A South Louisiana gem

It was a dream of opening his own business that led Lee Michael Berg to strike out on his own in 1978 and open the first Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry store in Cortana Mall.

Berg moved his family to Baton Rouge from his hometown of Dallas in order to open the store. He had recently given up a job on the East Coast with Zales, where he had moved eight times in eight years.

“It was a dream and a desire to have my own business,” Berg said. That’s what led him to Baton Rouge for a chance to open a jewelry store in the then-recently opened Cortana Mall.

After years of growth and success, Lee Michaels has become a business with locations across three states, with annual sales of more than $50 million. And Berg is working on handing the company over to his three sons.

Berg, 65, said he’s slowing down. “It’s interesting,” he said, sitting back in a boardroom in the company’s corporate offices off Siegen Lane. “I’m not going to be judged by the company I started, or built, or ran. I’ll be judged how well I transition this business.”

Scott Berg, 37, who serves as market president for the Baton Rouge locations, said he’s glad his father had the foresight to work on a transition process while he was still capable.

“He’s such a wealth of knowledge,” Scott Berg said. “He’s seen everything in this industry.”

Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry has eight stores in six markets: Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette, Shreveport, Jackson, Miss., and San Antonio, Texas.

The company also operates three franchise Pandora jewelry stores in Baton Rouge, Metairie and San Antonio, along with the Baton Rouge Gold Market.

The company invested in Pandora to cater to another segment of the jewelry market.

The average sales ticket at a Pandora store is about $100 and the stores do up to $40,000 a day in sales. In contrast, the average purchase at a Lee Michaels store is $1,000 and the stores do between $300,000 to $400,000 a day in sales.

“It’s a very different business, but we’re still in the celebration business,” Scott Berg said.

Ryan, the oldest son, is president of the San Antonio market, also overseeing the Lafayette stores. Scott, the middle son, oversees Baton Rouge. Chad, the youngest son, is general manager of the New Orleans market, also overseeing the Jackson store.

All of the sons followed in their father’s footsteps and are active in their communities and in the jewelry industry. Scott Berg is chairman of the Capital Area United Way and is set to become president of the American Gem Society.

“There’s not an industry organization either myself or my three sons have not been president or high on the board,” Lee Michael Berg said.

Scott Berg said the company has put a lot of time, energy and effort into making capital improvements at most of its stores in the past seven years.

“We want to make all our stores look like flagship stores,” he said. “If you’re in New Orleans, we want you to feel like you are in our best store; if you are in Baton Rouge, we want you to feel like you’re in our best store.”

Lee Michael Berg said this pursuit of a uniform customer experience is all part of an effort to brand the store.

“Everything has to be as consistent as possible if you’re building a brand across a three-state region,” he said.

To hammer home this consistency, every one of Lee Michaels’ 225 employees carries around a small card outlining the company’s expectations, customer service guidelines and core values. Those cover everything from making the best first impression by welcoming clients with a smile and introduction to sending thank you notes for every transaction of more than $250.

“We stole the idea from the Ritz-Carlton,” Lee Michael Berg said.

The idea of having a mission statement in the hands of every employee may not be original, but the company is committed to the values. Every day, all the employees meet to discuss a core value.

“Don’t write down and publish what you want to do and what you stand for if you don’t teach it daily,” Lee Michael Berg said. “The easiest thing in the world is to print one of these cards up. The most difficult thing is to get everybody to believe in it and be aligned behind it.”

The overarching goal behind this fits in with Lee Michael’s vision statement: to be first choice. That covers everything from being the first choice for a customer who is looking to buy jewelry to being the first choice for a wholesaler who wants to distribute jewelry locally to being the first choice where an experienced jeweler wants to work.

The key to making sure Lee Michaels is the first choice in so many segments goes back to the company’s culture and hiring the right people.

“The most important asset we have are our people,” Scott Berg said. “And finding people and making it work is not the easiest part of this business.”

“I tell people all the time we’re not in the jewelry business any longer, we’re in the people business,” Lee Michael Berg said. “Jewelry is easy.”