by Kitty Axelson-Berry
You’re from Lebanon originally. When did you come here?
We were all born in Lebanon and immigrated to the United States in 1971. We landed in Boston and went to Lawrence for five years, then Wilbraham, then Springfield.
Did your family bring substantial savings or other resources that helped you all get started?
We came with the shirts on our bodies, as they say. My older brothers immediately started working, doing jewelry repairs, and we saved everything, saved and saved, and then we were able to open the first store. Every time we had some money, we put it into the business.
Did you get support from the Lebanese community here?
As a family, we have always supported each other. This is what it is to be a family. But did we get support from the Lebanese community? No, but of course, we made sure there was a Lebanese community when we moved somewhere. And so now we have 28 stores that we own and six franchises–one in Falmouth, one in Dedham, another one in Manchester (Connecticut) and another one in White Plains, New York. And the two that are opening very soon, in Pittsfield and Northampton.
Do all the brothers work together?
One of my brothers has two stores of his own in New York. He prefers being on his own, making his own decisions. He worked with us but he prefers to be making his own decisions. We would have preferred him to be with us here.
Do you have formal meetings?
We see each other, and talk to each other, all the time. Always. For example, we eat lunch together, whoever is around, at one brother’s house or at another brother’s house. Today, we ate at my Mother’s, who lives with one of my brothers. We have formal meetings maybe once a month.
Who leads them?
Everyone does, no one in particular. Always one knows more than the others if there is a decision to be made.
Each brother has a special area, how did that come about?
Whatever was needed, there was someone to do it. I do the legal and financial work, which I learned by immersing myself in it. One of my brothers does all the buying and working with vendors, traveling to New York, to Israel, all over. We import our own diamonds and color stones.Another handles displays. One of my brothers does the hiring and personnel. Another does all of the construction work on the stores. One takes care of the repairs, makes sure every piece is done properly. Another goes to each of our stores, walks around and talks to customers making sure things are going well.
And you trust each other’s judgement?
Yes, we do. We do not have to talk to each other about most decisions, but if there is a major decision, we all decide. If my brother feels there is a vendor who is better than the one we’ve been using, he is the one who knows these things (and) he will tell us about it and we’ll talk about it. If there is a store that should be opened, we all discuss it but one brother will know about what is involved and will be telling us about that, so in a sense he will be leading that meeting. We make decisions as a family, discussing things and talking about them.
But when you really see things differently, do you leave it to the brother whose area of responsibility it is?
Between myself and my brothers, if we disagree with something, for example whether to move a manager from one location to another, we tell him, “It’s not the right move, find somebody else.” That’s the end of that even though it’s his job, OK? Now it’s up to him to show us why we’re making the wrong decision. At the end, if we still disagree, the person gets out-voted and that’s the end.
Do brothers ever feel badly about it, when they’re over-ruled?
No. If they do, they get over it.
So you do nothing in particular to make him feel better?
No, that’s not necessary. It’s all shared. No one feels badly. And we all make mistakes.
Do you think you were raised in a way that influences how you work together now?
Yes, certainly. When we go to the meetings of that Family Business Center, a lot of the people who get up on the podium and speak their minds–psychologists or attorneys–their philosophies just totally contradict my feeling for how families should be or how ours is.
So how should families be?
Number One, people should realize that we all make mistakes. If you realize that, that’s half the battle. If someone makes a mistake against you, you have to be able to forgive. If you can be able to forgive, it will get you–most of the time–to agree at the end and keep going on the same path.
And it frees each person up to be energetic and creative?
Yes. Also, I believe in disciplining my children. So do all my brothers and their wives. (Disciplining) the child when he makes a mistake or says a bad word is not bad for a parent, in my book. I believe that children should be playing together. You should set rules.
Do you ever use the word “share” with your kids?
Always. Not only with each other but with everybody around them. And “please” and “thank you.” Being polite, being respectful. In a lot of places today, it is like we are losing them.
Do you admit, in front of the kids, when you’ve made a mistake?
I apologize to my son when I’m doing something that is not right. I’m not afraid to apologize.
Are stories told about the family’s history and how different individuals have experienced failures as well as successes?
We’re always discussing how other people are doing things, or when something happens in other families or in other areas, and the children hear it, or overhear it. What we try to do is to keep them all together so that they are always doing the things we want to be done. We are over-looking what they are doing. I don’t want my son to go and sleep over somebody’s house, a friend that he made in school. That friend he made in school may not really be a friend.It’s OK for them to come to my house or my brothers’ houses. I know who I am and how I behave with my kids and their friends, but I don’t know how the other parent behaves.
Would that extend to when your children are teenagers?
That’s the time I’m talking about. When they are young, they are not going anyplace! They are staying right in front of me. I don’t think you can just let go of a child, you’ve got to always have that hold on your child.
So they feel very much connected, part of a large family.
And I bet there are a lot of family get-togethers.
Yes, but it’s not a “get-together.” It’s a family. We’re always together. It’s not like getting together next week or the week after. We’re always together, OK?
How many of you brothers love the aesthetics of jewelry?
We all do.
Because it’s your business?
No, no! Jewelry is beautiful! I don’t know many people who don’t love jewelry. I don’t know any women who don’t love jewelry. I have a brother who doesn’t have to make the money from it, he does not have to be working in it, we’ve made it so large he could just sit there and watch it run, yet he still comes in here the first person and he leaves the last person.
I don’t understand. He doesn’t have to work?
He comes here first and he leaves last not because he has to, but because he loves what he’s doing. He looks at every repair job that comes in here and at everything that’s leaving this building. He doesn’t have to do it, but he enjoys it, seeing lovely things. It’s a lovely industry.
What if a brother didn’t want to be part of the business or didn’t do well in it?
That has not happened yet. If that happens, then we’ll deal with it.
Do you have an idea of what will happen with the next generation?
They’ll be the owners of this business. During the summer, we had a few of the (teenagers) working in the business, and they love it, they’re into it. And if they want something different that’s their choice.
Do you want your kids to study something related to the business, like business or geology?
I want them to major in whatever they want. I majored in biology and now I’m the treasurer. I was majoring in biology to become a doctor. I went to medical school and met the dean of admission, and that day I thought, “No, this is not what I want.” He told me, “You’re accepted if you want to come in.” I came back home and I told my brothers, “That’s not what I want.” Of course they all promised me anything I wanted–the Corvette, the this, the that, don’t worry, how much money you want?, we’ll do whatever there is, just stay in school and become a doctor. I said, “No, that’s not it,” so that was that.
Reprinted with permission of the UMass Family Business Center, online at www.umass.edu/fambiz.