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Profile of:“It’s my nature to love and appreciate controlling my own destiny.”
Thomas J. Blumenthal
By John L. Seitz – Courier Managing Editor
If somebody was asked about returning to the place where they had spent the happiest quarter century of their life, most people would jump at the chance. That’s exactly the decision Thomas Jay Blumenthal faced two years ago when given the opportunity to take over the ownership of Beverly Hills exquisite tabletop emporium, Gearys. His answer was a resounding “yes”. The only thing - he had never really been away!
Getting ready to celebrate the store’s 75th anniversary in 2005, Blumenthal represents the third generation of his family to own and operate the Beverly Dr. showplace. And he already went a step further than his predecessors this past May by opening a second Gearys – one with 1,500 sq. ft. a block west on Rodeo Dr., nestled between jeweler Harry Winston and fashion house Ferragamo.
“It may seem ironic that just as we begin our diamond jubilee, this additional location is in place allowing us the luxury of actually selling diamonds there, not to mention estate jewelry and quality watches such as Rolex and Patek Philippe.”
When asked the reason for setting up a new operation on Rodeo, Blumenthal is quick to employ a twist on the old cliché as to why “bank robbers rob banks - because that’s where the money is”. As he points out, the new Gearys is on Rodeo “because that’s where the tourists are”.
His birthright connection to Gearys dates back to 1953 when his grandparents, Fred and Ruth Meyer, purchased the operation from A.J. Geary, who in 1930 had opened it up as a 15,000-sq. ft. general store selling mostly low-end merchandise.
The Meyers had other ideas and quickly shifted the emphasis to the tabletop business of fine china, crystal, silverware and linens. They also established The City’s first bridal registry, adhering to a policy of maintaining stock along with an experienced, attentive sales staff. It was not unusual for upcoming brides and their mothers being personally counseled in their selections by Ruth Meyer whose extraordinary taste and knowledge of both domestic and imported product sources were renowned. She performed this service until well into her 80s.
The registry now services 1,200 brides annually and that number is expected to be even larger in the years ahead with the new website up and running.
It wasn’t long before Gearys attracted a virtual “who’s who” clientele of filmdom elite such as Clark Gable, James Stewart, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Fred Astaire. The younger, more nouveau riche Hollywood set still continues to patronize the store on a regular basis now several generations later.
Bruce Meyer, Blumenthal’s uncle, eventually took over ownership of the store and continued driving its prestige and sales to record heights through 1997 when he sold it to Ross-Simons, a huge Rhode Island-headquartered retailer and catalog operation.
“My uncle Bruce was responsible for establishing Gearys with its global presence. The contributions made during his tenure here were immense and we owe much of our current success to the imagination, creativity and foundation he and my grandparents have set in place during the last five decades.
“Therefore, you can imagine at the time of its sale to Ross-Simons the thought of Gearys not being a part of our family simply devastated me,” said Blumenthal. “I had worked here - on and off, mostly on - since age 13 before taking time out to go to Marymount College in Palos Verdes and thereafter complete the executive training program at Bullocks. Now my whole career path which had been mapped out so carefully in my mind seemed to be over right before my eyes.”
The fact was just the opposite happened. Darrell Ross, president of Ross-Simons, had other plans and immediately offered him the chance to stay on as senior VP of the whole company, continue running the store and supervise its 65-person staff.
“It didn’t take long to discover I still had a lot to learn about business in a real corporate environment because, for all intents and purposes, we were a relatively small operation. Being with Ross-Simons taught me the nuances of a much larger picture, especially the financial aspects such as being able to read and dissect a profit and loss statement.”
Blumenthal continued: “I enjoyed every minute of my tenure with Ross-Simons but it’s my nature to love and appreciate controlling my own destiny.”
His chance came out of the blue one Sunday when Ross asked him to pick him up at LAX. Once arriving for breakfast at Nate ‘n’ Al’s across from the store, the latter dropped the proverbial bomb on him.
“The board has instructed me to sell Gearys and I feel it’s only appropriate for me to offer it to you first,” said Ross.
“I was totally stunned and thrilled. My parents were completely supportive of the opportunity to take this big step. It was a quick, smooth transition and three months later, Gearys was mine,” Blumenthal enthused.
And his former boss could not be happier for what he has accomplished since the sale. As Ross points out: “Tom with his usual soft-spoken, understated demeanor which belies the passion he has for his trade has emerged as one of the true visionaries in our industry. He has helped transform the always prestigious – but somewhat staid – Gearys into an exciting, high-end luxury retailer.”
Or as Chantal Sironneau, VP of Buccellati, puts it: “I’ve always found Tom to be a real gentleman and a leader, completely dedicated to his store, its customers, staff, and vendors. Gearys is Tom and Tom is Gearys – there is really no distinction. Though still a young man, he is already legendary.”
Similar plaudits are expressed about him by other admiring executives from such internationally acclaimed companies as Lalique, Baccarat, Lunt Silversmiths, Hermes, La Maison, Simon Pearce, Christofle, Rosenthal, William Yeoward Crystal, Herend Imports, and others.
So how does this good natured, early 40ish retailing scion live up to all that praise, if not, genuine adoration from his peers? “Work is my life. It’s a 24/7 avocation so whether I’m physically here or not, I’m thinking about the store all the time.”
He added further that he does like to travel and goes to Europe at least three times a year with a London a frequent stop to buy antiques. In fact he was in England on July 4 two years ago and attended a black-tie dinner with Prince Charles. “Even though it was our Independence Day, I was really impressed how hospitable the Brits were to us Yanks.”
Blumenthal admits that living in a town like Beverly Hills with a store catering to a customer base right out of the Forbes 500 does require a certain amount of diplomacy. “If someone is spending $100,000 with you, they have every right to be demanding. However, I don’t care if it’s $100 or $10,000, each customer is entitled to be treated with the utmost respect,” he said.
“In fact, I’m personally on the floor every Saturday and like my grandmother, Ruth, I still get a kick out of helping customers and making a sale. Very few people know I own the place so it makes it that much more fun and keeps me closely in touch with what our clientele thinks of our patterns.”
Even in the best of times high quality tabletop retailing is seldom more than a break even proposition and really could use a shot in the arm, he claims. “There are some good years and some bad so you better know what you’re doing and never allow yourself to become complacent.”.
The feast or famine nature of the tabletop business requires that senior Gearys’ buyers make frequent trips to the major factories to keep ahead of what’s going to be available in the market.
Blumenthal opines about another factor: “With tabletop being such a topsy turvy situation these days, many of our long time suppliers keep changing top management which affects business and relationships. This never happened in the past but now it’s a revolving door so you have to stay in close touch with all the new players.”
His connection with Ross-Simons inspired Blumenthal to become a major player in fine jewelry and timepieces and was a prime impetus for deciding to take the plunge and introduce his other specialty outlet on Rodeo.
“Though its one tenth the size of our 15,000 sq. ft. flagship, the new store is taking us to a new level and given us a fresh cachet being there on the same street as Prada, Escada, Dior, Gucci, Versace, Cartier, Tiffany and all the other legendary names. We are hopeful the ‘Gearys’ brand will eventually be bandied about around Golden Globe and Academy Award time.
Blumenthal is such a major booster of Beverly Hills, promoting the area locally and nationally, that he currently serves as chief financial officer of The City’s chamber of commerce and recently became its president-elect and will take office next July 1 succeeding Step Jones. (He is also on the boards of the Maple Counseling Center, and Mount Saint Mary’s College, and an active member of the BH Rotary Club.)
“Most of our merchants got clobbered post 9/11 as tourism almost disappeared and the stock market declined. It took two years but we’re back on track. I’m already planning to spend most of my term at the chamber doing all in my power to bring the merchants and residents of The City together. We’ve got to pull for one another. It is for our common good and there are just too many separate agendas at present.
“I personally feel it is critical for the future of Beverly Hills that the Montage Hotel project be approved via Measure A vote on the March election ballot. If it doesn’t go through, it will be a disaster for The City and no other high profile projects may ever be attempted,” he stated emphatically.
“There are informed, wonderful people on both sides of this issue and surely I’ll lose a few customers over taking a stand that some may feel is controversial. But so be it. I just feel so strongly about it.”
The fact is this good-natured, always polite gentleman is totally focused on what he believes is best for his town, his customers, his employees and his store. With that mindset, it’s small wonder Tom Blumenthal has made such a success in a most competitive of professions … and he’s just getting started!
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