From their headquarters in Seattle, Ed and Jon Bridge reign over a 100-year-old family dynasty
Since 1990, Ed and Jon Bridge have served as co-CEOs of Seattle-based Ben Bridge Jeweler, which operates more than 75 stores in 11 states under the ownership of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (Ed also serves as president; Jon as general counsel.) The cousins inherited the jobs from their fathers, Bob and Herb, who had their positions passed down from the original Ben Bridge—who in turn acquired the business from his father-in-law. Today, Bob and Herb are co-chairmen and a fifth generation of the family works at the company and is being groomed to take over. Ed and Jon spoke to JCK about the pros and cons of being co-CEOs, what the military teaches you about leadership, and what it’s like being cheered up by Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.
JCK: What advice have you gotten that has made a difference in how you manage your company?
Ed: I always said I learned more going to lunch with my dad [Bob] than I did majoring in business. He was very smart and taught me a lot more than I could learn from a book.
My father always had a bias toward action. He said: Don’t be afraid to make a decision. He had a saying: Run to trouble, don’t run from trouble. Problems fester if you don’t solve them.
Jon: I agree with Ed; our playbook has been taken from our fathers. We saw how Herb and Bob operated the business. They were in the Navy and they somehow got me into the military. There are an awful lot of positive things that come out of that as far as leadership. You work with people who work under you. You have an open-door policy. And you care about the people who work for you and work with you. That is an essential part of how we operate. If you are in the military leading people into battle, you are charging ahead with them. That is how we operate our organization: We listen and collaborate and care about our people.
The other thing they taught us: You have to learn how to delegate. If you are a mom-and-pop and run your own store, delegation isn’t too critical. But if you are operating more than one store, you have to trust the people with whom you are working, that they are going to follow the principles you have outlined.
At the age of 59, Ben Bridge turned the keys of the business over to Herb and Bob. And then Herb and Bob did the same thing to Ed and me back in 1990. And now we are grooming the next generation. We don’t want to overstay our welcome, and we want the new generation to be able to operate the business and bring new ideas into it and not ever stand still. If you aren’t willing to change and listen to new ideas and welcome the new generation and hand the keys to them, you will fail.
Ed: I learned a lot from Herb. He is a very charismatic person, and he believes in having respect for everybody. That means answering your own phone calls, returning every call within 24 hours, being nice to people whether they are the parking lot attendant or a bank president, and treating people how you would like to be treated. He had a lot of empathy for the traveling salespeople in our industry; he would always take them out to lunch.
Our fathers taught us the tenets of business—paying our bills on time, not using our suppliers as a bank. Just a lot of basic lessons about how to treat people right, how to be a good person.
Jon: I tell people my favorite word in the English language is empathy. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. The true test of leadership is being empathetic. See how something affects the other person.
JCK: What do you look for when hiring people?
Ed: We have a strong bias toward promoting from within. Virtually all of our store mangers started off in sales. All of our officers started behind the counter in sales, except for the CFO. That is a core tenet of our business.
Jon: We are not looking to hire someone who has a deep knowledge of gemology. We want to hire people who are nice people, who get along with people, who smile, who love jewelry and nice things. We can teach them to be a gemologist. But we can’t make them nice people. Of course, we want them to be honest and ethical, too.
JCK: How do you handle letting people go?
Jon: When we have to make a hard decision to terminate an employee, the other person should never be surprised. There should be a feeling they understand what you are doing. I’ve had to terminate people and they thanked me for it. Because they understood the situation.
Seattle’s best: the Ben Bridge Jeweler flagship location on the corner of 4th Avenue and Pike Street
JCK: Have you learned anything about business from Warren Buffett, who owns your company?
Ed: There are three people I put on a pedestal: my father, my uncle, and Warren. As good a delegator as my father is, Warren is even better, and he has to be to run a company the size of [Berkshire Hathaway]. He has taught us the importance of having good people around, of letting them do their job, of letting them feel valued and appreciated. He doesn’t second-guess. He will ask penetrating questions but allows the people who are closer to the customer to make the critical decisions.
Jon: He has the same open-door policy as my father. He has given Ed and me his telephone number if we need anything from him. He answers his own phone, too. Here is this individual who is among the wealthiest people in the world, but he is accessible to us if we need him. It is just a remarkable relationship.
Ed: He also has a long-term vision. One thing we’ve learned from him is not looking quarter to quarter or even year to year, but looking decade to decade. Looking at the long term, not the short term.
Jon: In the downturn, he understood the traumas that retail was going through, particularly the jewelry industry, and he provided us a little bit of comfort. He said, don’t worry, things will be better.
Ed: He is also very positive and upbeat, which is contagious.
JCK: What is it like being co-CEOs?
Jon: That is the one thing Warren was concerned with at the start. But we don’t know anything different. We have been doing this together for 24 years. We watched our fathers, and they got along beautifully—there was no controversy between the two of them.
Ed: We had great role models. Our fathers were always 50-50 partners, and they had a great deal of love and respect for each other. Sometimes we come at things from a different angle, which is good: It helps us make better decisions. One has to sell the other one, and if we don’t agree, that’s a positive. It strengthens the company over time.
It’s also great to have a partner who does all the things that you hate doing. He does legal and financial. I do merchandising and marketing, which I like.
Jon: Being a CEO is a very lonely position. It’s good to have somebody you can be on an equal basis and make those decisions with, so it’s not all on your shoulders. If you get along with somebody and have a relationship like our fathers did—of mutual respect and admiration—it’s the best possible world.
Ed: I belong to an organization called the Young Presidents’ Organization. Of course, I’m now with the alumni. They have groups where you can help other presidents of companies and give them advice. One thing that’s always struck me is a lot of them don’t have anybody that they can open up to. They have to have that corporate face around people they work with, and they don’t have someone they trust to have their best interest at heart. I would always come back to how lucky I was to have Jon and a father and uncle to bounce things off of. I always feel very blessed. It’s a wonderful thing. I know the corporate world frowns on co-CEOs, but in our case I don’t think it could have worked out better.