"Mentoring is like a disease that I hope no one finds a vaccine for," says Barnett Helzberg Jr., former owner and president of Helzberg Diamonds, president of the Helzberg Foundation and founder of the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program (HEMP).
In 1962, Helzberg took over Helzberg Diamonds – founded by his grandfather in 1915 – and sold it in 1995 to multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett. In that period, the company grew from fewer than 30 stores to 143 stores in 23 states and became the third largest jewelry store chain the country with annual sales of around $280 million.
"A major reason for the success of our company is the mentors I had the opportunity to work with inside and outside the company," says Helzberg. "I was fortunate through the years to find mentors who would listen, help me ask myself the right questions, and provide support and friendship during the inevitable lonely periods of leadership."
Helzberg said most of his mentors weren’t familiar with the jewelry industry or retailing. Still, he found the unbiased, free-flowing exchange of ideas from comrades in other business fields extremely valuable.
Probably most influential among his mentors was Ewing Marion Kauffman. Helzberg met Kauffman after Kauffman gave a presentation years ago in Pebble Beach, Calif. Kauffman invited Helzberg to come see him back in Kansas City, thus marking the start of a 23-year mentoring relationship.
At one point, Helzberg asked Kauffman how he could ever repay him. Helzberg recalls Kauffman, who died in 1993, saying, "Oh, I'm sure you'll do the same thing for someone some day."
Helzberg proved Kauffman right in a big way. Several years before he sold his business, Helzberg – who earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1956 from the University of Michigan – began teaching courses in entrepreneurship, retailing and achieving management excellence to MBA candidates at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.
"I sent a letter to the school telling them I was available to teach," he recalls, "and they gave me a shot at it."
An adjunct professor at Rockhurst since 1991, Helzberg still volunteers as a guest lecturer for the university's executive MBA program, teaches personal entrepreneurial strategy for the Kauffman Foundation, and co-teaches a course for the University of Kansas.
"I like to see people's eyes light up when they understand something," he says. "You feel you’re giving them something that’s valuable."
Since selling Helzberg Diamonds, he's also a frequent guest speaker on retailing, management and customer relations at colleges and universities and shares his experiences at numerous conferences and seminars, including the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO).
"I used to think I was the dumbest guy around," says Helzberg when asked about his support for YEO. YEO is a nonprofit group of volunteer business professionals under age 40 who are the owners, co-founders or controlling shareholders of companies with annual sales of $1 million or more.
"When I joined the Young President's Organization (YPO), I found out other people weren't much smarter than me. Everyone in business has similar problems. YPO provides a place where you can open up and say, 'I messed up. What do I do?' and benefit from the experience of people who’ve overcome the same challenges."
Helzberg has since graduated to World Presidents' Organization, a global organization of more than 4,300 individuals over age 50 who are or have been chief executive officers of major business enterprises. He's also a member of the Chief Executives Organization and the Kansas City Presidents' Organization.
Convinced that mentors are crucial for entrepreneurs, Helzberg shifted his focus in 1995 to HEMP, a formal program he created to bring together established entrepreneurs and professional managers with up-and-comers who want to benefit from their experience (see www.helzbergmentoring.org).
"I had this idea years before retiring from Helzberg Diamonds," he says. "Some said it wasn't doable because it depended so much on personal chemistry, but most people encouraged me. Finally, I decided to do it or quit talking about it."
Friend to Kansas City's many successful veteran entrepreneurs, such as Henry Bloch, founder of the tax-reporting service, Helzberg recruited about two dozen of them to commit to relationships with mentees who:
- Are the ultimate decision makers in their business
- Have been in business at least three years
- Have annual revenues over $1million
- Have a desire to substantially grow their businesses
- Are willing to meet with a mentor on a regular basis and attend networking events and programs
- Are willing to serve as a mentor
HEMP is a three-year program overseen by a nine-person board of directors chaired by Helzberg. The program accepts approximately 15 mentees per year. Currently, 130 people are participating as mentors, mentees, counselors or Society of Fellows members. Principal sponsors of the program are the Kauffman Foundation, the Henry Bloch School of Business and Public Administration at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the Shirley and Barnett Helzberg Foundation.
Helzberg also personally mentors the CEO of an Overland Park, Kan., consulting firm that develops strategic marketing initiatives for health care businesses. What started as a one-year mentoring commitment in response to an invitation from the Athena Foundation, whose mission is to create leadership opportunities for women, continues because, Helzberg says, "It just chemically worked."
The Thrill of it All
Helzberg and his wife started their family foundation in 1982, in part, because it enables them to put more money aside in the good years and still have some to give away in the bad years. They also like the idea of earning tax-free dollars to give to charity.
Over the years, the foundation has focused its giving on Jewish philanthropies, education, health, and the arts. Four years ago, however, Helzberg co-founded a charter school in Kansas City, Mo., that now draws most of his attention and financial support. Last year the school graduated its first class. Justifiably proud, Helzberg notes that all graduates went on to college. Next year, when construction ends on the school’s new building, enrollment will jump from 310 students in sixth through twelfth grade to 1,000 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Helzberg claims there's "nothing generous" about what he's doing. "I don't feel like I'm giving to anybody," he says. "After food, clothing and shelter, what do you really need? I'm getting a lot more than I'm giving. When you see these kids go to college….well, why do you think Mr. Kauffman did it? It's such a thrill."
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.
Barnett Helzberg, Jr. Former Chairman, Helzberg Diamonds