When Will They Ever Learn?

There’s a line in the song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (written by Pete Seeger and recorded in the 1960s by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary) that concludes with the title of this column. Actually, the line is sung twice every time it’s used in the song. So, I’ll repeat it as well. When will they ever learn?

The message is directed to those in Dallas who recently asked Neal Goldberg, chief executive officer of Zale Corp., to step down. It applies equally to those in the industry who consistently confuse the relationship between fashion and fine jewelry.

During my six-plus years with JCK, I had the opportunity of introducing the jewelry business to quite a number of Cahners and later Reed Business Information executives. It seemed at the time there was a new senior corporate manager overseeing the magazine every six months or so. During that six-year period, I recall only two who really had some fundamental understanding of the jewelry business.

Goldberg and others who preceded him came from the department store world with a fashion connection attached to their experience and expertise, and, as is typical of many who move into a new role in a different industry, they brought with them trusted colleagues to fill key decision-making roles. In some positions, where specific industry knowledge isn’t really necessary, such personnel moves don’t matter much. However, when key merchandising and buying decisions are filled by individuals with department store buying and merchandising backgrounds, is it any wonder that success has been elusive?

In contrast, the Sterling organization has had stability at the top and through the ranks for a very long period. Additionally, the Sterling organization found and stayed with winning product, promotion, and people strategies. How long has “Every Kiss Begins With Kay” been a clever and effective promotion tool for the company? And, if you’ve noticed, Sterling has added the tag line “The Country’s No. 1 Jeweler” to these ads. In contrast, Zale has had three CEOs in recent memory. Each brought a new answer to the table. None succeeded.

Fashion and jewelry are certainly linked, but in my view, jewelry is not driven by fashion. Fashion has an influence, but it is not the driver. Like fine art, you don’t select a painting because it matches the color of the room where it will hang. Jewelry is purchased because the buyer likes the design, style, color, and workmanship of the piece. While each of these elements has an influence on what ready-to-wear is selected, the decision making for a piece of jewelry is primarily based on the piece itself and the occasion for which it is selected.

Successful, relevant jewelry industry experience is needed for the individual who replaces Mr. Goldberg. The industry needs a successful, well run Zale Corp. The question is: Has the Zale board learned anything from the hiring of last three CEOs?

If not, the lesson of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is in this line: “Gone to graveyards every one.” If Lehman Brothers can go out of business, no business is guaranteed survival.


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