Retailer Hall of Fame 2017 Inductee: John Henne

IndependentsMay 15, 2017

Retailer Hall of Fame 2017 Inductee: John Henne

For this fourth generation Pittsburgh jeweler, integrity comes first and business comes second.

John Henne is the 2017 single-store independent inductee into National Jeweler’s Retail Hall of Fame. He is the fourth-generation owner of Henne Jewelers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh--To get to know John Henne, the owner of Pittsburgh’s Henne Jewelers, one might start by reading his great-grandfather’s obituary.

Rudolph Joseph “R.J.” Henne founded Henne Jewelers in 1887. Upon his death in 1936, the Pittsburgh Press described him as a “gentle, retiring man whose acts of charity and deeds of kindness were as numerous as they were unostentatious.”

Four generations and 130 years later, the same could be said of John Henne.

Along with his sisters, Henne grew up in the family business, which was headed by his father, Jack, who is now retired, though he still pops into the store occasionally.

“The real advantage I had over many other people in this industry is that my dad, from very early on, let my sisters and me make the decisions that impacted the future of the business,” says Henne. “Even though he was the president and really ran things, his attitude was that ultimately it would be ours, so we should be making the decisions.”

Henne officially joined the store in 1992, following completion of an accounting degree at Grove City College and a three-year stint as a certified public accountant at KPMG.

From the outset, Henne wanted to innovate.

“[Bridal] was the challenge and the opportunity when I joined,” he says, noting that, at the time, it only accounted for 2 percent of sales.

Henne used his personal connections in the community to become a go-to store for engagement rings. By also reducing margins, transitioning to diamonds with grading reports and increasing inventory, the bridal business increased naturally over the years.

Longtime colleague Clayton Bromberg of Underwood’s Jewelers in Jacksonville, Florida (a 2003 inductee of the Retailer Hall of Fame himself), credits Henne’s accounting background and business acumen for his rise over the years to become “one of the retail leaders in the field in all of the country.”

“His approach to things is not just a gut feeling,” Bromberg explains. “He goes in and systematically looks at everything, methodically and financially, to help him with decision making. Then he also seeks advice from experts in the field.”

Of all the expertise Henne has solicited, his father’s lessons are the ones that resonate most.

Henne says the most valuable thing he learned from his dad, whom he describes as humble and family-oriented, was, “to always do what’s right, even when it hurts.”

As an example,
Henne recalls that shortly after he and his sisters took over ownership of the store in the 1990s, a customer contacted him wanting to sell some tanzanite. Henne’s gemologist estimated the stones to be worth $4,000 to $5,000 and Henne arranged for a dealer in New York to buy them.
“His approach to things is not just a gut feeling. He goes in and systematically looks at everything, methodically and financially, to help him with decision making.” --Clayton Bromberg on John Henne
In the midst of an office move, the New York dealer lost the package of tanzanite, but offered to pay the customer $5,000, the higher end of the estimate. The customer changed his mind, deciding the tanzanite was worth far more, about $11,000 or $12,000.

“My first feeling was that it wasn’t reasonable,” Henne remembers.

His father, however, told Henne that the customer was always right, stressing that it was Henne’s job to rectify the situation. Henne ended up paying the difference.

“It was a great lesson and I’ve carried that forward,” he says. “Whenever dealing with customers or situations that involve money, do what’s right. You’ll be able to sleep at night, feel good about the situation, and you’ll forget about the money.”

A year later, Henne won the Pittsburgh Business Ethics Award in the small business category.

A Man of Faith
Henne always has made philanthropy and community involvement a priority. He’s served on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations.

The first was Imani Christian Academy, a pre-k through 12th grade private school in Pittsburgh that offers tuition-based scholarships to its students, thus providing a quality education to mainly at-risk kids. Henne served on the board for 10 years.
“Whenever dealing with customers or situations that involve money, do what’s right. You’ll be able to sleep at night, feel good about the situation, and you’ll forget about the money.” --John Henne
“I found that I was able to add some value to it,” he says. “I knew people who could write much bigger checks than I could. I never asked or pushed, but if I presented the story of Imani Christian Academy, sometimes they were compelled to get involved.

“Seeing the impact on these people’s lives is dramatic. Some of the alumni that were students when I was on the board are now in their late 20s with families. They stop into the store, and it’s neat to know that you’ve played a very small part in something that helped them.”

Henne is guided very much by faith. He and his wife Dara and their four sons worship, variously, at a Catholic parish and at an Evangelical Christian Missionary Alliance church.

“My faith is what I rely on to guide and direct everything I do, particularly at work,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I pray at staff meetings or preach and proselytize--in fact, I don’t think that’s an effective way to represent your faith--but faith is something that I very much use to guide and direct what we do. That’s been a tradition that has been passed on all the way from my great-grandfather.”

While Henne had long been involved in philanthropic work outside of the store, it was during his participation in a Christian leadership group 10 years ago that he became inspired to incorporate philanthropy directly into his work at Henne Jewelers.

In the group, Henne was asked to think of a way he could use his business to create positive societal change. Initially, he felt overwhelmed by the task.

He says, “They called it a breakthrough goal. I thought, this is a silly little retail jewelry store. What could we possibly do that would change the world?”

At the time, Henne was struggling with the idea of “having it all” in life. He had one friend and role model whom he considered to be an example of a person who was successfully balancing all areas of life. But Henne’s idea of perfection was shaken to the core when his friend confessed that he had been unfaithful to his wife.

Ultimately, the marriage didn’t survive but it gave Henne an idea for his very own “breakthrough.”

Henne established the “To Have and To Hold” program at his store. It entails giving couples shopping for engagement rings a book by Gary Chapman titled: “Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Got Married.” He also encourages engaged couples to obtain pre-marital counseling. If they do, they get $100 off each wedding band purchased.

Henne explains, “Our business is about love, and our mission is to enhance and strengthen relationships. If we can do that sincerely and legitimately, then I’m excited to get behind it and come to work. Our staff can feel that way too.”

While Henne’s relationships with customers transcend selling jewelry, there’s no denying they’ve had a positive impact on the business.

During his tenure, the store has expanded twice. The second time involved moving locations, a decision that required a sizable loan. “My dad was against it,” Henne recalls, “because he was very against debt. We still have tax returns from 1929 to 1932, when the business dropped in half.” For the elder Henne, the returns served as a reminder of how quickly one’s fortunes could turn.

The move ended up being a success.

“I remember my dad walking in the door and he joked, ‘I’m so glad I was for this from the beginning.’ He was ultimately very proud that we did it,” says Henne.

Family Ties
Over his 25-year career, Henne says that his biggest challenge also ranks as his proudest accomplishment: successfully navigating a family-owned business through its various ownership transitions without sacrificing relationships.

“He rose as the family leader and the one who became the man in charge in that generation,” says Bromberg. “To do that the way he did it, without causing tremendous animosity in the family, requires unbelievable discipline and leadership.”

Pictured from left to right: John Henne, his parents Nancy and Jack, son Luke and wife Dara. Out of his four sons, Henne says that Luke “is a natural salesperson like his grandmother.”

Henne bought out his sisters amicably in the 2000s, relying on the services of a family business counselor to facilitate the process, just as they had done during the buy-out of their parents.

The counselor told them that every family, no matter how tight-knit, has its issues, and encouraged the Hennes to explore them and continue meeting over time, putting work into maintaining the health of their relationships.

“I give credit to my parents and to my sisters, to have walked through that with them and still go on family vacations together,” he says.

Henne’s four sons are young, and there’s no telling if there will one day be a fifth generation of Henne Jewelers.

“They have the option to come into the business and the option not to,” says Henne, whose wife Dara is an attorney. “Whatever they choose, we will support them.”

When Henne speaks to various youth groups, he tells them to choose a career they will love.

“Notice in my great-grandfather’s obituary that it talks about his life of service, his giving, his philanthropy, and his faith. It doesn’t mention sales volume, profitability, or the car he drove. So as you’re planning out your life, think about what legacy you want to leave,” Henne advises.

“It’s not about sales and margins and profits, it’s about how you live your life.”
Ashley Davisis the senior editor, fashion at National Jeweler, covering all things related to design, style and trends.

The Latest

AuctionsApr 16, 2021
Try On This Diamond and Pearl Tiara Before It Heads to Auction

Sotheby’s created an Instagram filter for the crown, estimated to sell for up to $1.5 million.

SurveysApr 16, 2021
March Retail Sales Surge

Another round of stimulus checks helped to bolster last month’s retail sales.

CollectionsApr 16, 2021
Supplier Kim International Revives its Catalog

It showcases 2021 and 2022 styles, with most ready to ship from Dallas, Texas.

Brought to you by
4 Reasons You Need This Program for Mother’s Day

Learn how to increase customer loyalty and revenue by making JM™ Care Plan a cornerstone of your business plan.

TrendsApr 16, 2021
Piece of the Week: Anthony Lent’s ‘Lunar Galaxy’ Earrings

Colorful gems enliven a classic celestial motif.

Weekly QuizApr 16, 2021
This Week's Quiz
Test your knowledge of jewelry news from the week of April 12-16, 2021.
Take the Quiz
TechnologyApr 15, 2021
Blue Nile Hires Amazon, Timex Execs

The jewelry retailer named a new chief operating officer and senior vice president of supply chain.

CollectionsApr 15, 2021
Check Out Stone and Strand’s First Bridal Collection

All six styles are priced under $2,000.

Brought to you by
Evaluating Your Inventory For Success in 2021 

After months of pandemic-driven social distancing, restrictions and lock-downs, consumers will be excited to visit your store. Now is the time to ensure you have the right inventory on-hand to capitalize on that excitement!

GradingApr 15, 2021
GCAL Introduces Its New Cut Grade Standard, 8X

Diamonds must receive a grade of “excellent” across eight criteria to be deemed an 8X.