How Alex and Ani Achieved Cult Status
When is a jewelry company not a jewelry company?
When it's a brand. That's how Giovanni Feroce explained the meteoric growth of Alex and Ani, which in 2010 was a $4.5 million artisanal business with a staff of 23 and today tops $200 million in sales and employs almost 900 people. The company's founder, Carolyn Rafaelian, explained to Feroce early on in their relationship hat her signature bangles were meant to convey positive energy. Feroce instantly understood that "what we sell is the meaning," he told an audience at the Inc. 5000 conference in Washington, D.C. "The jewelry just comes with it. So we advertise Alex and Ani, but we don't advertise what we do. I don't care what we do. Alex and Ani is a brand. It has to do with quality, with what we put into it."
Reframing a product company as a lifestyle brand dramatically changed how both leaders saw the business, said Feroce. And that changed everything about how the company forged partnerships, brought on people, and invested in everything from opening stores to buying advertising.
"Alex and Ani has been put into a what is known as a cult status when it comes to the investment banking world," said Feroce. "The handful of folks that have made that are Under Armor, Lululemon, and Michael Kors. You have to build toward that. You might think that it's great that you're pinching pennies. But you have to reinvest, and get the talent and the systems. We're now being built to be a multi-billion-dollar business."
That investment includes bringing on a lot of people--the right people. In Feroce's definition that means not just the smartest and most skilled employees but also those willing to work the hardest. He described bringing potential hires into his office and drawing on the whiteboard three numbers: 0%, 75%, and 100%. "My belief is that 95 percent of the workforce does 75 percent," said Feroce. "At Alex and Ani you can survive for a couple of months working in the gap between 75 percent and 100 percent, because no one knows you yet." Feroce then writes 125 percent on the board. "I tell them, 'the problem is that everyone at Alex and Ani does this. At the end of the day it's that work ethic. Please do not join this organization if you cannot commit fully.'"
Feroce also talked about the company's success "resurrecting Main Street" by eschewing the malls "that destroyed everything," opting instead to become the anchor in prime urban locations. "They call it 'the Alex and Ani effect," said Feroce. "When we open a store on Main Street all of a sudden the chocolatier, the dry cleaner, see their businesses skyrocket."
Feroce says the company now does more sales per square foot than any other retailer in the United States except for Apple. More meaningful to Rafaelian is a recent economic impact study by the government of Rhode Island that shows the business has indirectly created 3,000 to 4,000 new jobs in the state, many in the small manufacturing companies--her father founded such a company--that have languished for years.
"When we say we make our products in America, it means we make our products in America," said Rafaelian. "Whatever product extensions we do will also be sourced in America. Is it challenging? At times. But the reward is so much greater than the effort."
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine.
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