It’s paradoxical how the profession thought of the least becomes the most likely career path in life. That was the case for Chris Graham, owner of Wayzata, Minnesota-based Graham Jewelers. After high school he wanted to work as a nutritionist for a pro cycling team. Instead a friend steered him toward retail jewelry sales. Years later he opened his own store.
Perhaps it was the crunch of granola or the grinding noise of derailleurs, but the nutritionist for bikers opportunities never came to fruition. After a year-plus into college Chris punched out. He met up with Chad Strei, a friend who offered Chris a job at Patterson Diamond Center in Hutchinson, Minnesota – a rural town roughly 70 miles west of Minneapolis.
“They made a lot of their own jewelry and taught me the bench and manufacturing side of the business,” says Chris. “And I fell in love with it and decided, if this is what I am going to do, I want to be the best in my field.”
Chris worked his way up the food chain at various retail jewelry stores. Learning along the way, he took in whatever practical wisdom and practical experiences – mostly good, but some bad – could teach him. At a high-end jewelry store in an affluent first-tier suburb of Minneapolis Chris hit a brick wall. The sales environment was highly competitive. Management had high expectations. And, Chris was working too hard to meet those demands.
“If I was going to work this hard I might as well do it for myself,” Chris says.
Once again Chris was at a career crossroads in life. He looked at options outside of the jewelry industry first. Then he assembled a personal team of advisors to help with a career path decision. After all that effort the consensus was to stay the course with jewelry retail.
Earning his CGA (Certified Gemologist Appraiser) was central to keeping Chris in the retail jewelry game. In terms of industry certifications it was a significant investment of resources. And, it was knowledge that would help him make sound business decisions along the way.
Learning the dos and don’ts from other retail jewelers was paramount as well. It wasn’t just the sales knowledge and bench work. Chris saw ethical and non-ethical ways of doing retail jewelry. And, The E-myth Book by Michael E. Gerber was also pivotal for Chris.
Gerber’s book has sold millions of copies. The first edition was released in 1986 with a “revisited” edition published in 2004. Essentially the book details why 80 percent of small businesses fail and what to do about it.
“It was a good parallel to my start in business,” says Chris.
Chris learned about Miller’s Jewelry through industry channels. Darrell Miller was diagnosed with cancer and needed to sell his store. “I went in to talk with Darrell on July 3, 2003, and purchased three months later on September 2, the day after Labor Day,” says Chris. “So it was pretty quick. One day the staff was working for Mr. Miller and the next day they were working for me.”
Winning over customers as the new guy had its own set of challenges. “The community was supportive yet cold and mistrusting at the time, after all, I was not exactly from their ‘bubble,’” says Chris. “At the time I was 29 years old and had no business experience. After some local advice I became involved in the community, on the board of the Chamber of Commerce and other things and started to meet people. That was key.”
And, meeting the staff for the first time had its awkward moments too. On the day of the purchase everything was settled at the bank. With the keys to his store in hand, Chris walked into the store only to find out the previous owner removed all the cash from the till.
“My first order of business in my new store was to go back to the bank I just left to buy the store to get $200 in small bills and coins so the staff could make change for customers,” says Chris.
Even being his own boss working in his store took some getting used to. “It took a few weeks to change the name,” says Chris. “Honestly it did feel weird. Even I answered the phone as Miller’s Jewelry. Thank goodness it was my marketing guy who essentially told me to gut up and own the store I just put my neck on the line to purchase.”
Updating the outdated interior on a budget was the first move. Wedding Day was closing out their mall stores so Chris snapped up a bunch of their gently used display cases. With the help of a reciprocating saw and his father’s electrical skills new life was breathed into the old cases.
In addition to the lipstick and rouge interior design changes Chris added in The Edge software to better manage inventory, sales, vendors and the customer database. With the holiday season looming Chris and his staff had to work fast. As luck and timing would have it the season went well and the following year proved profitable after bringing in some higher price-point inventory.
Things were going so well so soon that five years later Chris expanded his business across the street. An expensive build out plus the change of address “nearly broke” him, but ultimately it was a “good decision” for his business.
Change is never easy but Chris owes much of his success to three important decisions that got him to his store’s 20th anniversary. “Joining a Plexus peer group was a game changer,” says Chris. “Programing the basic inventory, and company culture – constantly working on the culture.”
It’s not just longevity that has shown Chris made the right decisions over time. Accolades and awards have solidified his confidence over the years, including a Minnesota 40 Under 40 award, Entrepreneur of the Year for Small Business and Exceptional Service from the City of Wayzata’s Chamber of Commerce.
With his 25th anniversary in 2028, Chris has some plans – for his store and the industry. “We are looking to expand our shop capacity with more repair, custom design and production resources,” says Chris. “Also, I am looking to open a bench jewelry trade school. We need to create opportunities for people to enter this business and create a feeder program for our next generation of labor.”