This is how a third-generation jewelry designer overcame hardships to break out in the industry and make it his own.
“I started with my own collection of all-natural, non-treated yellow diamonds,” says Abajian. “Then I integrated jewelry that is affordable and launched collections in semi-precious stones. The last was in pink gold. I always wrote the book in jewelry, taking big steps and going from idea to end. Other designers copy me; that’s my world.”
Bergio is doing well by any measure, but Abajian is not shy about the mishaps the company experienced along the way. For example, when he ventured into the Russian market, the ruble dropped, and the company lost a lot of money. Undeterred, Abajian branched out of the strictly wholesale business. In 2014, he opened the first Bergio retail boutique in Closter, New Jersey, introducing a more universally affordable line. A second shop in an Atlantic City casino that integrated handbags in embossed leather resembling exotic skins, which quickly became collectors’ items, followed.
Berge Abajian, CEO of Bergio International Inc.
Bergio was so successful that in 2009 the company went public. Furthermore, Abajian recently arranged the purchase of Aphrodite’s, a rising fashion jewelry e-tailer, and GearBubble, a B2B e-commerce fulfillment platform, for $5 million and $3.162 million, respectively. And Abajian is excited about the partnership.
Bergio caters to customers over 30 who can afford its unique pieces (“My favorite is a choker with Zambian emeralds,” says Abajian), while Aphrodite’s and GearBubble are for younger customers.
So does the CEO of a multimillion-dollar company need credit cards to operate? Absolutely.
You’ve been through a lot with Bergio – including hardships, right?
Of course. Any successful business has had its blows. But getting through them takes persistence – and I’m the most persistent person on Wall Street. I always come back stronger. In 1996 I worked with my three brothers, but I knew I had to change and go off on my own. I began in a basement, and it was a difficult year.
In 2008 I decided to take the company public, but the financial collapse hit. There were millions in the deal, and it was a very uncertain time, but I did it anyway. The next year I went fully public, which was an incredibly expensive process. There were lawyer costs and a huge amount of accounting.
Oh, and then we faced a lot of challenges in 2001 after 9/11. Again, it was a time when everyone pulled back financially. All the jewelers stopped advertising, but I decided to do the opposite. We spent half a million on magazine ads to launch our bridal collection. It was a risk, but it worked out.
Were there any surprise costs that caught you off guard?
When there are no surprise costs, there is no business – we just bought Aphrodite’s, and there was over $350,000 in hidden acquisition costs. If I were a different CEO, I would have walked away. But no. For five months, I went down to our office in Florida and energized our group to make the partnership happen. A lot of CEOs would not do that, but I believe in going to the grassroots level and doing the hard work.
How have you been using credit cards for business?
Well, when I started the fancy yellow diamond collection, I used all my credit cards. That was a lot of money. I put $80,000 on the cards. In the end, it was very successful.
I’ve also used my own personal cards for the business for years. In fact, there was a while there when I owed $250,000 on them. It was stressful because I was personally guaranteeing the debt.
Which credit cards do you have now and why?
I have quite a few. I used to have the American Express Centurion, but I downsized to The Platinum® Card from American Express. I also have a Citibank credit card, a Capital One Platinum Credit Card, a Bank of America Platinum and a Mastercard® Black Card™. It’s important to have enough credit, especially when I travel. I probably use the American Express card the most. I book flights with my points. I’m going to Istanbul for work next week, and that is how I paid for it. I would say almost all my rewards go for travel expenses.
What is your involvement and strategy regarding Bergio’s finances?
It’s all about the cash flow sheets. I see things other people don’t see. I stretch dollars and I’m gutsy. We have two incredible CFOs, but I’m very involved in the finances because I have to check on our sales and expenses daily.
As for credit card debt, no. Not anymore. All the cards are paid in full. I make sure of that.
How important is good credit to you as a business owner?
You know what they say about banking: they give you an umbrella on a sunny day! So yes, good credit is important. There is one sad part of the system, though. Bankers don’t understand the need to be leveraged sometimes. Your credit score will be lower if you owe a lot of money, even if you make your payments on time. But you might just be making a good business decision to borrow a lot, so you are a good credit risk. They don’t always get that.
I do like relationships with small banks because of this. I’d like to go back to personal banking. Twenty-two years ago, I was doing business with Columbia Bank, and I wanted to take out a loan. I asked the senior VP of lending to “come to my house and have coffee,” and he did. We sat and talked, and I asked if he was comfortable with letting me borrow the money. I wanted him to see what I did. Banks should know the real person.
What does the future hold for Bergio?
I’m excited about the transition from selling 30 to 40 pieces per month to thousands of pieces. Today’s woman is different; she wants to make faster decisions. Life has changed, women changed, we’ve all changed. So the fashion and accessory collections have to change too, and they are the items that are selling the most right now.
Oh, something very exciting is on the horizon. Catherine Zeta-Jones is starting a jewelry line, and we are collaborating with her.
What have you learned about using credit cards?
I learned that I’m very aggressive when it comes to business, and I put money on credit cards for that. In my personal life, I’m modest, and though I like to live well, I live within my means. With business, I extend it, but I know I need to have the assets to cover what I borrow. I always have a hidden ace up my sleeve if things don’t go right. Mine is the equity market. I’m invested and can liquidate if necessary. I look at things differently.
Credit cards are good, but at the same time, they can be very dangerous. The banks aren’t gentle to people who have large balances that don’t get paid. You have to figure out a way to pay them down.
Any other advice to entrepreneurs?
Don’t take failure in a bad way. It’s a stepping stone to get better. I learned how to not take the blows but to keep on getting up and move forward. When I first launched, my uncle from Ecuador told me, “you have to keep on swimming, take small breaths ’til you reach the island.”
So my advice to others who want to start their own business is to watch their expenses, don’t go overboard and be persistent.