How a 24-year-old CEO is leading the charge at Michigan’s Birmingham Jewelry
While in college, Marina Pilibosian, CEO of Birmingham Jewelry, thought she was following her passion by majoring in health services administration. But a couple of years into her studies, she realized her real bliss resided at home—at her parents’ independent fine jewelry store in Sterling Heights, Mich. “I always liked science, but I ended up hating [it],” recalls the 24-year-old, who hung out in a playpen at the store when she was a baby. “I didn’t want to come to the store, and years later say, ‘I wish I had been a doctor.’ I had to be sure.” By the time she was 7 or 8, she could pick out earrings or a bracelet to match pieces customers came in wearing, reports her mother, Reba, who oversees Birmingham’s operations. Marina’s father, Gregory, founded the shop in 1975 after apprenticing with a master jeweler in France, then working as a jewelry designer for Chanel in the early 1970s. Gregory and Reba, who are both Armenian by descent (though Gregory was raised in Syria), always hoped Marina would join—and take over—the business. Their hopes are already taking root: “Working with my family is absolutely rewarding,” Marina says. “And it’s nice to see my dad so happy that I want to keep it going.”
Reba: Marina brings all kinds of new ideas to the table and understands what the new generation wants and what they value. At trade shows, she picks things I would never pick. She always said, “Daddy, I’m going to design jewelry and I want you to make it.” When she graduated college in a different field, she decided to come here because she loves what her dad does.
Marina: I realized in college that I really had it in me to join the business my whole life. I officially came on board in 2013. The business is my father’s lifelong dream and passion. And I like to consider myself a fashionista, so it fits me, too. I love keeping up with new trends and picking out new styles for the store and our customers.
Reba: Everybody does his or her own thing—we all handle our own part of the business. Gregory takes care of the designing and the workshop. I do the paperwork, accounting, and customer service. Marina does the social media. My husband and I have worked together 27 years. Sometimes we argue at work, but as soon as we lock the front door, we’re husband and wife. We leave the business at the business.
Marina: Social media is a lot of work. You have to do it every day; you have to be interactive with clients. If someone bought something, I ask to take a picture and post it. My dad does heirloom redesigning, and people get so excited about being able to actually wear pieces that are special to them. I try to share those types of posts and if we’re lucky, others share it with their friends.
Gregory: Marina is a very smart girl and she loves the business. When she asks me if she can do something, I always say “okay.” I let her do what she wants because I know she’s going to do a good job. Reba is the boss now, to be honest with you. She runs the whole showroom. She’s a very good business lady, very strong. A business that doesn’t have a strong woman cannot be trusted. Am I right?
Reba: [Laughing] You know what they say—every successful man has a great woman behind him. We make a great team, and I love working with him. Gregory is a very talented designer with a European flair. He still does wax molds, and he is wonderful at bringing heirloom jewelry into [the present]. If someone has a ring they no longer wear as a ring, he can make it into a beautiful pendant. He doesn’t ever use salesman speech. Even if a client likes something, he has no hesitation in saying, “This doesn’t suit you.”
Marina Pilibosian (c.) with parents Reba and Gregory
Gregory: It’s really fun working with my family because we can depend on each other. In business, it’s important to be able to depend on people. I have very nice clients and they enjoy that we’re a family business, too. We have worked with three generations of customers from the same family at this point, which is very special.
Marina: Working with my family is cool because I don’t have to worry about how I express my opinions. I can throw my ideas out there without worrying, “What’s my boss going to think about that?” There’s a freedom there.
Room to Grow
Marina: We do get too comfortable sometimes. Whenever we don’t treat each other like family at work, things are smooth and good. When we start getting too comfortable and [familial], that’s when things get challenging.
Reba: We tend to treat employees like they’re family too. So if they make a mistake, we don’t have a [process in place] to tell them what comes next. I talk to them like they’re a brother—I say, “Don’t do that anymore.” Sometimes I think that’s a weakness in the business.
Gregory: When your kids come into the business, train them to give the absolute best customer service. It’s the most important thing.
Marina: If you’re about to start working with your parents, know that from the first day you walk in, that’s not your mom and dad. Don’t make that mistake. They are coworkers and bosses. Once you start treating them like parents, the whole system falls apart.
Reba: Marina will do great running the store one day. She could do it right now in a heartbeat. She has a lot of knowledge already.
Marina: My plan is to take over the store, but right now we’re all helping each other in so many ways. They’re helping me grow in the business and learn. I’m helping them modernize and slowly let go. I want them to know that it’s okay. I’m here. I’m going to be okay.