What's Two Hundred Years Old and Runs Like Clockwork?

By Barbara B. Buchholz, Margaret Crane

The Bixler-family's jewelry business stays in touch with the time.

On October 2, 1727, young Christian BixIer set sail for America aboard The Adventure. He emigrated from his native Bern, Switzerland, via Rotterdam to Philadelphia in order to seek his fortune. When he landed in America, he faced the landscape of a new country and the challenge of making his way. But he brought with him his craft as a silversmith and clockmaker.

Today, more than 260 years later, Christian's descendants, Philip Mitman, 43, and Philip's sister, Joyce Welken, 40, run Bixler's, the business started by Christian, thought to be the oldest jewelry firm in the country. In its eighth generation, Bixler's is now based in Easton, Pennsylvania, a small, slow-paced college town of 26,000 with a rich history. Phil describes Easton as a place to treasure as lovingly as you treasure family and friends.

In some ways, Bixler's hasn't changed much since Christian first set up the business in Reading, Pennsylvania, then a burgeoning community of silversmiths, clockmakers, and jewelers. But the company's internal organization has been altered drastically in the current generation by a young, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, charismatic president who is outspoken in his conviction to keep his family business downtown and thriving. He recruits young, aggressive employees. He sells fashion jewelry. He provides old-fashioned service and offers employees merchandise discounts, profit-sharing, and the chance to earn national jewelry accreditation licenses. His strategies are working. Bixler's has become a three-store chain with $3 million in annual sales.

Phil and his sister, a vice-president, made a clean break from the prior generation. They have also adopted a formal plan to ensure family control. Spouses have no say in business decisions. They hold no equity. Successive generations will be required to follow the same pattern.

A healthy workplace usually reflects healthy family relationships. On the other hand, many unhealthy families do not break the cycle of unhappiness and pass it on to the next generation, says Florence Kaslow, clinical psychologist and director of the Florida Couples and Family Institute in West Palm Beach. "Frequently parents will lure their children into the business by overpaying them and starting them at the top. It's a way of keeping them on a tight leash. the The children find it difficult to break away because they become used to a certain income and lifestyle which they may not be able to duplicate on the open market."

That wasn't the case with the Bixler clan and Bixler's, which developed ways of separating family and business systems so that boundaries were established while communications were kept open. The culture of the business evolved with each new generationappropriate to the times, the people, and the market.

The Bixler tradition began in 1785 when the business was in its second generation. Changes had to be made to keep the family trade prospering, as the Bixler tribe increased. After returning from the Revolutionary War, Christian III moved his family to Easton, a booming economic center at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, founded just 33 years before, in 1792, by John Penn, son of William Penn.

Christian III, newly married, eased into the family trade, making and repairing clocks and silver in his small home at the northeast corner of Northampton and Bank Streets. He crafted 465 clocks between 1784 and 1811, according to an original ledger. Tallcase clocks were in demand and cost 38 pounds, six shillings, and eight pence, plus a "quit rent of one barley corn, payable on the 5th day of March, each year, forever thereafter, if demanded," according to a fragmentary family history.

Soon the Bixler clocks fell out of favor. Cheaper Yankee clocks, made with wood instead of brass movements, became the rage. Christian III made more silver coin pieces. Business picked up and he became an active member in the community — founder of its library, a fire fighter, the mayor. He died in 1811 and is buried in the basement crypt of St. John's Lutheran Church on Ferry Street in downtown Easton.

Some sons followed fathers into business; others went their own way. Through it all, the family passed down two important lessons in running a family enterprise: First, merchandise and management must change and grow with each new generation. Second, too many family members in a business may cause friction.

In the early 1920s, Arthur Bixler, who took over the store when his father, C. Willis Bixler died, began to lose interest in it. He became ill and withdrawn. As the Depression set in, fewer people had money to buy fancy jewelry and silverware. Arthur instituted few changes, and the business almost died with him in 1945. His heirs — a wife, two daughters and their husbands — expressed no interest in running the store. It would have to be sold.

At Arthur's funeral, Aunt Clara, a senior member of the clan, took Arthur's son-in-law, Kenneth Mitman, aside and begged him to salvage the business. "There's no one else to carry it on," she lamented. "I don't know anything about the business," Ken replied. Nevertheless, after several days, he and his wife Kathryn (Kitty) Bixler decided they were young enough to accept the gamble.

The odds of succeeding were hardly in their favor. There was just $2800 in the store's checking account. Bills totaled $3200. They had little inventory. Ken knew nothing about selling jewelry. His wife knew less; her father had never discussed business at home. Ken set his pay at $100 a week. The business couldn't support it. He took $75.

Nonetheless, Ken brought order to the store. Trained as an engineer, Ken was a man of systems and discipline. He drafted a plan. He made lists. He made calculations. No relatives interfered. He filled the cases with the best affordable merchandise. Customers, who had been shopping elsewhere, talked about the new look and the service at Bixler's. They bought. Ken added inventory, hired help, and opened new departments such as a bridal registry.

Ken professionalized the business too, by becoming a member of the American Gem Society and expecting his buyers to become registered gemologists. Company sales grew steadily from $92,000 in 1946 to $212,000 in 1956. As business improved, Ken carried on the family tradition of civic involvement, as president of the Merchant's Association, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and vice-president of the American Gem Society.

In the late Fifties, Ken generated enough profits to remodel the store. In 1966, he acquired an adjoining storefront. Bixler's became Easton's downtown gift center. Jewelry was aligned on velvet in glass cases like candy in a gourmet chocolate shop. A gift gallery was added to the store.

Kitty began working in the business after Joyce, her younger child, graduated from high school. It was fun for Joyce and her brother Phil to sit around the dinner table hearing the day's anecdotes. They couldn't wait to help in the store. Phil was initiated in high school, unpacking merchandise, engraving jewelry, and making deliveries. But the senior Mitmans never pressured their children to enter the business full-time. "It's no fun to work at something if you don't like it," Kitty constantly told her children. Ken advised, "Try life outside the family firm before you come into it."

Phil went off to nearby Gettysburg College. He was a good student and shined at football and soccer. Going into the family business seemed the furthest thing from his mind. After graduating in 1965, he took a $6000-a-year job with Sears Roebuck & Co. in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a larger city of 115,000.

He learned about personnel and what motivates employees. He learned you can't run a business by yourself.

Three years later, Phil came home, lured by the chance to work with his father, have a greater say in a business, continue a family tradition, and get involved in Easton's civic life. His experiences at college and training at Sears had given him a new perspective. He was now also married and ready to settle down. Ken was impressed with his son's retail training and paid him well. Ken handled finances while Phil took charge of merchandising and promotion.

But stores were exiting to the malls, and families were following to the suburbs. Easton, which in the Twenties had one of the country's highest per capita income levels, was turning into a ghost town of empty storefronts. Bixler's soon became an anachronism as most of its downtown neighbors left for suburban centers. Phil questioned staying, but his father was vehemently opposed to moving into a mall. "What's the point of having developers dictate your hours, take a percent of your sales, and send your hardearned tax dollars to an owner in another state?" Kenasked his son rhetorically.

By the end of the Seventies, Easton had become a hamlet of smashed windows and dangling doors. The city's main department store, Pomeroy's, closed. There was plenty of talk about saving the town, but nothing was done. Phil became outraged. A Republican, he decided to run for mayor against the incumbent Democrat in 1979.

Ken worried about whether the business would survive with Phil away. And although Ken wanted to retire, he agreed to stay in the business if Phil won the election. Phil did win, and the family agreed to let him draw a retainer from the business to supplement the modest mayoral salary of $25,000.

With Phil away, Joyce took on more responsibility. She had come into the business after working as a bank teller, but she never earned her father's total confidence. Ken kept telling her the business was too much for one person, especially a woman. He began to rely more on Mike Snoke, the young manager he had hired in 1972.

Meanwhile, Mayor Phil and his backers worked to reverse Easton's downfall. "We weren't about to sit around Easton and watch the gates rust off their hinges," he said.

Phil took the city to court to halt demolition. He had 35 square blocks declared an historic district. Clapboard facades were replaced; windows and trim painted; brick tuckpointed. He and his wife Toni founded Historic Easton, a not-for-profit organization. They invested $75,000 of their own savings in five downtown buildings, including an 18th-century home built for Daniel Bixler in 1789.

When his term was up, Phil returned to Bixler's. Joyce was glad to have him back.

Ken stepped out at last in 1983: Phil cleverly devised a way to allow his father to exit the business gracefully, retain the title of chairman, have some input, though not on major issues, and be taken care of financially for life. He called in a bevy of attorneys, accountants, and financial aces to draft a plan that provided for the senior Mitmans by giving them rental income on the Easton store and a nice pool of money. Phil and Joyce each received 45 percent of the company stock. Their parents retained the remaining 10 percent with the stipulation that they would give shares to their children as gifts, to reduce estate taxes. They also signed a buy-sell agreement so that neither Phil nor Joyce could sell out to one of the large jewelry chains.

Having made a clean and orderly break with the past, Phil and Joyce quickly began making changes to revive the store.

Welcome to Bixler's today. It is a company that boasts its history. As you enter the main store in Easton, a handsome 1810 Sheraton-style cherry tall-case clock, made and signed by Christian 111, stands on the left. Phil knows where about 100 of the 465 clocks Christian III handcrafted are today, and he eagerly hunts them down to bring them back into the family. A glass case next to the clock is filled with Christian III's band-forged, signed silver, his correspondence, and frayed ledger book.

In spite of all the reminders, Phil is not about to let the business live in the past. Moving forward has been made easier because many of Ken's recruits, now also in their 60s, have retired. For example, the store's former diamond specialist, Robert Aretz, felt displaced after training Phil and seeing him take over. He left in 1971 when Phil was named president. "He may have felt there wasn't enough room for both of us. But I think that was an error. We were growing and there would have been room eventually," said Phil.

Phil and Joyce opened two other stores: in Bethlehem and Lebanon, nearby communities similar to Easton. In Lebanon, the Bixler store is still called Thomas Clark Jewelers, after its previous owners. All three stores retain the family flavor and employ 24 full-time workers and 15 part-timers.

To stay sharp, Phil and Joyce joined a management group that works with small businesses in different fields. Members attend biannual meetings and receive monthly inventory and sales reports of members in the same field, to monitor how others are doing.

One of the biggest problems Phil faced was attracting customers to downtown Easton, not only because of the dearth of stores and people, but also because of Bixler's reputation for expensive merchandise. "We didn't just want to be the Tiffany's of the area," he said. "We knew that we weren't going to get the bulk of the mall traffic, people aged 16 to 23. But we decided to carry some of the $20 gifts, such as our silver Hershey-kiss necklaces, as well as more of the higher-priced lines. We also knew that we couldn't serve everyone."

Bixler's put together expensive and eye-catching window displays. The store retailed a wider variety of merchandise for customers aged 25 and up. Today, the bulk of sales are still in jewelry, which remains the most profitable department. About 15 percent of sales are in gifts, including flatware and china; another 10 percent comes from engraving and repairs.

Joyce works closely with her brother, but never steps on his toes, and makes a point of talking business only at work. She stays on the selling floor and mingles with customers. "A lot of customers want to know a Bixler is out there," she says.

The Mitmans rely heavily on their staff. Mike Snoke remains as crucial to the new generation as he was to the old. Michele Nadeau, who's been with the company 11 years, buys the fashion jewelry for all three stores. She is typical of the Bixler employee: low-key but tough when necessary. Alys Happel buys the diamonds and colored stones. Mike, now 45, buys the Mikkimoto pearls and Rolex watches for the store.

Snoke and the others are spurred by the motivational seminars the Mitmans organize, by the courses they are encouraged to take in order to become registered gemologists and diamond experts, and by the discounts and incentives the company offers. A trip to Atlantic City. A Broadway show. Sales translate into Bixler points, similar to airline frequent-flier miles, which the Bixler employees use toward free merchandise. Yvonne Zulick, manager of the Bethlehem store and with Bixler's 14 years, eagerly shows off the Rolex watch she earned. She's now saving for a sapphire and diamond tennis bracelet — it's going to take me a while," she says.

"It's important for us to encourage employees and not to dictate to them," says Phil. "You also have to give them credit for what goes right."

Many of the employees have been with the company for more than a dozen years and, as a result, have worked for both senior and junior Mitmans. Giving employees autonomy is made easier by the fact that most get along. Many went through high school together and live a block or two apart. They are able to share in each other's successes without feeling jealous or intimidated.

Most of Bixler's large dollar sales are made in November and December. Christmas sales account for 40 percent of annual volume. (The Easton and Bethlehem stores rang up a combined $623,000 in December 1988.) A 20-percent-off sale and champagne bring in the crowds the last Sunday before Christmas — 343 customers in the Easton store last year.

A minimum of 6 percent of sales is used for advertising. The company uses some print advertising, some radio. Phil has tripled the advertising of the Lebanon store, acquired in 1986. Merchandise that doesn't sell is "creatively transfered" among the three stores. The final attempt to move aging merchandise is a mid-winter sale, with prices dropped 40 to 50 percent. After that, the goods are donated to charity. "Too many jewelry stores hold on to their merchandise too long," Phil reflects. "If it's been two years and you've got the same merchandise you're in trouble."

This Friday afternoon finds Phil, Joyce, and their employees tossing around ideas to bring in more business and beat the chains. The two largest, Zales and Gordon's, now account for about 3300 of the country's 20,000 to 21,000 stores, according to the trade association, Jewelers of America. The mall stores turn merchandise over more quickly, but mall stores, Phil counters, can't offer the same quality of service and product. "We routinely receive letters from clients," he says, pulling out a thank-you note touting the store's service.

Finally, they mull over replacing part of the gift departments in Easton and Bethlehem with private salons for showing jewelry. Phil's considering it, but doesn't want to tie up capital.

Phil and Joyce get ready to leave. Employees put the jewelry into a safe and lock up. Phil heads for home on College Hill.

Like downtown Easton and Bixler's, College Hill is also being revived. Affluent residents' children left the neighborhood in the Sixties, leaving rows of empty estates and a few scattered businesses. But all that has changed. Charming Victorian homes have been restored. The streets are jammed with kids on bikes. Houses line well-manicured streets in an area dominated by Lafayette College, a co-ed school of 2000 students.

Sitting in their cozy home, Phil and Toni talk about their recent efforts to restore Easton. "As more people [who commute to] nearby New York City and New Jersey opt to live in Easton," he says, "we will have to continue to upgrade our downtown area. It will come."

Phil's need to keep Bixler's going and downtown Easton alive has little to do with material gain, status, or power. "We're not a greedy family. Our ancestors were never wealthy, just hardworking, well-respected folk, an Easton tradition," Phil says. "A lot of what I do I've done for posterity."

Even with eight generations of experience, the Bixler family remains ready to learn.

Like their parents before them, Phil and Joyce had been determined to separate family and business. Now Phil worries that he has gone too far. By not discussing the business at home, he fears he may have permanently discouraged any interest that his children might otherwise develop.

But in this case he's wrong. His eldest daughter Brooke, 20, a sophomore at Pennsylvania State University, is hanging on every word while her father tells some visitors about the company's ups and downs over the years. Virtually all of the stories he recounts are new to her. In a conversation away from her parents she says, "I love the business and I could see working with my brother, Christian."

Her father, when told, is a happy man. "Did she really say that? I had no idea. That's great," he says, grinning.

—B.B. & M.C.

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