Roughly 30 percent of family businesses experience successful succession plans from the first generation to the second generation. Welcome to the 30 percent Barnes Diamonds & Designs.
John Barnes, Sr. and his wife Corinne opened their jewelry store in 1986 in the South Shore of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sales growth with quality products and services allowed the industrious couple to expand their operations with strategic relocations, the second move seven short years after opening their first store.
In 2005, John Sr. and Corinne moved to their current store location in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin in the town’s Pabst Farms area. After 37 years, and a hugely successful retirement sale this spring, the couple decided to retire. John Jr. will continue the family legacy.
Early in his career planning years John Sr. considered becoming an architect. His mother, an antique dealer, wanted him to enter the trade that went on to give him a satisfying and gratifying career for 49 years. John Sr. didn’t follow his mother’s exact path, but he did take her advice.
“My mother suggested I get into watchmaking,” says John Sr. “After graduating from high school in 1974, I attended a two-year watchmaking school in Milwaukee.”
Upon the completion of his watchmaking certification, John Sr. was hooked. Two years later he began coursework at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). And, the following year he earned his Graduate Gemologist certification in residence. From there he learned more about the industry-related accreditations from the American Gem Society (AGS). By 1985, John Sr. became one of the first certified gemologist appraisers in Wisconsin.
Early in his educational pursuits, John Sr.’s passion for learning at many levels of the jewelry industry lead him to join the Wisconsin Guild of the AGS (he later became president of that organization). Broadening his depth and breadth of industry knowledge was in line with his desire to learn all things gem and jewelry, but John Sr. felt most comfortable at the jeweler’s bench.
“There is no better joy than to see a customer’s reaction after I repair a precious family heirloom,” says John Sr.
John Sr.’s older brother trained him as a goldsmith. Coursework in advanced gemstone setting in Little Rock, Arkansas, rounded out his education in becoming a qualified bench jeweler. Giving all that education and passion direction was John Sr.’s early challenge. He worked in the estate business and then became an appraiser for Armbruster Jewelers, an AGS store, in 1979.
Working at an AGS store gave John Sr. plenty of knowledge and confidence to blaze a trail of his own. In 1986, he and his wife Corinne opened Barnes Diamonds & Designs (the original store name was Barnes Jewelry but was later changed). “Corinne worked on the sales floor while I was at the bench,” says John Sr. “We were a two-person operation. Her work ended up evolving into the store’s bookkeeper.”
The husband and wife team were the consummate dynamic duo. After seven years the couple found a need to expand sales and services. In 1993, they moved from Milwaukee to Brookfield, Wisconsin, where they doubled their square footage. “This is where we added in higher end lines,” says John Sr.
The 1990s were boom years for the US economy, but the start and end of that decade had its challenges for businesses of all sizes. Unemployment and inflation were troublesome economic factors while the Federal Reserve was increasing lending rates in the early 1990s.
Even with these and other challenges, John Sr. and Corinne were confident they had made the right decisions to open their store and continue to expand operations.
“It was a leap of faith at the beginning as well as each time that we moved,” says John Sr. “But our prayers have been answered. It took a lot of work and penny pinching, and a lot of trade work [including after hours], but it all paid off.”
The couple made prudent and careful business decisions throughout the 1990s. Similar to many Americans they sensed that the boom would eventually go bust. While adding new lines of jewelry the couple also adopted price-point-friendly lines. In time, they expanded their customer base, which in turn allowed for incremental sales successes.
That decade also brought with it personal growth for John Sr. and Corinne, as John Jr. was coming of age. Practical business decisions allowed for pragmatic family planning for the future. After weathering the Dot.com Bomb and the recession that followed the 911 attacks, the family business was able to make its third and final relocation move to Oconomowoc in 2005.
Prior to the move John Sr. and Corinne decided it was time to make some tech investments in the early 2000s by adding The Edge POS inventory system. And, given John Sr.’s love of the bench they purchased a new laser welder. And, their other son Joe is trained as a bench jeweler and is currently the goldsmith at Barnes Diamonds & Designs.
Of these two major investments the former had a fortuitous timing element to it. In 2004, John Jr. began working in the family jewelry store and took a quick liking to inventory management. And, the relocation to Pabst Farms sealed the career deal for John Jr.
“John Jr. started working in the store at the end of 2004, when he was in his twenties,” says John Sr. “He was set to go to law school but ended up assisting with the transition at our new Pabst Farms location. At first he assisted with sales and marketing, but quickly transitioned into a management position. He upgraded the store into a modern operation from a Mom and Pop.”
The spring 2023 retirement sale was the last store event for John Sr. and Corinne. As John Jr. takes control of the family business his father and mother look back on key decisions that lead to a successful business succession.
First, was buying a customer list from a reputable competitor that went out of business. Second, always having and maintaining pinpoint focus on customer service. And, carrying higher quality lines of jewelry that offer market differentiation from the chain stores.
After modernizing the family business, John Jr. and his parents have future goals for the family business. A standalone store is a short-term goal and adding a second store location is part of the long-term plan. And, Gen 3.0 is already here and looking forward to continuing the family legacy.