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Bill Underwood Always Sees the Silver Lining

Bill Underwood
Underwoods, Fayetteville, AR

BILL UNDERWOOD, 90, a first-generation jeweler, was raised amid the Oklahoma dust bowl during the Great Depression. His dad, Bob, had a service station where Bill worked as a boy. His mom, Mildred, was a homemaker.

His parents scraped together and loaned Bill $1,000 to get his jewelry business off the ground. “My jewelry store almost failed that first year. Had it not been for my wife, LeAnn, working for 75 cents an hour, it might have!” he recalls.

“I had no employees at first. My initial budget to start the store was the loan from my parents, plus the GI Bill provided me $110 per month, which I used to pay for everything: inventory, rent, advertising, utilities and eventually part-time help. Hardly enough to get started.”

Underwood became the first American Gem Society Graduate Gemologist in Arkansas, but he had difficulty getting any backing from bankers, in part because they had never heard of that credential. “So, I had to do a selling job to educate them in order to eventually get a loan,” he says.

Sixty years later, Underwoods Fine Jewelers is a thriving, third-generation business with Bill’s son, Craig, at the helm. Bill continues to come to the store and offer advice, feeling a deep connection to the business he built and founded. Craig’s dedication and success is the highlight of Bill’s own career, he says.

Craig says what he admires most about his dad is his eternal optimism. “It’s not a fake, or unrealistic optimism,” he says. “He is truly able to see the silver lining, even on the darkest of clouds.”

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Craig says the best advice he’s gotten from his dad is to follow his own interest when choosing a career. “He never pushed me to go into the family business, but he always held the door open in case that was the direction I wanted to go,” he says. “He stressed to me that I must find a career that makes me happy. Additionally, he said if you choose a career only for the paycheck, you will be unfulfilled and become dissatisfied with your profession.”

When it comes to having a purpose in life, Bill suggests following that old adage: “Do what you love and love what you do. Then work won’t just be a job, it will be a joy too.”

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced through the years or one obstacle to overcome?

A. Having the patience and dedication to succeed by conquering the daily problems of business. Things like cash flow, as it seemed like there was never enough spare money to invest in inventory to the level I desired, or enough money to do the advertising I wanted to do to tell the Underwood story.

Q. What did you like about your job, or what was needed to succeed?

A. Helping people celebrate their successes and achievements in life with permanent and beautiful gifts. I often did this with custom designs, which I knew how to create.

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Q. What do you consider to be the biggest change in the jewelry industry since founding Underwoods?

A. Customers buying “online” and bypassing the normal/traditional shopping experience. In the jewelry industry, online shopping may appear to the customer to be an attractive and convenient way to shop, but too often it turns out to be a foolish decision. Because most jewelry is a blind item, which makes it difficult to verify true value, it is easy for a shopper to be taken advantage of with little chance of retaliation for the unscrupulous seller. This practice was common from competitors back then, as well as now.

Q. What do you miss the most of the “old ways” of doing business?

A. Trusting vendors to honestly protect exclusivity in the market area.

Q. What is one thing you wish you’d had when beginning your business?

A. Bill says if there were one modern convenience he could’ve had starting out it would’ve been without question a computer, “because of the many, varied things I could do with it. From inventory control to generating laboratory reports. From quick correspondence to formal letters and or professional letters. And most importantly, custom designs. Being able to show the client all of the variations and possibilities, in color, for their custom creation!”

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