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Friday, March 4, 2011

Keeping It in the Family

Keeping It in the Family:
Fairfield Center Jewelers
(Appeared in Mar/Apr issue of Fairfield Magazine)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – For some, it’s difficult to work with family. Others can’t imagine working with anyone else. The latter is the case at Fairfield Center Jewelers, a constant in an ever evolving, bustling downtown community.

Interviewed recently at the store’s 1498 Post Road location, Harvey Sussman, 82, his son Bob, 45, and Harvey’s brother Jerome’s son-in-law, Howard Diamond, 63, provided background about how the business has grown over the years and the dynamic of relatives working together.

It was Harvey’s father Louis that began the business back in 1933, in the midst of the Depression, establishing a shop on Main Street in Bridgeport. Its focus was jewelry sales and watch repair. Notably, the business repaired mechanical pocket watches for New Haven Railroad and was an authorized service dealer for Westclox (clockmakers) and General Electric (clocks for automobile dashboards).

In 1946, after serving in the army, Jerome joined the business. Then brother Harvey came aboard in 1955, after serving in the Korean War, and opened the current store as a branch location.

“When we came to town, there were mostly mom and pop stores,” said Harvey. “The only other significant store was F.W. Woolworth’s.”

The initial Bridgeport store closed in the mid 60’s and inventory was merged into Fairfield. In 1970, Diamond joined, followed 18 years later by Bob, after graduating from college. Since Jerome’s retirement in 1998, the three run the day-to-day.

“We are the dinosaurs in town – the longest lasting family-owned business in downtown, handed down from father to son, father to son,” said Harvey proudly.

While the store’s footprint has remained the same, the business focus has changed from bridal registry and offering silver and china to brides-to-be, to a concentration on fine quality jewelry, fine diamonds, gemstones, platinum, gold and sterling.

“Our niche is really giving our customers extraordinary value for their dollar,” said Bob. “We can be very competitive without sacrificing quality.”

Working with family hasn’t always been easy. “At one point, we had four opinions on purchasing and inventory,” said Bob, “but at the end of the day and in a democratic fashion, the multiple opinions and experience became an intangible asset.”

Bob said a policy of open communication has also been helpful. “We can say what we need to, and run ideas around all the time.”

While the Sussmans have enjoyed a long business run, longevity carries over to both supplier relationships and staff as well. A bookkeeper that started with them at 16 stayed on for 50 years. Their in-house bench jeweler is still with the shop after 35 years.

“There’s no seasonal help. Everyone is a year-round employee knowledgeable in style and quality,” said Diamond.

According to Bob, though, the most important key to the family business’ success has been customer care. “We genuinely care about our customers and most of our business is done on a handshake, a tradition established by Grandpa Louis.”

Will next-generation Sussmans join the business? “You never know what the tide will bring in,” said Harvey.

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