Ben Bridge Jeweler, Inc. History
Seattle, Washington 98121
Telephone: (206) 448-8800
Fax: (206) 448-7456
Sales: $88 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 448310 Jewelry Stores
At Ben Bridge, we're proud of our 90 years of serving our communities with the very best in jewelry values with special attention to personal, caring service. Our commitment to professionalism means that we have more Registered Jewelers and Certified Gemologists of the American Gem Society than any other jeweler in North America. We want you to think of us not just as a jewelry store, but as your personal jeweler, and we look forward to assisting you with all of your fine jewelry needs. Please accept our invitation and consider yourself welcome in any of our over 70 retail store locations or our online store. Experience the pleasure of receiving the kind of true personal service that you deserve from people who really care at Ben Bridge Jeweler.
- Samuel Silverman opens a jewelry store in Seattle.
- Ben Bridge becomes a partner in the jewelry store.
- Ben Bridge acquires full ownership of the Seattle store.
- A second store, located in Bremerton, Washington, opens.
- Ben Bridge's sons take control of the company.
- The company's first out-of-state store, located in Portland, Oregon, opens.
- Ben Bridge Jeweler enters the California market.
- Ben Bridge's grandsons assume responsibility for daily management of the company.
- Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway acquires Ben Bridge Jeweler. locations for each new store they established, yet presided over a 56-store chain spread throughout nine states by 1998. Looking ahead from this point, expansion plans called for adding between 30 and 40 new retail outlets in as many as three new geographic markets during the ensuing decade.
By the end of the 1990s, Ben Bridge Jeweler operated 62 stores in 11 states, having achieved 15 percent annual revenue growth during the previous 15 years. Financially, the company was performing admirably, but there were concerns weighing on the minds of the company's top executives. The concerns were related to the succession of leadership, estate transfer issues, and inheritance taxes that had the potential to cripple the company. Like their fathers and grandfather, Ed and Jon Bridge took the long-term survival of the company seriously and wanted to ensure that the company carried on after their departure. The pair discussed a range of solutions to the problems the company faced, including the idea of converting to public ownership, but Ed Bridge eventually followed the advice of a colleague in the jewelry industry and made a telephone call in December 1999. On the other end of the line was multi-billionaire investment legend Warren Buffett.
When Ed Bridge made the telephone call in December 1999, he was hoping Buffett would be interested in acquiring Ben Bridge Jeweler. He saw Buffett's intervention as his best course of action primarily because of Buffett's preference to let the existing management of his acquisitions operate with little interference. To Ed Bridge's surprise, Buffett was interested in his proposal, attracted by Ben Bridge Jeweler's record of profits and growth and seeing the company as an ideal complement to Borsheim's Jewelry Company and Helzberg's Diamond Shops Inc., two other jewelry chains he owned. The deal was completed in May 2000, when Buffett's holding company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., became the new owner of the 88-year-old enterprise.
Ben Bridge Jeweler celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2002 as a firmly footed, respected name in the jewelry industry. In the wake of its acquisition by Buffett, much remained the same at the family-run enterprise, with the Bridge family's dedication to stability and careful expansion underpinning the company's strength. By 2003, the company operated 71 stores in 11 western states, with its most recent expansion program carving a presence in Texas, home to eight Ben Bridge Jeweler outlets. The company also had begun marketing a branded diamond, selling the Ben Bridge Signature diamond in 2002, which was followed by a Canadian diamond brand, the Ikuma. "I believe in brands," Ed Bridge explained in his August 1, 2003 interview with National Jeweler, "but they have to be meaningful brands. I still want the two most important brands we promote to be our store name and the name of the sales associate standing across the counter."
Ben Bridge Jeweler, Inc. is a retailer of jewelry and timepieces with more than 70 stores scattered throughout 11 western states. Ben Bridge Jeweler ranks as the 12th largest retailer in the country. Most of the company's stores are located in shopping malls, where the company is regarded as a valuable tenant. A family-run business, Ben Bridge Jeweler is led by the fourth generation of the Bridge family. Warren Buffett, through his holding company Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns the company.
One of the nation's largest chains of jewelry stores began with one store in 1912. Samuel Silverman, a watchmaker, opened his store in downtown Seattle, beginning a business that would endure for the remainder of the century, but not with his name on the storefront. The name of the business went to his son-in-law, Ben Bridge, who became a partner in the store's operation in 1922, the year he married Silverman's daughter, Sally Silverman. In 1927, Samuel Silverman decided to move to California for health reasons, and he offered his stake in the store to his son-in-law. Ben Bridge purchased his father-in-law's interest in the store and renamed it Ben Bridge Jeweler, starting what would become a family dynasty in the retail jewelry business.
There were two defining characteristics of the Bridge enterprise that were passed down from generation to generation. From the start of Bridge's full ownership in 1927, a policy of promoting only from within the company was strictly adhered to, and this practice enabled the company to record one of the lowest employee-turnover rates in the jewelry industry. All management and administrative positions were filled by selecting employees who had started out on the sales floor, a rule that applied to Bridge family members as well. The other dominant trait was the company's conservative approach to expansion. Ben Bridge Jeweler eventually developed into a chain, but the company pursued expansion extremely cautiously, careful not to overextend its financial resources by expanding too rapidly.
The company's conservative approach to growth was instilled by the family patriarch. Ben Bridge's first decade of business on his own presented a crucible for survival. The debilitative economic conditions during the 1930s nearly forced Ben Bridge to declare bankruptcy, putting him in a position he never wanted to occupy again. Suppliers were demanding payment, and for a period of time Bridge was unable to meet their demands. Bridge eventually was able to pay his creditors back in full, with interest, but the pain of the experience did not disappear after he had escaped the ravages of the Great Depression. "He never wanted to owe anybody again," his grandson, Ed Bridge, remarked in an August 1, 2003, interview with National Jeweler.
Fiscal prudence and conservative growth were leadership attributes inherited by Ben Bridge's sons, Herb Bridge and Robert (Bob) Bridge. The brothers were actively involved in the family business when it took its first step outside downtown Seattle. In 1950, the company opened its second retail outlet, establishing a store in nearby Bremerton, Washington. Bob Bridge managed the Bremerton store while his brother and father ran the flagship store. At first, the new store fared well, replicating the success of the Seattle store during its first two years of business. After the initial success, however, sales dropped and never returned to their previous level. Later, the Bridges realized they lacked the expertise required to orchestrate the planning for a multi-store operation, but at the time of the Bremerton's flagging sales there were more pressing, personal problems afflicting the family business.
For a family renowned for its unity, the tensions that cropped up during the early 1950s represented an unusual moment of discord. In Bremerton, Bob Bridge felt too far removed from the excitement of the Seattle store. At the Seattle store, Herb Bridge was experiencing his own feelings of frustration. He and his father were at odds over the management of the store, unable to agree on the day-to-day decisions related to its management. Herb Bridge's frustration grew to a point that prompted him to search for a job elsewhere. In 1955, he informed his father that he was moving to Denver, where the retail jeweler Zale had offered him a position. Upon learning of his son's intention to leave, Ben Bridge called a family meeting and, as Ed Bridge recounted in his August 1, 2003 interview with National Jeweler, "laid his keys on the table and said, 'Boys, I'm out.' And he walked out." In an earlier interview, Ed Bridge remarked, "Ben didn't want to be the one to drive the family apart," as quoted in the July 17, 1992 issue of the Puget Sound Business Journal. "He wanted the family business to be a unity venture."
Expansion Begins in the Late 1960s
After Ben Bridge's decision to hand the business over to the younger generation, Herb and Bob Bridge jointly led the retail firm. Under their control, the company revisited the idea of expansion, although it would be more than a decade before they made their first move. The problems with the performance of the Bremerton store made the brothers especially cautious about establishing a new location, but their reluctance faded somewhat after they gained confidence from an encouraging experience during the 1960s. Early in the decade, department store retailer J.C. Penney asked the Bridge brothers to manage the jewelry departments in the company's Seattle-area stores. The Bridges agreed, and for the next several years they gained first-hand knowledge of J.C. Penney's policies and practices relating to chain-store management. The brothers also were introduced to the intricacies of the operating in a shopping mall environment, where the bulk of Ben Bridge Jeweler's expansion would take place during the ensuing decades.
After honing managerial skills related to administrating a multi-store operation, the Bridges were ready to expand again. They opened their next store in 1968, establishing it in the Southcenter Mall, located between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. Over the course of the next ten years, Ben Bridge Jeweler developed into a small chain, becoming a six-store operation by the time the next generation of Bridges joined the company.
The third generation of Bridges consisted of cousins Ed and Jon Bridge, who would guide the company into the 21st century. Ed Bridge, the son of Bob Bridge, was the first to officially join the company, although both Ed and Jon Bridge spent their childhood and teenage years helping out with the family business. Ed Bridge, for example, swept the floors and polished the silver at the company's flagship location in downtown Seattle. After his graduation from the University of Washington with a degree in business administration and accounting, Ed Bridge began working on the sales floor in 1978, just before the company was scheduled to open its sixth store in Olympia, Washington. He spent only a few months on the sales floor before the prospect of promotion arrived unexpectedly. In December 1978, the company's chief financial officer announced his retirement, without warning, after 29 years of service. Bob Bridge asked his 22-year-old son to take charge of Ben Bridge Jeweler's finances. After serving several years as the company's chief financial officer, Ed Bridge assumed responsibility for the company's merchandising activities in 1981. His duties as chief financial officer were handed to his cousin Jon Bridge, the son of Herb Bridge, who joined the company in 1981 after serving in the military.
Although their fathers remained in control of the company, Ed and Jon Bridge assisted in a decade of prolific expansion for Ben Bridge Jeweler. The company opened its first out-of-state store in 1980, when an outlet debuted in Portland, Oregon. In 1982, the company entered the California market, opening a store in San Mateo. Although industry pundits continued to note the company's conservative approach to expansion when the 1980s were over, the growth achieved during the decade greatly increased its stature. The chain grew from seven stores in 1980 to 39 stores in 1990. The bulk of the company's expansion was achieved in California, where it had 20 stores in operation by the beginning of the 1990s, a juncture that also marked the succession of control from Herb and Bob Bridge to Ed and Jon Bridge.
In September 1990, daily management of Ben Bridge Jeweler officially passed to Ed and Jon Bridge, the fourth generation of family leadership when Silverman's tenure at the company was included. When the Bridge cousins took over, the company's stores were located throughout Washington and into Oregon, California, Alaska, and Hawaii, representing a regional chain of distinction. According to industry estimates cited in the October 22, 1990, issue of the Puget Sound Business Journal, the company's 1,400-square-foot stores each generated between $1.2 million and $2 million in annual sales, adding up to a chain that was collecting at least $45 million in annual sales. Expansion plans for the first five years of the decade called for adding between three and four stores annually, but only if market conditions and prospective locations were ideal. "Our biggest challenge in the 1990s," Ed Bridge explained in a July 17, 1992 interview with the Puget Sound Business Journal, "is going to be saying 'No.'"
Ben Bridge Jeweler eyed expansion assiduously during the 1990s, but the company's cautious approach did not impede it from adding a substantial number of new stores during the decade. Ed and Jon Bridge rejected roughly six prospective
- Gomelsky, Victoria, "Ed Bridge: Best in the West," National Jeweler, August 1, 2003, p. 58.
- Prinzing, Debra, "A Local Business That Slays Jewelry Giants: Ben Bridge," Puget Sound Business Journal, October 22, 1990, p. 5.
- Virgin, Bill, "Buffett Firm to Acquire Ben Bridge Jeweler," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 19, 2000, p. D1.
- Volk, David, "Building a 'Bridge' that Lasts," Puget Sound Business Journal, July 17, 1992, p. 18.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.60. St. James Press, 2004.