Keenan’s celebrates 60 years of bejeweling Big Sky country
Ryan Lee, a third-generation retailer at Keenan Jewelers in Butte, Mont., occasionally earns skeptical glances from customers wondering if someone so baby-faced is equipped to sell them diamonds. “He looks so young, people sometimes don’t understand how knowledgeable he is,” says his mother, Rhonda Lee, who owns the store with her brother, Jim Keenan. Ultimately, “they are impressed and surprised that he knows what he knows,” she says. Ryan, who in 2005 joined the business his grandfather founded, is now a jack-of-all-trades, Rhonda says. “He handles the bulk of the bench work, screws in the lightbulbs, doubles as the IT guy—he really does it all.” Jim, who has a full-time job as an engineer for the local water treatment plant but works the bench when things get busy, took Ryan under his wing as a high schooler. The education was rigorous. “Jim is super meticulous,” Ryan says. “He was always taking my work apart and showing me how it could be better. He was so nitpicky, it trained me in the best possible way.”
Jim: Our dad, Jim Keenan, started a trade shop in 1955. He had heard there was an old jewelry shop in town looking for an apprentice. He was hired as an errand boy, then he stayed in the business until he went into the Merchant Marine. Then he got drafted, and when he came home from Korea he opened the shop and started doing work for retail outfits around town. He did that until 1971, when he and my mom, Shirley, opened the first store in our mall. We’ve been here 60 years this year.
Rhonda: One of my first memories as a child is seeing a sales rep lay jewelry all over the dining room table for my parents to pick out inventory. We grew up in the business, and I worked here throughout junior high and high school. I thought for a while I wanted to be a journalist, but then I decided I really did love the business. When I graduated high school in 1980, I came on full-time.
Ryan: I worked until I was 17 at a golf course as a bag boy. I spent one Christmas here as a warm body to help open the cases. When the golf course closed in the winter, I started to work in the store more. I feel like I clicked with people who came in right away; I knew some customers from the golf course and they felt comfortable with me, I think. I’ve always been very friendly.
Jim: My dad is 89 now, and there are millions of things to admire about him. He has a great work ethic. He’s a super-kind person. And so is my mom—they’re really sweet, loving people. Rhonda is very involved with sales and interfacing with customers, and she does most of the buying. She has a great eye for jewelry. She also has an incredible memory. She remembers every piece she’s ever sold. I’ll see a piece I made two years ago and won’t remember it. She will remember everything about it, including the stone weight. Ryan has added so much enthusiasm to the business. We just bought a CAD program and he was the impetus behind that. The younger guys keep you innovating and excited. They keep you moving forward.
Rhonda: Jim is an excellent diamond setter, and he’s passed a lot of that on to Ryan. He’s been an excellent mentor for him—giving him someone to look up to.
Ryan: Jim has high standards. If he had looser standards, I could see the business sliding a little. But he was not going to let that happen. My mom remembers that Bobby bought Annie a 1.4 carat ring for their 15th anniversary—she remembers absolutely everything. She also really loves jewelry. Not only does she wear it, she knows everything about it.
29-year-old Ryan Lee at the bench
Rhonda: I didn’t necessarily want Ryan to come into the business right away without having another job first. But when we needed some help, he said he’d give it a try. He was uncertain, but he knew he didn’t want to do the traditional college route. He’s jumped into it with both feet since then, and it makes me really proud. He’s good at what he does. And I think he takes a lot of pride in the fact that he’s going to keep the business his grandfather started alive.
Ryan: I’ve always liked mechanic-y things. I like making things work again. And I like the challenge of [fixing] things. We have all the latest in technology as far as laser welders and such, and we still use a lot of Old World things, too. I apprenticed under Jim for eight years when he was full-time. He said, “You can do this.” So I’ve been trying my hardest ever since. I have a lot of return customers, so I think it’s working out well.
Jim: We have a lot of laughs. When there are no customers, the music gets kind of loud and we dance around. It’s like working with your best friends. As long as everyone can keep family stuff at home, it’s great. Everyone works really hard when they’re family because they’re as interested in the success of the business as you are.
Rhonda: Another indispensable part of our business is Karen Burt, my sister-in-law. She waits on customers, she inputs inventory, she engraves—she really does it all, too.
Ryan: I like working with family because you have that trust. I know I have a solid team behind me. Even though I’m the youngest one, I’m an important one. I work a ton of hours to make everything happen, but without one another, we wouldn’t be where we are. Sure, you have to bite your lip sometimes and remember to focus on business. But I always try to keep in mind what I’m here for: to wait on customers and keep my grandpa’s name as shining as it was when he passed it on.