really tall because I get to stand on the shoulders of my grandfather and father.
Malcolm: I think a solid understanding of marketing to his generation—the texting and social media—Richard’s seriously got his head around that. To grow, you need to grow with the generation that’s coming up behind you. I know I would not be qualified to deal with that, and he definitely is. I belong to a local group that’s…kind of like the Skulls but more generic, for business [leaders]. Richard was invited to come, and he told them his main goal was “to make my dad redundant.” I thought that was so great.