It was 1976 when Milly and Carl Gandia opened Greenwich St. Jewelers in downtown New York City, a block and a half south of the World Trade Center. Over nearly three decades, they built a base of loyal clients who flocked to the shop for repairs and custom pieces.
But when the towers fell on 9/11, the unspeakable devastation also touched their beloved store. The structural damage sustained forced the Gandias to close for almost a year, and when they finally reopened just two blocks from their original location, they found the area drastically changed.
“It was really hard to have a business in that neighborhood in the [first] few years after 9/11,” Jennifer Gandia, now co-owner of Greenwich St. Jewelers with her sister Christina Gandia Gambale, tells Entrepreneur. “We used to joke about tumbleweeds coming down the street. It was very quiet.”
At the time, Gandia was working in marketing at a cosmetics company, but she left that position in 2003, putting her skills to use at her parent’s shop. Gandia Gambale, still in college then, watched the “camaraderie” take shape and wanted to join in too. So, after graduating from GIA with a gemology degree and working at a couple of different companies, that’s exactly what she did.
Along the way, both sisters have learned a lot about what it takes to build back and persevere in the face of staggering yet distinct challenges spanning decades.
“There was always a ‘Let’s try it, let’s see’ mentality. And I think that really allowed us to survive in these moments.”
In that initial period post-9/11, Gandia says every year was critical. More than anything, it was about “keeping afloat,” which included utilizing the support services available to businesses impacted by the attacks. One of the programs provided a coach to integrate more technology into the business, ultimately inspiring them to revamp their inventory process and establish a website in 2006.
Gandia’s marketing background also played a significant role in the business’s build-back.
“I was consistently looking for ways to let people know that we were open and what we do,” Gandia explains. “We are a service business — we provide to the community with jewelry repair, watch repair. People were still having birthdays; they were still getting engaged. And people wanted to support local businesses.”
“We were early adopters of that,” Gandia says, “and it paid off.”
Greenwich St. Jewelers had once relied on customers in the immediate vicinity — but the new marketing era flipped that standard on its head.
“Now, we were pulling people in really from all over the city,” Gandia says, “sometimes from Brooklyn or Connecticut. So that was one of the ways we started to grow beyond our neighborhood, which we had to do for survival.”
Being in “survival mode” meant trying whatever might work, including opening the shop on the weekends — something the Gandias had never done before.
“It’s a testament to all of us, and especially our parents — when shifts had to happen, or we needed to pivot, everyone very much had an open mind and was willing to try,” Gandia Gambale says. “There was always a ‘Let’s try it, let’s see’ mentality. And I think that really allowed us to survive in these moments.”
Related: Confidence Is the Willingness to Try
Image Credit: Courtesy of Greenwich St. Jewelers
“For founders and people who are going through this scary time, look within your business for the things that are sort of recession-proof, if that’s possible.”
That willingness to pivot wherever possible was necessary just a few years later when the 2008 recession hit.
Once again, Gandia drew on her cosmetics background to navigate the chaos. Familiar with the “lipstick effect” — the phenomenon of people continuing to splurge on small luxuries, like lipstick, during times of economic crisis — Gandia wanted to apply that logic to the family business. What will people who are used to coming in buy without thinking about it too much? The answer required some flexibility.
“For a time, we brought in product lines that weren’t what we normally sold,” Gandia says. “So we brought what’s called bridge or fashion product, so it was still made with gemstones, but maybe it was gold vermeil or sterling silver.”
Greenwich St. Jewelers also built out its bridal offerings because, just as was the case in the uncertainty following 9/11, some things, like people getting married, are constant no matter the circumstances.
“For founders and people who are going through this scary time, look within your business for the things that are sort of recession-proof, if that’s possible,” Gandia advises. “Even if it’s not something that’s going to grow you a lot, but just is going to help you survive lean times, and focus your attention and time on that.”
Additionally, Gandia recommends keeping the lines of communication between your business and its partners open and productive. “Take the time to connect with [your partners] and see if you can anticipate issues that you might have,” she says. “Talk about how to get through this thing together if there are problems — if there’s a cash flow problem, if there’s an inventory problem. What can we do to work together to keep both of our businesses going?”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Greenwich St. Jewelers
“We’ve been here before, and we can do this again, so let’s put our heads together and see what has to happen.”
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic presented Greenwich St. Jewelers with challenges both old and new.
Gandia Gambale recalls panic setting in: Not only was the business’s immediate outlook uncertain, but the nature of the health crisis came with additional hurdles.
“I think what helped us immediately in our thought process was like, ‘Okay, we’ve been here before, and we can do this again,'” Gandia Gambale says. “So let’s put our heads together and see what has to happen.”
Despite having a website, the bulk of Greenwich St. Jewelers’ business took place in-store, so a speedy pivot to remote transactions was essential.
“We started doing virtual appointments very quickly,” Gandia Gambale says. “We happened to be prepared to launch a new website around that same time. So we pushed that forward to make sure that that website was up and running within a month of being closed.”
“I remember one of the first conversations was like, ‘Okay, we need to tech everyone up big time,'” Gandia adds. “We were sending our staff iPads and making sure they had what they needed at home. We did have to furlough and lay off some people.”
Gandia and Gandia Gambale had to translate the in-store experience that earned them rave reviews into an equally impressive virtual one, and, fortunately, well-practiced in rising to the unexpected occasion, they were able to do just that.
The sisters and co-owners of Greenwich St. Jewelers have seen a lot over the decades, and, like all entrepreneurs and business leaders, they know they have to be prepared for whatever comes their way next. But take it from them — with a bit of agility and careful planning, even the biggest business challenges can be overcome.
“A big piece of advice that I can give to other entrepreneurs is to know your business from the financial side,” Gandia Gambale says. “Understand where your expenses are, what’s fixed, what’s variable, and plan for three scenarios: The one where you grow, the one where you stay consistent and the one where you’re below.”