Better faster bigger
How FSB 100 CEOs make their companies
(FSB Magazine) -- AMONG THE COMPANIES ON THE LIST this year, energy and defense firms jump out as the big winners--for obvious reasons. But the 100 companies represented here also offer a few less intuitive success stories, businesses that don't operate in a booming industry yet manage to generate their own momentum. Charles & Colvard created a market for its moissanite gemstones and earned a spot at No. 54. Ambassadors Group, a tour operator that sends teens on cultural exchanges around the world, thrived despite concerns about the safety of overseas travel. And one executive profiled here has his hand in two companies on the list (as well as a former FSB 100 firm that has grown beyond our parameters). If they can thrive in this economy without an oil well, you can too.
CHARLES & COLVARD
CALL IT AN ARTIFICIAL GEMSTONE, A LAB-created jewel, or a man-made mineral. But please don't call it a fake diamond.
That's the party line at Charles & Colvard (CTHR), the world's only manufacturer and distributor of moissanite, which--let's face it--looks a heck of a lot like a diamond. But CEO Bob Thomas, whose company not only brought moissanite to the market but created a demand for it as well, stands firm: "We have a jewel that does what a jewel is supposed to do, so why should I settle for being classified as second best?"
The company, based in Morrisville, N.C., had to learn this lesson the hard way. In the mid-1990s, when it first found a way to manufacture jewelry-grade moissanite, Charles & Colvard talked up its product as a diamond alternative. (Chemically defined as silicon carbide, moissanite can be found in meteorites, but it doesn't form naturally on earth. To make the gems, the company heats silica sand and carbon to temperatures as high as 2,500 degrees Celsius and sends the resulting large crystals to Asia, where they are cut and polished.) But jewelers feared that the stone, which has a higher "refractive index"--that is, sparkle--than diamonds at about half the price, would cannibalize sales of the real thing. The company burned through several million dollars of funding before hiring a new management team in 2001, with Thomas in charge.
By the end of that year, management had a new approach. Let diamonds keep their mystique as the gift of love--moissanite jewelry, with an average pricetag of about $1,000, would be reborn as an affordable indulgence for women to bestow upon themselves. The company began promoting moissanite as both a brand name and a luxury accessory, like Louis Vuitton handbags or Jimmy Choo pumps. At the same time, it abandoned attempts to sell directly to retailers in favor of partnerships with jewelry makers, leveraging those existing distribution networks with minimal overhead.
The strategy was a success. In 2005, Charles & Colvard's stock more than tripled as its sales reached $43 million, an 82% increase in one year. Moissanite gems in gold settings are available at all J.C. Penney stores, dozens of regional jewelry chains, Army and Air Force exchanges around the world, and more than 200 fine-jewelry counters in major department stores. Featured spots on TV shopping channels have also boosted the company's revenue, primarily by sending curious viewers to retailers for a closer look. Most significant, Charles & Colvard (moissanite.com) launched sales tests last year in three divisions of Zale Corp., which is the largest jewelry retailer in North America.
So far, 2006 has been a bit rocky. The merger of the Federated and May department store chains, which both sold moissanite, resulted in the closing of 40 stores. The subsequent inventory glut and lag in orders sliced the company's stock price from about $25 in late December to less than $11 as of early June. Nonetheless, the company showed a profit for the 21st consecutive quarter, and Thomas expects to hit $60 million in sales in 2006.
Financial analysts share his optimism. Eric Wold, managing director of equity research at Merriman Curhan Ford & Co., expects moissanite will be in 600 to 1,000 new retail outlets by the end of the year, more than offsetting the temporary problems with Federated and May. The biggest barrier to Charles & Colvard's growth, he adds, is that only 8% of the buying public has heard of moissanite. Analyst Christopher Terry of First Dallas Securities concurs: "The stock price has reflected the lack of visibility," he says.
That's about to change. Charles & Colvard began placing ads this spring in women's magazines such as Allure, Self, Marie Claire, and Vogue. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, will be promoting the jewel come fall. One thing you won't see, however, are ads suggesting that men give the gift of moissanite. "We tell men not to buy women moissanite without permission," Howard says. "We don't want to get them in trouble."To write a note to the editor about this article, click here.