The path to business success isn't paved with gold.
Just ask Kathy Bigham, whose Bigham Galleria on U.S. 41 is among the most prominent jewelers in Naples.
Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida will induct Bigham, president and CEO of Bigham Jewelers, into the Collier County Business Hall of Fame in October. She will be inducted alongside veteran banker and Florida State Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples.
Bigham knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur early in life, far from the glitz of Naples. She grew up in Cleveland and was the first in her family to attend college.
“I watched my parents struggle with money; they lived paycheck to paycheck,” she recalls. “I don't ever want to struggle with money, and I don't want my family to struggle.”
What they lacked in financial resources, Bigham's parents gave their daughter in encouragement. Her father inspired her to get a paper route at age 10 and she would wake at 4 a.m. to deliver newspapers before school. “As soon as I was old enough, I cut my neighbors' lawns and shoveled driveways,” Bigham says.
Her father also encouraged Bigham to cut lawns for free for neighbors who couldn't afford it. “It taught me a valuable lesson,” Bigham says. “I've always enjoyed making money and helping others.”
A middle-school teacher with dazzling jewelry inspired Bigham at a young age. Later, at Kent State University, she'd spend weekends observing how a jeweler set diamonds and created small masterpieces. “I just walked into a store and I said, 'I'm a college student, can I observe you?'” she says. Then, she added: “I'd be happy to clean up after you.”
Armed with some knowledge and a vendor's license, Bigham collected her $2,000 in savings and risked it all: she bought a collection of jewelry, wholesale. She sold the collection out of a briefcase to anyone who would listen. “I sold to friends, family, country clubs,” she says. “I made a very small margin, but it helped me turn my inventory.”
Bigham scheduled evening classes at Kent State so she could work as a truck dispatcher during the day. It provided little time for a social life, which was OK. “When I first went to college, my roommates flunked out,” she says. “Boy, that could've been me,” she realized.
Bigham went to work for Akron Diamond Trading Co. after she earned a business degree from Kent State. She soon was the top salesperson, and then she opened three new stores.
By age 27, she managed eight stores and 80 people. The family owners tried to get Bigham to stay. They even offered her a new BMW.
But Bigham had bigger plans. In 1995 she moved to Naples, drawn by the affluent population, and opened her own store. “The growth of this town was exploding, and I saw the potential,” she says. “We sold our house and took the equity from the home and invested in our store.”
Bigham also got a business loan from Northern Trust to help open the first store, which was 2,800 square feet. Still, she signed personal guarantees and collateral. “Failure wasn't an option,” she says. “I never let it enter my mind.”
Bigham created an advisory board of people she knew from Ohio, including retired bankers, retailers and marketing executives who could offer her advice to build her business. “I offered them jewelry at a discount for compensation,” she says.
The store was profitable in its first year and sales today, in the 28,000-square-foot Bigham Galleria, are 20 times the average jewelry store on a per-square-foot basis (Bigham declines to share sales figures). “We outgrew our location in the first five years,” Bigham says.