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March 2007
Carrying on a Sparkling Tradition
By Lisa Hoffmann

      About 50 years ago, Donald Haack left suburban Wisconsin with his new wife Janet and headed for the wilds of British Guiana (now Guyana) in South America. He became a bush pilot, a dangerous occupation involving flying in remote regions and relying on your own resourcefulness for your very survival. In Donald’s book Bush Pilot in Diamond Country, and Janet’s companion book A Light on the Runway, the Haacks describe in great detail the years they spent on this adventure, during which Donald became a diamond mining company president involved with diamond cutters around the world.
    
The government in British Guiana became increasingly unstable in the mid-’60s and the nation’s economy rapidly declined. Thus ended the adventurous lifestyle of the bush pilot diamond hunter and began the legacy of a man who had come to know the diamond industry from the inside out. The Haacks committed themselves to use that knowledge to encourage an appreciation of the unparalleled beauty of a high quality finely cut diamond.
     For a while, the Haacks dealt in the wholesale diamond market, bartering with brokers and dealing only in the business of diamonds. Working from First Union Plaza and later on the 25th floor of the Charlotte Plaza uptown, they supplied jewelers in the Southeast and regularly dealt with customers across the globe. Although it wasn’t as exciting as the bush pilot days, the business was doing well. 
    Donald Haack remembers: “Eventually it just became a banking business. The cut and clarity of the stones was not as important to the jewelers as it was to us. They were only interested in price. That went against our basic philosophy.”
    The Haacks moved the store to the mezzanine of One First Union Center and began a business shift to the retail market. All was going well but for one basic problem: parking. Customers told the Haacks they didn’t want to come uptown, fight the traffic and try to figure out where to park. The Haacks tried reserving parking for their customers and even dabbled in valet parking but nothing could overcome the obstacle that uptown parking presented. So they began scouting new locales.
     The Haacks settled on the current location on Sharon Road across from SouthPark mall 12 years ago, basing the decision on the local demographics and a traffic study revealing that 35,000 cars were going by the building every day. As expected, the convenience of this location increased revenues.
     “We could have easily doubled our size if we’d lowered our standards. That’s just not part of our business philosophy.”
     Julie Haack Kral has watched her parents grow their business from the mines up. Having been recently named company president, she is anxious to carry on Donald Haack Diamonds’ well-established tradition of offering only the very best jewelry at sensible prices. She takes that responsibility very seriously.

 Passing the Torch
    
Haack Kral is no stranger to the jewelry business having spent many years greeting customers and selling wedding bands here and there. She’s a very social being, she says, and enjoys spending time with customers and witnessing their joy at finding beautiful jewelry to mark the most important milestones in their lives. She eventually became a company vice president and focused on sales, design and buying. Haack Kral has a degree in naturopathic medicine from Clayton College in Birmingham, Ala.
    About five years ago, Donald and Janet Haack asked Julie over a casual dinner if she’d consider becoming the company president. “I said ‘sure!’ right away. But later that evening I thought ‘What in the world have I done?’” Haack Kral says. “I knew that I just wasn’t cut out for pushing people into buying and the staff into selling. But then I realized that’s not what’s happening here.”
     The guiding philosophy at Donald Haack Diamonds, to offer expert service and superior jewelry at sensible prices, means that there is no high-pressure selling going on. In fact, one of the biggest challenges the Haacks faced years ago when transitioning from wholesale to retail was building and maintaining a knowledgeable sales staff.
    “Building a staff we can really trust and be confident in is difficult,” explains Janet Haack. “We don’t want to just hire a salesperson who doesn’t understand the business. That wouldn’t serve our customers the way we want to.”
    Finding someone who has the character and personality of a salesperson who is also knowledgeable about diamonds, colored gems and/or pearls is a wonderful discovery, Haack Kral says. “Those are the people we work to hold on to.”
     Most of the sales people working at the store hold some sort of certification in gemology, and Haack Kral is working toward her gemology degree. 
     Donald himself has a degree in economics and finance; however, it is his years of experience mining diamonds, working with diamond cutters, brokering diamonds and selling diamonds that more than qualifies him as an expert.=
     Indeed, he discovered just how much of an expert he was when he found a five carat pink diamond at an international show in Las Vegas a few years back. “When I saw it I just gulped,” he says. “It was spectacular. So I asked the price. And then I gulped again.” He suspected the seller, who didn’t know much about colored diamonds, had greatly undervalued the diamond. After much deliberation, he bought it. It was a risk to the business, and he admits it put a kink in their cash flow.
     Wife Janet, who keeps a close eye on company finances, was not particularly pleased with his decision to purchase the diamond. “We were getting ready to leave for Australia and I couldn’t believe he’d bought it,” she says. “I told him he had to sell it before we left.”
     Donald Haack made 95 calls to prospective clients. The second person who came in to see it bought it. After having it appraised he realized he’d gotten an incredible deal.
     “That was a happy customer,” Donald Haack says with a chuckle. “And he probably saved my marriage.”

 Getting the Message Out
     
As Haack Kral considers her strategy for guiding Donald Haack Diamonds into the future, she faces a particular challenge: peoples’ perception of the store as limited only to wealthy customers. Sure, it offers the $100,000-plus pieces. But its price points start at under $100. The company has done such a good job of advertising its high-end items that many people with limited budgets shy away. Haack Kral’s concern lies not just in the future of the company, but in the customers’ investment returns.
      “Many men mistake low cost for best value,” she explains. “They don’t realize that the precision of cut and the type of certification have everything to do with the price. We take the care to answer all the customer’s concerns before they are even voiced them.”
      In that same vein, Donald Haack Diamonds very carefully selects the pieces of designer brand jewelry they carry. ”Branded items often cost us as much as we would typically charge a customer. “In the case of pearls, for instance,” Haack Kral says, “I try to make people understand that the oyster works just as hard making the pearl for us as it does for any famous designer.”
     “We often tell people we are the experts. Our level of education and knowledge surpasses that of many stores across the nation. One of my main purposes is to keep the standards of the jewelry industry ethical and high. We are not the store with the lowest price, but we are the store with the best price and the finest value.” 
     At Donald Haack Diamonds, most of the diamonds, gems and pearls are loose. This allows the customer to judge the stone’s quality and offers more design flexibility. Most people don’t realize that imperfections can be hidden behind ring settings, and clarity and color are most discernable in a loose stone. The staff is happy to make setting and design suggestions. It’s all about educating the customer and making them happy.  
      In an effort to make the store appear less intimidating, Haack Kral started planning jewelry parties there, complete with mimosas in the morning or wine and hors d’oeuvres in the evening. They held about seven parties last year. Invariably, guests leave the parties saying, “I never knew you were so much fun!”
     Haack Kral estimates that 70 percent of the store’s customers are repeat buyers and that the majority of new customers are referrals. “Once someone purchases a piece here, they start leading their friends and relatives in by the hand,” she says.
      The key to customers’ enthusiasm, Haack Kral suspects, is that she takes the time to get to know them. She observes their style and asks questions about their lifestyles before suggesting jewelry items. Many women don’t understand what looks good on them or don’t know what kind of style they like. Haack Kral helps them makes those discoveries, which leads to very successful purchases.
       In the short time that Haack Kral has been the major strategic planner for the company, she has introduced a larger number of unique and eclectic pieces to the collection. So far, they’ve been well-received. 
       She is also in the habit of keeping an eye out for pieces she knows a particular client will love. When she called one client with a jewelry suggestion, she was surprised to hear the women reply that she already had as much jewelry as she could ever want or need. That got Haack Kral thinking. She’d seen amazing work done by Lawrence Stoller, a renowned gem artist, at several shows she’s attended. That epiphany led her to start offering unique gem art to customers, which she has dubbed “jewelry for the home.” Several stunning examples, including an amethyst-encrusted cut geode, stand majestically in her office. “Crystals are just so magnificent and carry so much energy!” she exclaims with infectious enthusiasm.
      Haack Kral plans to continue to offer a more expansive line of jewelry and gem art in the same way she sells everything at Donald Haack Diamonds—with the customers’ needs and wants foremost in her mind. As she steers the company into the future, she follows the teachings of her father.
     “For so many jewelry stores the only god they know is ‘make the sale,’” he says. “Our tenet has always been to make the customer happy and give him the best we have to offer.”
     Haack Kral adds: “It’s our goal to be more of a personal buyer or adviser of sorts, so that we can continue to offer superior quality and personalized service. That’s what our customers like and that’s what makes us feel good.”

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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