Borsheim’s CEO Brings a Global Experience

Borsheim’s CEO Brings a Global Experience
B2B Quarterly (Spring 2002)
By Wendy Townley

If you’ve never met Susan M. Jacques, president and CEO of Borsheim’s Fine Jewerly and Gifts, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

For starters, don’t expect her to sound like a typical Omaha resident. Her roots in the British colony of Rhodesia – now known as Zimbabwe – left Jacques with a graceful and languid accent she doesn’t try to hide. Simple words such as “jewelry” and “always” roll off her tongue like lines of poetry you wished never ended.

Second, Jacques’ passion for jewelry – which is probably a good thing considering her job – began long before she moved to Nebraska’s largest city and assumed a job in one of the area’s most talked-about companies.

Third, with all the responsibilities she has (some may say warranted, considering who her boss is), Jacques is quick to let you know she’d never ask her employees to do something she’s not willing to do herself – such as working Sundays. It’s her decision for Borsheim’s to be closed on what she considers as “the week’s only family day.”

Finally, she treasures every day, challenge and opportunity because “I might get hit by a bus tonight,” she says with sincerity and a hidden smile. “You never know. It might be my time.”

Thankfully, Jacques’ time hasn’t yet run out, for Borsheim’s, Warren Buffett and the jewelry industry at large.

While Jacques says fate played an important role in her employment at Borsheim’s, it’s safe to say her hard work didn’t hurt either. After graduating from high school in what was Rhodesia, Jacques didn’t have plans for college. But some prodding from her mother changed all that. She spent a year at a secretarial school and shortly after, was hired as a junior secretary for Scottish Jewelers in Rhodesia at the tender age of 18.

In 1978, Scottish Jewelers was the largest jeweler in the country, with seven retail stores and a manufacturing factory with 100 jewelers, Jacques says. “It was a fun position,” Jacques recalls.

Not long after, as Rhodesia was in the middle of the throes of independence, Jacques’ father moved her and her two sisters to England for a year. She was hired as a secretary to the managing director of EMI Hotels.

Her heart remained in Rhodesia, however, and Jacques returned home a year later. She reapplied at Scottish Jewelers for a marketing position. “I looked into the fact that [the jewelry industry] is a real fun industry and there is obviously a bright future in it.” She later convinced her parents, an English father and Australian mother who were in the timber business, to send her to the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, Calif. “I was thrilled,” she says. “Santa Monica is a pretty delightful part of the earth to land in and there were actually five of us from Zimbabwe who came over at one time.”

After enrolling in classes at the institute, Jacques struck up a friendship with fellow classmate Alan Friedman – whose family just happened to own a little jewelry store 1,500 miles east in Omaha.

The two kept in touch after their 1980 graduation and Jacques’ move back home to Zimbabwe. “I went back for three months, but there wasn’t a promising future at that time. My heart was there and still is.”

Jacques’ professional reality was that if she wanted to make a life in the jewelry business, she couldn’t do it from home. In 1981 she packed her things once again and returned to the United States – this time at USGSI, a grading and certification laboratory for about a year.

As the investment era in diamonds and gemstones began to slow down, Jacques began looking for new waters to charter. Her friendship with Friedman sustained itself through phone calls, where he repeatedly asked Jacques to move to Omaha and work for Borsheim’s.

One day, Jacques said yes.

But she only planned to stay a year to get retail experience.

That was 20 years ago.

“If you would’ve asked me in 1982, when I first moved here, ‘Where do you see yourself 20 years from now?’ I probably would have given a variety of answers. I don’t think any of them would have included still being here in Omaha.”

After joining the Borsheim’s team as an appraiser/sales associate in 1982, she was promoted to jewelry merchandise manager/buyer four years later. In 1991, she was again promoted to senior vice president of Borsheim’s.

During Jacques’ early years at the company, Warren Buffett purchased a majority of Borsheim’s in 1989 from Ike Friedman, Alan’s father. (The remaining stock is still held by the Friedman family today).

A mere five years later, Buffett personally appointed Jacques as the company’s president and CEO. And even with the amount of notoriety this position brings, Jacques says she never planned on being a CEO. “I always knew that I wanted to succeed at whatever I did,” she says. “And, consequently, I didn’t have any burning, great desire that I wanted to head a company someday.”

But Buffett wanted her to. In fact, when he offered Jacques the position, she laughed. “I told him that I’m not very good at it and asked if I could go back to doing what I did before,” she recalls. “Warren took a great risk. I was 34 years old. I’d been with the company for 12 years but I didn’t have a strong relationship with Warren at that time. I feel very blessed that he took that risk.”

Jacques describes working for Buffett as a tremendous learning opportunity. “Just to be able to listen to him and his words of wisdom. Truly, he has a remarkable way of communicating, in many cases, very complicated, important issues into a very, very easily understandable manner. And I think that’s what so enjoyable. Plus, his encouragement is terrific.”

Eight years later, that encouragement continues. When Jacques isn’t working with the company’s management team or evaluating new products for the store, she’s in-transit somewhere – be it to meet with a customer (45 percent of the store’s business comes from customers not in Nebraska) or for a variety of meetings. But even after 20 years, the Midwest’s winters are still tough. “The last thing I ever wanted to do was live in a snow climate,” Jacques says. “I have a great aversion to the snow; my husband has to take me to work and pick me up when it snows.”

Even with the accomplishments and successes Jacques has experienced in her life, she feels most fortunate that, at the end of the day, she gets to be with her family. “I have my professional life and I have my family life, and they’re both very important to me. But I don’t take my work life home with me. As a mom and a wife, I don’t think that’s fair to do.” She and her husband, Gene Dunn, have two sons. The entire family calls Omaha home.

Jacques has taken her two sons to Zimbabwe several times to give them a sense of where she grew up. Dunn is an Omaha native, as are the two boys.

Jacques is a firm believer that a loving family environment translates back into one’s work. “It’s a balance, and there are stressful times. I’m not going to pretend that life’s always a bed of roses,” she says. “But you’ve got to strike that balance.”

With all that’s been added to Jacques’ resume since that first position as a secretary, she’s still a follower of luck and fate. “If Alan Friedman hadn’t been in my class . . . I would have met somebody different and my life would have taken a very different path. However you want to describe it, I believe we have some control over our destiny, but I don’t believe we have total control. You certainly seize the opportunities as they come your way.”

And it’s in those opportunities that Jacques says she finds life’s sweetest rewards. “I think that life takes us down wonderful roads and you’ve got to be willing to take the risk; you’ve got to be willing to sometimes deviate from you think the plan should be – and take a risk and take an adventure. And if it doesn’t work out, there’s usually another opportunity that’s going to present itself.”