08 Jul THE BIG INTERVIEW: Heady Days at Hyde Park Jewelers
Hyde Park Jewelers founder, owner and CEO Michael Pollak started his first business in 1973 selling Native American jewelry from the campus lawn of University of Denver, where he was studying retail marketing. Almost half a century later and he oversees a network of luxury watch and jewelry stores serving Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and California. He continues to focus on the US market west of Denver, but, as Rob Corder discovered in conversation with Mr Pollak, he thinks a combination of outstanding stores backed by advanced digital marketing and ecommerce will propel him to further success.
WatchPro: It is always a privilege to meet a self-made entrepreneur who has created his own business and, decades later, can share his experiences of how it all began and the journey from conception to the success we see today. Tell me, how and where did it all start?
Michael Pollak: I got the retail bug from my father, who was also an entrepreneur hailing from Gary, Indiana, which is a great city to escape from. He was a self-made man in the automobile industry who started as a gas station attendant and worked up to become a new car dealer. He was my inspiration and, while I had the opportunity to work for him, what I admired most was the fact that he did it all himself and I wanted to try to do the same thing.
Story continues below
While I was at the University of Denver, studying for a retail marketing degree, I had an opportunity through a friend who was wholesaling South Western Native American jewelry. I bought $500 worth of items originating from Navaho, Hopi and other tribes and set up shop on the lawn of the university outside the main classroom building in the spring and summer.
WatchPro: It is quite a leap from hawking Navaho jewelry to trading in Patek Philippe timepieces.
Michael Pollak: When I graduated, I joined the wholesaler who was my supplier of the Native American jewelry, but after a year I told them that the fad in America was waning and they needed to think about repositioning their offering. I talked them into selling out their inventory and opening an alternative jewelry store in South East Denver. By alternative, what I mean is that at that time in the late 1970s, there was a real fashion for getting back to nature. So I took a contemporary, slightly more edgy approach to fine jewelry that picked up that trend.
Our first store was 1000 square feet, and the most expensive item in the store was $300. That store opened in November 1976, so over 40 years ago. When I opened the store I had a business partner, and he remained my business partner for the next 30 years until, about 13 years ago, I bought him out.
WatchPro: What sort of personality were you in those days. It was a time of counter-culture and you were just leaving university in the prime of life? Were you more hippy, radical, businessman or a bit of everything?
Michael Pollak: My wife and I just made a donation to the University of Denver for a digital development laboratory because I am very committed to the digital side of our business and would like to help develop skills in that area as much as possible. On the day that the university opened up that lab, they sent me a picture from my yearbook.
I look like a young, long-haired college kid. But that was back in the seventies.
WatchPro: While all your contemporaries were off smoking weed, were you a lot more driven and focused?
Michael Pollak: It was a time in America — post-sixties — of discovery and self-expression. People were open to taking chances in lots of different ways. Many of my contemporaries were undergraduates in subjects that I could not see being useful like psychology and sociology. I knew that I wanted to be in business, so the retail marketing degree was right for me.
WatchPro: How did your first store in Denver perform?
Michael Pollak: It started very quietly and modestly. In our first 12 months of business we did sales of $144,000. But we had a lot of fun. It was a unique environment. We sold a lot of silver jewelry and a little bit of gold alongside ceramics and glass art. In the front entrance we had a beautiful bird cage with two doves. We also sold Famous Amos cookies and the New York Sunday Times. We took the approach that we wanted to communicate a lifestyle rather than focusing on a price point of a traditional approach to fine jewelry.
WatchPro: Moving on from the start-up phase, how did the next 20 years develop, and when did you first bring watches into the business?
Michael Pollak: We grew organically in Denver. We went from 1000 square feet to 5000 square feet and then a large developer opened up a mall in Cherry Creek, which is an important and affluent part of the city. The Cherry Creek Shopping Center attracted the first Nieman Marcus and the first Saks to the marketplace. It was about 5 miles away from us but we decided to open up a small store of about 1250 square feet. After 5 years that small store was doing as much business as our original store.
The retail map was moving very quickly. It was either going south of us or north of us. In 1999 we consolidated our entire business in a single location in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. At that time we went from two smaller stores to a single much larger store of around 12,000 square feet.
WatchPro: It sounds like you must also have learned a pretty valuable lesson about pushing up average transaction values?
Michael Pollak: Yes. From the outset my aims was to learn as much as I could and take inspiration and guidance from a lot of other business people. Right at the beginning, my vision was to get into luxury retail, which we eventually managed.
Only the third watch brand we managed to get was Cartier. This was in the days before it was owned by Richemont and was called Les Must de Cartier. The company made watches, but also accessories like lighters, pens and some leather goods and was being sold through a drug store company. We expressed an interest and Cartier…