Taking a positive direction yields a sparkling result

The outer trappings of success are clear. With revenue growth from 2008 to 2010 of 306 percent, jewelry manufacturer Alex and Ani Inc. claimed the top spot in Providence Business News’ 2011 Top List of the Fastest-Growing Private Companies with revenue of $250,000 to $5 million. More

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Taking a positive direction yields a sparkling result

PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD
CHARMED LIFE: Alex and Ani founder Carolyn Rafaelian, center, with Design Manager Emily McKenna and Associate General Counsel Christopher Buontempo. The 7-year-old company now has eight retail locations.
Posted 11/14/11

The outer trappings of success are clear. With revenue growth from 2008 to 2010 of 306 percent, jewelry manufacturer Alex and Ani Inc. claimed the top spot in Providence Business News’ 2011 Top List of the Fastest-Growing Private Companies with revenue of $250,000 to $5 million.

Its success isn’t just local, however. From its founding in 2004, the firm now has eight company stores in East Greenwich, Newport and Providence, as well as Boston, Edgartown, Mass., Madison, Conn., New York City and Palm Beach, Fla. In addition, there are more than 800 authorized retail partners across the United States. Alex and Ani ranked No. 470 on Inc. magazine’s latest list of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the United States.

Deals to supply Disney and the U.S. 2012 Olympic team with charms are more signs of a company that has arrived. In fact, Alex and Ani is the first Rhode Island firm in 22 years to be a licensed manufacturer for the Olympics.

But as company founder Carolyn Rafaelian will tell you, Alex and Ani is about much more than revenue growth and retail partners.

The first step is to foster “a vibe of unity,” said Rafaelian, by creating a place “where we all have the same vision and are working for the same goal.”

“It is essential that we cultivate our employee strengths and allow them to flourish,” she said The company does so through seminars, the latest technology, life coaches and executive training, creating a culture that allows employees to be creative in generating new positions and opportunities for growth.

“This is a company for each and every one of us to thrive in,” she added, something she backs up by “taking the fear out” of the decision-making process.

Rafaelian’s vision is an outgrowth of a lifetime in the jewelry business. Her father, Ralph, started his own company, Cinerama, in 1966, producing iconic symbols of patriotism. Alex and Ani inhabits the same building, and Ralph still comes to the factory daily, as does Rafaelian’s sister, Rebecca, who runs production. Carolyn remembers when she was a child working in her father’s factory in Cranston, effortlessly recalling the buzz of the torch and thump of the foot pedal, sounds that more than two decades later, “are still alive and healthy,” said Rafaelian.

The family connection is a powerful part of the company culture, and not just because it is named for Rafaelian’s first two daughters, Alex and Ani. She wanted the two, along with her third daughter, Alivia, to view their mom as a role model and independent woman; capable of achieving anything.

“The only way I could teach them was to show them,” she said.

What she has shown them is a Made-in-America success story that has caught the attention of the international fashion world. The collection of wire bracelets, necklaces, rings and earrings mixes metals with charms and stones. The look is casual-luxe that endeavors to empower consumers through sacred symbols and spiritual touchstones. Most pieces are based on ancient figures used to ward off evil or bring luck. Think of the ichthys, a fishlike shape that later became a Christian icon or the Jewish talisman, the hamsa.

Unlike trendy jewelry, her signature, the expandable bangle, traces its roots to her cultural identity. Being Armenian, giving and receiving gold bangles as gifts was a part of her upbringing. “I’ve always had a passion for it.” The adjustable feature filled a niche and a void in the design element. A big roll-out of expandable necklaces is in the works.

The company’s success is very much a regional story. Alex and Ani purchases all of its metals from local mills, which receive recycled scraps from refineries. The company then transforms the scrap metal into an environmentally friendly final product. Prices remain affordable. Yet they also carry a higher-priced precious material line.

“Your resources are all in one place [in Rhode Island]. It’s all a very organic process,” Rafaelian said.

One major difference between her father’s company and her own is the balance of “the whole factory vibe.” There’s the public relations and fashion pulse working beside the corporate heads and assembly line workers “bringing the two worlds into one unit.”

Knowing what each department is creating results in an excitement among the staff. There’s a sense of pride and ownership when someone makes a piece of jewelry, then sees it in Vogue magazine.

Expanding into Europe and Asia is the next “natural” step, she said. Some of the largest department stores in Spain and Portugal plan to carry Alex and Ani designs. Rafaelian tells the story of a customer at the Boston Newbury Street store who came in on opening day. She turned out to be from a firm representing products from Pandora to Puma. The businesswoman “fell in love” with the pieces and eventually formed a relationship to help bring the brand to the European market.

This good fortune has been built “against all odds,” Rafaelian admitted. But none of it “is taken for granted.”

She said that the heart and soul of Alex and Ani is to promote good will, unity and social consciousness through design. In that spirit, “Charity by Design,” a department focused solely on working with organizations to raise awareness, was established.

It creates symbolic charms, sponsors charitable events, hosts Bangle Bars and contributes auction items with portions of proceeds up to 20 percent going directly to nonprofits. “This is my team’s and my way of showing gratitude.”

Given all that the company has accomplished, when did Rafaelian feel that Alex and Ani had “made it”?

It happened recently, she explained, when in the same factory “that I’ve been walking into for more than two-plus decades; I saw everyone so busy laughing and conversing. I stopped and I almost felt invisible. I had something to do with this … in putting this into motion.”

It was an empowering feeling for Rafaelian to know she created a vehicle for others in which coming to work “didn’t feel like it’s a job.” •

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