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Diamond Portraits: Herb Bridge

Diamond Portraits: Herb Bridge

“I was born into the business and didn’t really have a choice,” is how Herb Bridge described his start in the jewelry business in an interview that appeared in the Puget Sound Business Journal. “I literally started when I could see over the counter, sweeping out and doing other chores they gave me. And I just grew into it.”

What started as a single store location first opened by his maternal grandfather, became one of the world’s largest jewelry chains under the guidance of Herb Bridge and his brother Bob, and later part of the Berkshire Hathaway empire.

The beginning was humble and slow. Watchmaker Samuel Silverman opened a jewelry store on the corner of Fourth and Pike in downtown Seattle, Washington in 1912. Ten years later, Silverman’s daughter married Ben Bridge, who served as a Chief in the US Navy during World War I. Silverman invited Bridge to join him as a partner. They worked together, operating their store jointly for the next five years. In 1927, Sam Silverman moved to California and sold his stake in the store to his son-in-law. Bridge became full owner of the store and renamed it Ben Bridge Jeweler.

Herb started working in the store as a child. In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor and as the US was about to declare war on Japan, the 17-year-old Herb told his father that he wanted to follow in his footsteps and join the navy. With his father’s permission to enlist, Herb began a naval career that lasted some 40 years. Just as his career at the family jewelry store, he started from the bottom, serving as a seaman. Quickly his commanders recognized his leadership qualities, and he was selected for an officer-training program. At 20 years-old, he was an ensign.

He was deployed to the Pacific Theater, where he fought in World War II, serving with distinction. “I liked pretty much everything about the Navy, from the uniforms to working with like-minded people for a higher cause,” he wrote in his book Building Bridges. “The ultimate draw, though, was my sense of patriotism.” During World War II, Bridge became part owner of the family store. His father sent him a letter announcing that for Herb’s 18 birthday he was granting him a one-quarter stake in the business. The letter included a note for $6,000, which he was asked to sign and return his father. “I don’t think Dad ever collected on it.”

After the end of the war, Herb returned to Seattle, joined the U.S. Navy Reserve and went to the University of Washington to complete his studies. He was called back to duty during the Korean War, where he served as close air support, directing planes supporting the combat troops fighting on the ground. In 1976, he was promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the Navy Reserve. During the years as a navy reservist, Bridge also attended the Naval War College, served on Admiral John McCain, Jr.’s staff, and commanded a fleet in the Indian Ocean for several months in an operation off the coast of Oman.

While he was very dedicated to his navel career, Bridge was first and foremost a jewelry business owner, dedicated to growing his business through innovation and applying some of the lessons of managing large organizations he gleaned from his navel experience. After World War II, he returned to the family jewelry store, working with his brother Bob alongside their father.

With the extra management power that Herb and Bob brought to the store, in 1950 the family decided to open a second location, this one in Bremerton, Washington. For two Navy officers, experienced in tense situations and a chain of command, working in close quarters together should not have been a problem. However, father and son did not always get along, and at one point Herb decided to leave the family business and move away to Denver, Colorado. His mother stepped in, insisting that family was more important than business and convinced Ben to make more room for the sons to run the business. In 1955, after 25 years at the helm, Ben turned over store management to his sons.

When they took full management of the business and two stores, the brothers decided to peruse an expansion strategy. First, they had to figure out why the performance of the Bremerton store was not up to their expectations. They decided on a cautious approach and instead of opening new stores, they accepted an invitation from JC Penny to manage the jewelry departments in JC Penny's department stores in the Seattle area in the early 1960s. The experience proved invaluable. Working in this environment gave Herb front-row exposure to policies and practices relating to chain-store management as well as the challenges and solutions to operating in a shopping mall.

With the lessons of operating a chain of stores learned, the next Ben Bridge store was opened in the Southcenter Mall, located between Seattle and Tacoma, in 1968. With several stores, a growing inventory, more sales and a lengthening customer list, Herb decided to not only computerize their operation, but to create their own software to manage their operations. This decision proved critical for their growth plan. With it, they were able to track their sales and adjust their inventory much more efficiently than their competitors. Years later, Bridge credited the software development, which today seems obvious, for their success in expanding their chain. With shrewd business judgement, they generated an additional cash stream by selling the software to other business owners – as long as they were not jewelry stores owners.

In 1980, they opened a store in Portland, Oregon, their first store outside Washington State, and in 1982 their first store in California opened, in San Mateo. With that, the chain stretched the entire Pacific coast of the United States. Herb continued to pursue their expansion plan, and by the end of the 1980s, the number of stores rose to 39. Their careful planning paid off, and in the next decade the number of stores in the chain continued to rise. By the late 1990s, Ben Bridge Jeweler operated 62 stores in 11 states. The strength of the brand, combined and reinforced with well-executed staff education, led to success that was also reflected in the company’s bottom line. They achieved an annual average 15% revenue growth in the previous 15 years. Yet, while the company performed very well financially, Herb started to worry about the future.

In 1990, Herb was 65-years-old, running the company with his brother Bob for 35 years. Being a family business, Herb and Bob’s children, the fourth generation, were working at the sores. All started from the ground floor, and several of them were in management positions. Remembering the difficulties he had with his own father, his concerns were related to the future leadership of the company. With such a large operation, issues of estate transfer and inheritance taxes were also things to keep in mind – and plan. A hand over to the next generation took place. Herb’s son Jon and Bob’s son Ed were appointed to head the company. Herb remained onboard as co-chairman.

In 1999, after exploring and rejecting an idea to go public, the family approached Warren Buffet. In May 2000, after a series of discussions, Ben Bridge Jeweler was purchased by Berkshire Hathaway. The holding company liked the business model, and felt that the company had the right management in place. Herb and Bob remained co-chairmen after the acquisition, while Jon and Ed continued to run the day-to-day operations.

Early in his career as a store owner in downtown Seattle, Herb realized that to succeed, the area needed to be attractive, not just the store. He enlisted other store owners in the area and formed an association that ensured that downtown Seattle would be clean, organized and pleasant. Each store paid dues based on the size of the store and collectively employed a team that picked up garbage, swept the sidewalks, and kept up the pleasant appearance. This activity, and others that helped the many homeless people who lived in the area, earned Herb the nickname “Mr. Downtown.”

As malls located outside of the city rose in prominence and attracted a growing number of consumers at the expense of the downtown area, he helped form an organization that further promoted the downtown area. He advocated finding housing solutions for the homeless, improving education, especially at primary schools. He was involved in a wide range of organizations, including leadership roles at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Washington Athletic Club, Better Business Bureau, and Rotary Club of Seattle, among others. He donated to and supported the United Way, as well as environmental causes.

His activities for the benefit of the American jewelry industry were also widely recognized. He served as chair of the American Gem Society (AGS) board of trustees, which awarded him the Robert M. Shipley Award in 2003 as well as the Triple Zero – once in 2000 and again in 2012. In 2008, he was honored by the 24 Karat Club of Southern California for his years of industry service.

When Herb Bridge died at the age of 93, he left behind a legacy of military service, civic leadership, and a thriving business with 93 stores, many of them franchises of the Pandora jewelry brand. Currently, Lisa Bridge, a fifth generation of the family, is president and Chief Operating Officer of Ben Bridge Jeweler.

 

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