Traveling abroad is fun. Funding that kind of enjoyment takes money. When confronted with this financing challenge in the early 1970s, Tom Young and Bob Glenn, co-founders of The Cargo Hold, decided to import and sell crafts, jewelry and houseware items from destinations around the world. As jewelry became the best-selling of these items, a jewelry company started to emerge.
This year the Charleston, South Carolina-based jewelry, beads and findings company is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Cargo Hold history is more than a down the decades recollection of how an idea became a gem and jewelry enterprise. Equally important, The Cargo Hold story is one of a decades-long friendship as well as the industry relationships and the dedicated staff that made it all possible.
College prepares students for business. For Tom and Bob, however, college was the start of a business. The two met at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. They had many common interests, chief among them world travel. With passports at the ready the intrepid twosome started their import and sales business with junkets to Central America.
By 1973, they had amassed enough inventory to open a retail shop. The mission was to source extraordinary items that had ordinary uses in people’s everyday lives. Jewelry appealed to both the pair and their customers, but Tom and Bob also imported rugs, clothes, posters, carvings, bedspreads and even some “off the wall items,” according to Tom.
At the same time they were importing Italian coral, turquoise and silver jewelry. “If we liked something and thought we could sell it, we would try it,” says Bob. “And, we tried a lot of different things. Jewelry sold the best so we went all together into jewelry.”
Choosing the right products for customers was most of the battle for Tom and Bob. Retail jewelry sales require a certain set of skills. In the formative years Tom and Bob were blessed with success when they met Tasso Arnopoulos, a retired gentleman who knew retail and import-export.
“He helped with retail and really gave us a first-rate introductory course into importing and buying abroad,” says Bob. “He was the most influential person in the formative years. Tasso also helped us broaden inventory from key jewelry producers in Europe, leading with Germany, Italy, France and Greece.”
Their first retail operation was on King Street. There was competition from other retailers in the area but sales picked up when the Charleston Place Hotel opened. Although pleased with the uptick in business, an honest assessment of their retail operations by the mid- to late-1970s was “moderately successful,” says Tom. “A path for growth was not apparent as foot traffic was sparse.”
Their importation of Italian coral in 1979 was the key to transforming their business at the time. “We believed our imported coral could be sold to jewelry businesses and at lapidary shows,” says Bob.
Closing their retail store was a difficult but necessary decision for a path to wholesale success. In 1979, the King Street store was shuttered and a business office opened on Broad Street. Tom and Bob started researching gem and jewelry industry trade shows. Early winners were the Southern Jewelry Travelers Association (SJTA) and the Eastern Jewelers Travelers Association (EJTA) as well as various lapidary trade shows and of course the Tucson Gem Show. In all, Tom and Bob exhibited at about 30 trade shows a year.
During these events they met with numerous importers, wholesalers and retailers. Business and personal relationships were established while Tom and Bob’s business evolved, expanded and prospered. During the 1980s it was all trade shows all the time. But business was good with one-third of their customers in Texas, the West Coast – from California to Washington State – was fertile trade show territory.
With the help of Ron Daves and Kent Strong, the wholesale business was “on the road and in their air,” says Bob. Adela Gotz maintained office procedures for sales and shipping as the wholesale effort ramped up.
Trade shows provided numerous contacts throughout the world for a wealth of jewelry items. European designs helped to broaden product offerings. While these unique designs were added to their inventory they also started to develop brands and product lines specific to The Cargo Hold. Perhaps the most impactful was the Southern Gates collection as well as the Biltmore Collection.
As the name suggests, the collection is based on design elements and qualities of 18th and 19th Century wrought iron gates found throughout the Southern portion of the United States. The collection got its start in the late 2000s. Today the collection boasts of 400 unique designs. This jewelry line was a game-changer for the company.
“Italian jewelry products have always been important to our sales of silver chain, bracelets, and earrings,” says Tom. “Italian design consistently shines in any display and the quality of their finished products is reliable. Also, American manufacturers have been a key part of our offerings. It is always good to say a jewelry item was made in America.”
Tom and Bob still view themselves as owners of a business that is large enough for global sourcing and coast to coast sales in the US, but small enough to recognize the staff that has helped the company achieve its successes over the years. “Customer service, manufacturing capabilities, timelines, copyrights, product design and advertising are all dependent upon our personnel,” says Bob.
“Sales to Southeastern accounts by Mark Duval has introduced the line into many new towns,” says Bob. “Olivia Janiak was a chief designer who also made sure shipments were delivered in a timely manner,” he added. Advertising and marketing for Southern Gates was in the wheel house of Cathy Young and Katie Sacko. Ashley Moore was the go-to person for trade shows and booth set-ups.
“Today the importance of personnel who can wear multiple hats means even small businesses can have a digital presence and marketing plan that works outside the brick-and-mortar sales location,” says Tom. “Diane Busch has worn every hat we have very well for many years. Meghan White has managed our finances through thick and thin and Liz Nagle ensures orders come in and go out. Taylor Smith and Ryan Vied manage marketing and media, while Maggie Berry and David O’Malley keep inventory on track and office operations running smoothly.”
The Cargo Hold’s original intent was to make travel possible, buying and selling unique, unusual and quality goods from abroad. But that business model has evolved.
“We continue to enjoy the trips and doing this for 50 years is one of our prouder landmarks,” says Bob. “Another is making work more than just a job. There will be changes and challenges no doubt, but the future seems full of possibilities. For now, we intend to continue offering new designs and new ways to sell and buy those pieces. The journey has become the destination.”
Contact The Cargo Hold at cargoholdinc.com or call 800-845-6964.