Elegant accouterments abound at Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry, whose four decades of diamond-studded dominance has helped prove there’s nothing backwoods about the Bayou State.
The original opulent emporium opened in Baton Rouge’s Cortana Mall, but a Shreveport location was launched soon after in 1981. Housed in Pierremont Mall, it moved to Mall St. Vincent after a few short years. Its current venue, a large free-standing structure situated along Youree Drive near East 70th Street in the ever-bustling southeastern section of the city, showcases jaw-dropping jewelry that leaves buyers dazzled.
Big dreams can mean big success.
“I’ve got deep roots in Shreveport. I thought it was the right place to be, and our store does exceedingly well,” said Lee Berg — as in Lee Michael Berg, the founder and CEO of the company, the man who started small but now owns a jewelry empire in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and, before the end of the year, New Mexico.
He can’t believe it all began 40 years ago.
“Originally, I was worried about just surviving. Sometimes we struggled to make payroll,” said Berg, a self-described introvert who often had to leave his comfort zone to grow his business. “I’d wake up, go to work and take care of my customers no matter what.”
That approach has worked well for him — both then and now. However, he also knows the importance of taking care of his employees.
“We’re in the people business,” Berg said. “If we take care of our people, our people will take care of our customers. They make everything special.”
In the Shreveport store alone, at least five staff members have service years that reach well into the double digits. Location Manager and Senior Vice President Greg Johnson supervised a large fleet of competing stores before coming aboard 22 years ago. Berg spent quite a bit of time convincing him to cross over.
“Lee says I told him ‘no’ more than anybody else told him ‘no,’” said Johnson, who finally acquiesced when the Shreveport gig was thrown into the mix. He now runs a staff comprised of highly-trained jewelry professionals. “People don’t stay where they don’t feel comfortable — and I’ve been here a long time.”
Johnson enjoys working for Berg and can’t imagine taking a job elsewhere.
“(Berg) is very passionate about what he does,” Johnson said. “You can like him or not like him, but I feel you’ll respect him. In our industry, he’s looked at as a very unique individual. What he’s done usually takes three to four generations, and he’s pulled it off in one. And he’s done it big time at the highest level.”
Though Lee Michaels features jewelry, watches and other items created by nationally-renowned designers such as David Yurman and Rolex — and high-end customers can find just about anything they can dream of —more items are sold for under $300. Even $50 can buy something beautiful.
“We promote happiness, and we cater to every clientele,” said Johnson, who notes Louisiana-themed merchandise is popular. “People come to see us for many special occasions.”
Buyers quickly find sales associates aren’t disagreeable or stuffy, and that’s when they begin to open up — and often become clients for life.
“The best part is working with customers. You’re dealing with someone during what’s probably a special occasion in their life, and it’s nice to be part of that,” said Dee Paille, an assistant manager at the Shreveport store who has been with the company for 34 years. “Even though this isn’t my family business, I feel like I’ve helped Lee grow his family business.”
Danielle Dowden, who is also an assistant manager, originally thought she was applying for a bookkeeping position before she started working at Lee Michaels 16 years ago. However, it turned out to be a job in sales — and she hasn’t looked back since.
She’s especially proud to work for a corporation that is quick to help the local community. The company is involved with everything from the Shreveport Symphony to the United Way.
“We love our business, and we do well,” Dowden said. “I love that Lee is so good at giving back.”
Like all great businessmen, Berg is always thinking and planning ahead.
“We focus on what we need to improve as opposed to what we do right. The most important thing we sell is our name,” said Berg, who plans to continue to grow the company in the future.
He is nearing 70 and retirement looms on the horizon. His sons are already on board and eager to follow in his footsteps. Ryan, 45, Scott, 43, and Chad, 32, are based in three different cities and hold leadership positions within the business. They confer regularly with their father to talk about finances and to share other important information.
Berg has been married to his wife, Brenda — who he attended seventh grade with in his hometown of Dallas — for 48 years. The two divide their time between Baton Rouge and Laguna Beach, CA. They have seven grandchildren, six of whom are boys.
“The one thing my granddaughter doesn’t need is more jewelry,” Berg said. “I don’t even play golf. The only things important to me are my business and my family.”
Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry 40th Anniversary Reception
5 p.m. Sept. 27
6605 Youree Drive, Shreveport, LA