Susan Purnell: ‘No better feeling than knowing your efforts have helped’

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Whenever the politicians, economic development experts and other change-makers discuss bringing about positive change, they will inevitably talk about appealing “to the stakeholders.”

The people with the most to lose or gain — those same people who know an issue or environs better than any outsider — must be involved in the conceptual process, and must be fully onboard as the new ways, the new structures, the new models are rolled out.

In Downtown Salisbury, and especially on the Downtown Plaza, Stakeholder No. 1 is Susan Purnell.

Her business, Kuhn’s Jewelers, is the oldest business in Salisbury. For generations, Salisbury girls have dreamed of one day opening a small, black velvet ring box and discovering a Kuhn’s band and diamond inside. Generations of young men have been raised knowing they would take that trek to 107 West Main St. to meet with Purnell for consultation on that big decision.

Kuhn’s has been in business since 1853. There’s been a Purnell behind the glass countertops since 1953. Susan’s dad, Jack Purnell, whom locals called “Diamond Jack,” gave the business its top-shelf reputation. As many of the local jewelers faded away or moved from Downtown Salisbury, Kuhn’s seemed to just dig in deeper and become even more significant in the business-retail community.

Lately, Susan Purnell has been riding a recognition wave herself. She was named one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women for 2014 by The Daily Record, which recognizes the outstanding achievements of professional women in Maryland.

Last spring, The Chamber Award was presented to Purnell; the capstone of the awards presented by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce Chamber, it is only given to individuals who have proven their worth through superior service to the community.

Purnell is the epitome of a business leader who is deeply engaged in the community. She’s a longtime Salisbury University Foundation board member and hosts of “SU On The Air,” a monthly PAC 14 program. She co-founded the Jack Purnell-Chris Thomas Memorial Tennis Tournament, and is on the boards for the Girl Scouts of the Chesapeake Bay and the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore.

At the Community Foundation, Purnell is a founding member of the Community Foundation’s Women’s Fund, where $200,000 has been raised to fill needs needs that aren’t covered for women by other programs and groups. She is also credited with having helped Coastal Hospice raise more than $150,000 in the last 10 years.

Q. You own and manage the oldest business in Salisbury. What’s that like?

A. Jewelers of America, our industry’s trade association, tells us that we’re the sixth-oldest independent jewelry store in the country.

This is a business of trust, and it is so humbling that we have earned and kept our customers’ trust for over a century and half.

The greatest experience is when I’m waiting on an engagement ring customer and they tell me their grandfather and father bought their rings here.

Q. Were you always destined for the jewelry business?

A. I was not at all interested in jewelry growing up. I always wanted to be a teacher, which was my first job out of college.

When I got married, we moved to Manhattan, and I landed a marketing job with Dun and Bradstreet, where I stayed for 11 great years.

But it didn’t take much convincing to come back to the shore when Dad asked me.  wanted to raise my son here.

 Susan P Option 1

Q. You’re regarded as role model for how a business person should also be involved in community projects.

A. My Mom has an embroidered picture on the wall that says, “Those who give have all things.”  She and Dad instilled that truth in me.

There is so much need in our community, and I feel there is a moral imperative for all of us to help in any way we can to make a difference. There is no better feeling than knowing your efforts have helped make life a little better for someone.

Q. Your dad is considered one of the great businessmen/merchants in Salisbury’s history. What did you learn from him?

A. Dad was a great businessman, but more importantly, a great human being.

I have never known anyone with greater integrity. He taught me that the customer is always right, even when you may not think so!

The one thing that bugged him about retail was gimmicks, such as the “mark it up to mark it down” approach that many of the box stores engage in.

He taught me to price fairly and give honest discounts when necessary, not discounts from prices that were unrealistic in the first place. I can just hear him now saying, “There’s no such thing as a free cruise!”

Q. He was called “Diamond Jack.”

A. I’m not sure who named Dad “Diamond Jack,” but he loved the moniker.

He was a particularly good buyer of diamonds. Because he always paid his bills on time, our vendors loved doing business with us.

He knew where to go for the best values and he was able to negotiate good prices based on our creditworthiness. I thank him every day for that lesson.

Q. What is your favorite part of the business?

A. I love both the buying and selling ends of the business.  I’m like a kid in the candy store when a vendor visits us, or when we’re in New York or Las Vegas for the trade shows.

It is just so incredible to be surrounded by such beauty and I tend to “overbuy” because I can’t resist!

And then when someone comes into the store and appreciates the piece as much as I do, that is such a good feeling. No one needs jewelry, but  women, especially, love how it makes them feel.  I like to be a part of that.

 Susan P Option 3

Q. Personally, my favorite thing has always been the watch display case. Do you have customers with favorites like that?

A. We have customers who come in only to look in our consignment case where the pieces are being sold on behalf of other customers.

There are often such very unusual pieces there, some at great prices, and I have several customers who check that regularly.

I’m not particularly into watches, but you’re right, there are men like you who can talk watches forever. My son, Ben, who joined the business a year and a half ago, has become a watch nut, so I let him handle those guys!

Q. Is jewelry a good investment or is it more of a consumer desire thing?

A. Well, diamonds are a very transportable form of wealth.

I’m sure you’ve read historical accounts of people selling everything in exchange for diamonds that they sew inside their hems and take them across borders to start a new life.

We have a policy that allows you to trade in your Kuhn’s diamond for a larger one, getting the full amount that you paid for the original diamond toward your new purchase.

We can do that because we know that we sell the best diamonds and can resell them for at least what we originally did.

Q. Someone once told me that jewelry is “an agent of personality” — that we use jewelry to express ourselves.

A. I love it when a guy comes back to me year after year because I have come to understand his wife’s jewelry style.

People do have different tastes and of course it is evidenced in their jewelry choices.

When I meet a new customer, I always say, “Tell me a little about your wife.” This helps me to steer him in the direction of vintage vs. contemporary, elegant vs. functional.

Q. Your business has “hung in there” when it comes to remaining in Downtown Salisbury. How tempting has it been to move to a mall or shopping center?

A. When Hess and Benjamins moved to the old mall, I know my Dad was tempted, but he decided that being in the center of town was where he wanted to stay.

I don’t think he ever regretted his decision.

I don’t think he would have liked adhering to the mall’s rules, like being open on Sundays.  He liked owning his own store and being his own boss.

I do, too. I don’t think we would have ever been able to fit into a “cookie cutter” environment.

When I walk around the mall now what strikes me is how homogenous the jewelry is. All the stores have the same stock!

We have never even tried to compete with that kind of jewelry. We really try to pick out quality pieces that you won’t see on others.

We scour the country looking for the unusual.

Susan Purnell and her son, Ben Bowne. in their Downtown Salisbury store.

Susan Purnell and her son, Ben Bowne. in their Downtown Salisbury store.

 Q. It seems like the downtown — and the community in general — is on the upswing. Do you feel that too?

A. I really feel the momentum downtown. It’s so exciting to have all the new restaurants and apartment dwellers.

The young blood down here, from Jamie Heater to Brad Gillis and Joey Gilkerson, are shaking things up.

Converting the firehouse to “Headquarters Live” is just a brilliant concept and we have needed a performance venue here for a long time.

I just visited the new “Brick Room” and it’s an awesome pub feeling like none we’ve ever had before.

We do need  more retail to make it a vibrant downtown, but the pieces are in place to getting there.

 Q. Talk about what 3rd Friday has done for downtown and the city.

A. I’m always surprised when I talk to someone from SU, for example, and they’ve never been downtown. 3rd Fridays have brought a visibility to downtown like no other project before.

My Dad used to say he could walk outside the store on a Friday night and throw a bowling ball down the Plaza and not hit anyone.

He’d do a lot of damage on today’s 3rd Fridays!  It’s a zoo down here.

 Q. What should happen next for the downtown?

A. There are several large projects in the works that will add even more of a draw to downtown.

One thing I think we need to be very aware of are the lighting and parking issues.

There really is plenty of parking down here, but no one likes to pay for it. We need to implement a parking validation system again; I know I’d be happy to pay for my customers to park.

 Q. Talk a little about your work with Salisbury University. You have been on the Foundation Board and been part of the terrific changes there.

A. I really enjoy my work at Salisbury University, both as a PAC 14 host and as a foundation board member.

If any one says there is nothing to do in Salisbury, then they haven’t looked at the SU calendar, which is chock full of musical, artistic, and cultural experiences, especially this time of year.

One of my missions as a business person is to draw more of the SU students and staff downtown, and the new trolley has helped toward that goal.

Having the SU galleries down here is another great step in the right direction.

Q. Your mom has lived many years with Alzheimer’s Disease and you are a big local fund-raiser for research. How has that affected you and your family?

A. My Mom was always my biggest cheerleader. It has been sad to watch her memory slip away over the last dozen years.

She still lights up when I walk in the room, but she doesn’t know exactly how she knows me.

Nancy Reagan called Alzheimer’s the “long good-bye” and I understand that, but there is still value in Mom’s life and I want her to live it as comfortably and happily as possible.

Mom is the same kind soul she has always been, but it is just hard for her to empathize with those around her because she can’t remember much about their lives.

My experiences with the Alzheimer’s Association have helped me understand the absolute importance in finding a cure for this dreadful disease which affects more than 5 million Americans.

Last year my team raised the most money of any team in Maryland, and we did well again this year. The numbers won’t be finalized until the end of the year, so there’s still time to give.

 Susan P MAIN PHOTO

Q. What’s your favorite memory of growing up in Salisbury?

A. I really had the perfect childhood growing up in Salisbury, and I am glad my grandchildren are here now to experience the same.

When I lived in New York area for 13 years, I always longed for Salisbury, where there is green (landscape), and you can get anywhere easily without sitting in traffic, including the beach.

We are just so lucky to live in this “land of pleasant living!”

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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