C. D. Peacock vice chairman steven holtzman e1652433650259
Steven Holtzman.

THE BIG AMERICAN INTERVIEW: Steven Holtzman takes control at Chicago’s C. D. Peacock

C. D. Peacock, founded 185 years-ago, is one of the oldest continuously trading jewelers in the United States. It was acquired by serial entrepreneur Seymour Holtzman in 1993 and day-to-day running was taken over by his son Steven Holtzman and his wife Qi last year. They have plans to transform the business with the opening of a watch and jewelry megastore in Oakbrook, Chicago, before the end of 2022, while dramatically improving customers’ experience.

C. D. Peacock, founded 185 years-ago, is one of the oldest continuously trading jewelers in the United States. It was acquired by serial entrepreneur Seymour Holtzman in 1993 and day-to-day running was taken over by his son Steven Holtzman and his wife Qi last year. They have plans to transform the business with the opening of a watch and jewelry megastore in Oakbrook, Chicago, before the end of 2022, while dramatically improving customers’ experience. Interview by Rob Corder.

WATCHPRO: Most of your life has been in Switzerland for the past decade as founder of the Maîtres du Temps watch brand. What prompted you to move back to the United States to take on day-to-day running of C. D. Peacock?

Steven Holtzman: I’m in Chicago now after leaving Switzerland in May last year. For me, this is the first time living back in the United States for some years. I have been in the watch industry for 35 years, so it has been in my blood since the early eighties.

While I was still in Switzerland, my dad [Seymour Holtzman] called to say he would like help with the C. D. Peacock business and that it would be a great time to come back to the United States. He convinced my wife and I to come back and we started here in May 2021.

C. D. Peacock first location 1837 155 and a half lake street
The earliest known picture of Peacock Jeweler on Half Lake Street, Chicator, in 1837.
Charles d peacock owner 1889
Founder Charles D Peacock.

WATCHPRO: Was the pitch that the US market was red hot on the time and it would be a great time to be part of it?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: The US has been on fire for some time now, but the move back was more about good life timing.

My dad was running the business for a number of years, but always from outside Chicago. What C. D. Peacock needed was for somebody to be in the city, in the store, working behind the counter.

For a long time, I had been working as a supplier to stores in Chicago and CDP at the time was one of my accounts. I was either selling Roger Dubuis to them, or my own brand [Maîtres du Temps].

It was always the store where the owner was not present, and that is something that is really needed in the United States. You have to be connected to the community and know all the key people.

Maitres du temps chapter three reveal
MAÎTRES DU TEMPS Chapter Three.

WATCHPRO: Your father Seymour is based in Florida and hired managers to take care of CDP?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: My father is an entrepreneur involved in a number of different businesses and industries. Growing up in my teens, he had two public companies in the jewelry and watch industry that he had created. He has always been very engaged in this business but in the past ten to 15 years, he has taken more of a passive role. What we needed for CDP in Chicago was for the owner to take a more active role.

C. D. Peacock chairman seymour holtzman evie holtzman owners
Seymour and Evie Holtzman.

WATCHPRO: How have things gone since returning last summer? There must have been a lot to wrap your head around, particularly since your background is more on the brand and distribution side than in retail.

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: Retail is dramatically different. It is one thing spending an evening in a store doing an event or some training, it is another thing to wake up every day in the store and create an experience for customers.

I am in a unique situation. I had my own brand in Switzerland called Maîtres du Temps where I was working with people like Roger Dubuis, Kari Voutilainen and a number of other independent watchmakers.

C. D. Peacock state and adams state street 1911
C. D. Peacock from 1911 on Adams Street, Chicago.

When you visit stores and work with the staff, you get a good opportunity to learn who is doing it right; who is running a tight operation, who is doing a great job with customers — holding professional events, reinventing the experience.

Through my work with Maîtres du Temps, I had the opportunity to learn from some of the best retailers in the world in Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, etc., and I picked up ideas I can bring to the United States.

Since arriving here, I have focused on learning the business and understanding the market as much as I can. I am trying to redefine our customer base and look at areas we can grow. It has been a challenge and a huge opportunity.

WATCHPRO: How would you describe what you walked into last May? What were the challenges and opportunities you identified early on?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: The bigger the challenges, the greater the opportunities. There were a number of things we have been doing well, which is not surprising for a business that has been around for 185 years. Not many companies have that sort of history.

What I discovered immediately is that the Peacocks name is known to everybody so my first job was to get to know everybody working in the business.

We have 65 people working in our stores. My daughter made index cards for my wife and I and everybody else with their picture and name, what store they worked at and their role.

C. D. Peacock woodfield mall chicago 2021
Inside the C. D. Peacock Woodfield Mall, Chicago, showroom.

That is before we started getting into how they work, the politics and hierarchy within the team. It took time to understand that side of things.

We have managed to develop the business very quickly since we arrived. My wife and I feel at home here. We have gotten to know the crew and we are working on changing the culture of the business, which is something I believe will unlock great opportunities to grow.

One thing that was a surprise to me is that I have never worked with my wife before. That has been a huge, unexpected plus. We go to work together every day and spend time out with our crew and customers. It is a great shared experience.

WATCHPRO: Do you and your wife, Qi, have assigned roles along the lines — if you will excuse the stereotype — of her doing jewelry and you doing watches?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: That would make sense. At some point of time I think my daughter would be a good fit for handling jewelry buying.

My wife was a classical Chinese dance professional. She was a principal dancer with the Beijing Ballet until her mid-twenties.

She was a real professional athlete from 10-years-old. It is a completely different background, but she is really into perfection, and the role she has been playing is focusing on enhancing the experience in store.

She does that every day, she is working with brands like Rolex on improvements.

Every detail matters to her, like how to you serve the perfect cup of coffee? How do you escort customers into the store?

It sounds simple, but she has really made a science out of creating the very best first impression for our customers when they come to CDP. Central to that is showing that we are a family-owned business that is here in the city and in the store all the time.

C. D. Peacock qi holtzman and steven holtzman highres
Qi and Steven Holtzman.

WATCHPRO: We have to talk about the big story of the past few years at C. D. Peacock, which is the court case brought by a former employees who allege watches from the likes of Rolex and Patek Philippe were being sold to grey market dealers. Is that court case ongoing?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: The case was dropped. It was almost immediately dismissed. That is what we expected because there was no merit to the allegations.

WATCHPRO: That is great to hear. Can you also clear up what happened with Patek Philippe? At the time the court case first came to light, CDP was a Patek Philippe authorized dealer, and that is no longer the case.

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: There is no connection to the lawsuit. When we told them about our plans for a new location, they had to make a decision on whether or not to move forwards with us. They decided not to renew.

WATCHPRO: Let’s talk about that new location. What do you have planned with the move into the Oakbrook Center? I have heard it is 25,000 square feet, which is an awful lot of retail real estate.

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: Yes, we are calling it the Mansion. It feels like that. 25,000 square feet will make us one of the largest stores in the Midwest and one of the biggest in the United States.

Cdpeacock mansion fall 2022 oakbrookcenter
The Mansion will open next year.

WATCHPRO: I believe it is a similar size to the Zadok showroom in Houston.

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: Roughly the same, but I believe they have a lot of office space as well in there. It is a direction of the future for larger stores. Our brands are pushing us, not necessarily to sell more watches, but to have better sales and a great experience. What we all want is for customers to come into our store and feel the brands; feel what they are all about.

This sort of space gives us room for a club bar that we will call the 1837 Peacock Room, a reminder of our history. It can be very quiet when you walk into a jewelers and it can be uncomfortable walking up to staff. We want to be different. We want people to come in and hear glasses clinking and people talking. A vibrant mood opens the door to a different kind of experience.

The goal with this move is to do something that has not been done before. On my travels I have seen similar set ups. I’ve been to a store in Italy where they have a great bar. A place in Moscow had a Michelin Star chef. I have been to Hour Glass stores in Singapore and Seddiqi in Dubai, which are some of the best retailers in the world.

Having seen all of these things, the goal is to bring the best of it back to Chicago. It will not just be us creating stores of this scale and style, you are going to see more of it in the future.

WATCHPRO: Is the plan to consolidate three stores into one?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: No, we are actually planning to expand our footprint and we have been in a number of discussions on how to do more in Chicago. Our other two locations have been there for a long time. I would say in the coming year or two we will be making announcements about additional opportunities we are moving on in Chicago.

There is a new energy. The impact of us being present has really changed the feel. Our customers are excited about this move. The space we are moving into used to be a restaurant and cigar room. It is a perfect place to call our new home.

WATCHPRO: I assume you are deep into negotiations with brands over who is going where and with what space, which is never easy. What can you tell me about how the brands line up is going to look and how they will fit together?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: In the coming couple of months we will announce our new partnerships. My relationships with brand CEOs in Switzerland and here are strong. In the late nineties up until 2006 I started Roger Dubuis in North America with a 30 person team. In addition, I have worked with the brand CEOs for most of my life. I believe we will be in a position to add a great mixture of brands to our roster in the coming months and years.

WATCHPRO: You already have an impressive line up across your stores: Rolex, Omega, Cartier, Tudor, TAG Heuer, IWC, Chanel and others. Are you saying you are going to grow that list?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: Absolutely.

WATCHPRO: You have experience with some of the great independent watchmakers, which is such a hot part of the market right now. Are you looking to add a number of indies?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: There is definitely a market for those watchmakers, but it is not going to be the first area I focus on. The independents that are active in this market already have partners. Hosting independent watchmakers if they want to come in and meet customers would be great. We will have the perfect event space for Redbar meetings, watch seminars, networking opportunities. But signing up new independent watchmakers will not be our priority in the next year.

We have a two phase plan. Phase one we are working through now, but the second phase from 2024 onwards might include independents. There are so many fantastic brands that I believe we will be able to work with in the future. This will be a watches wonderland.

WATCHPRO: Will it be a jewelry wonderland as well?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: We will definitely be building our bridal business. That is a big opportunity because we have not focused on that enough. We have a special VIP room that will be just for popping the question and we have ideas on how to build that business. In addition, we have our own C. D. Peacock jewelry that will expand.

WATCHPRO: When you talk about future expansion, will that all be within Chicago?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: It could be both. The Peacocks name carries a lot of weight already in Florida, so we are working onto something there that could develop over the coming year. Until I have the lease signed, it would be premature to talk to you about it, but I hope to make an announcement later this year. It is something that aligns with our strategy here in Chicago.

WATCHPRO: Are you into estate jewelry and pre-owned watches at all?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: We are building up pre-owned. Estate jewelry is an area where we can grow, but we are currently weak. Pre-owned is an opportunity for us. We have a watchmaker in every store so we can evaluate trade-ins and help customers to trade-up.

WATCHPRO: Do you have any plans to open downtown in Chicago?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: We are in discussions, but our primary goal is to get Oakbrook open by the end of the year. That would be a massive accomplishment. I would love to be downtown, and right now the opportunity to make a move there is good. All major city centers have suffered, and that may be a good time to start looking.

Oakbrook, on the other hand, has been growing at an incredible rate. Oakbrook Center is owned by the same organization as Ala Moana in Honolulu, Hawaii, which is one of the highest performing malls in the United States. 2021 is the first year that Oakbrook became their number one property. There is unlimited parking here. Every great restaurant is here. It has 20 million visitors spending $1 billion per year in Oakbrook. It is a massive retail and leisure destination.

WATCHPRO: Has Oakbrook benefited from the pandemic with people spending less time downtown and more time in the suburbs?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: It has been a disaster downtown and the suburbs have been amazing. Every retailer that has suburban stores and downtown stores is reporting better sales in the suburbs, even at the luxury end of the market. That has never happened before.

There are so many affluent suburban markets surrounding the city in Chicago and that is where most of the population lives and wants to shop.

Our business has never been better. We have had phenomenal growth over the past five years, but the last 18 months has been the best ever.

WATCHPRO: Broadening the conversation out a little, it would be great to get your views on some of the hot topics in our industry right now, particularly given your experience on the brand side, in distribution, in retail, in Switzerland and in the United States. The hottest of hot topics is the crippling shortage of Rolex watches because of unprecedented demand. How do you feel about that?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: It is a subject that is on the tip of everybody’s tongue. It is something we discuss. We train our team on how to help customers looking for these watches that nobody has. We do role plays with staff trying to prepare them to answer the sort of questions customers come in with when they want to buy a Rolex.

Rolex’s shipments are up dramatically. They are producing more than they have before. Our shipments have been great. It is not a shortage issue, it is the dramatic impact of soaring demand. Our job is to keep the dream alive with customers and to improve our touch points with clients. If they come into a store asking for a watch that is very difficult to get, we still make sure we call them a week later and tell them what we are doing. We make sure they feel important.

A lot of people are talking about CRM (customer relationship management), and it is so critical when you have a situation like we have right now with supply and demand imbalances. We are lucky to be able to constantly train and redefine how we are going to deal with the reality of how things are right now.

It is not just Rolex, so many brands have shortages. We try to connect with clients, reassure them that they are important to us. If possible, we will meet with the customer and if, for example, they are looking for a professional steel watch, there are alternatives we can offer.

The most important thing is that, when somebody comes into the store, we make them feel important.

In Oakbrook we are going to have a 2,800 square foot Rolex space over two floors with its own entrance. It will be one of the biggest shop in shops for Rolex that I am aware of. Our aim is to make a Rolex customer feel there is more than just a chance to look at Rolex watches, it is a chance to feel Rolex. This store gives us the opportunity to heighten that connection, not just for Rolex, but for all the brands.

WATCHPRO: Do people come in aware that there is a massive shortage of Rolex? I am sure people with a passion for watches have done their research, but is the classic Rolex customer from back in the day — for example, somebody retiring or celebrating a major wedding anniversary — aware that they will not be able to walk in cold and walk out with the watch of their dreams?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: Customers that we see are very aware of what is going on. Ours may not be the only store they have tried and they realize there are watches they can try on but not necessary watches we can deliver. We do want these customers to come into our stores and we will do everything we can to give them a great experience.

If people call us on the phone to find out what we have availability, we have trained our people to encourage them to come into the store so we can connect with them. This is the sort of things we really need to perfect at a time like this.

When customers come in, we can walk them from brand to brand to give them a sense of what else is available. That experience will be even better when we move into the Mansion and have much more choice.

WATCHPRO: Another trend that interests me is the way many brands are trying to get closer to customers and sell direct either online or in their own boutiques. They are known to give themselves a competitive advantage over multibrand retail partners like you by creating and marketing watches that are exclusive to their ecom sites or boutiques. How do you feel about that?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: We have been in the market forever and we see some of the groups and brands moving in that direction. I don’t think any independent jeweler is happy about that. There has to be a good enough relationship between the stores and the brands so that they are aligned and have mutual trust. In the end there are certain brands in jewelry and watches that do not sell through retail partners, but there will always be room for great stores in every market, like Peacocks, that are not going away.

It is not just limited, boutique only watches that are used to encourage customers to buy directly from brands. Some offer extended warranties, for example. But we have confidence in the brands we work with and I am sure we will be around for another 185 years.

WATCHPRO: My view is that brands can only do so much themselves, and the march to selling direct to consumer has stalled as they struggle anywhere other than the biggest city centers that have domestic and overseas customers coming in. This hasn’t stopped them trying to game the system in their favor. For example, when new and exciting watches are launched they go into their own boutiques first before going into franchised boutiques second and then to multibrand partners. Multibrands like Peacocks end up getting the watches when the hype has died down, which is far from ideal or fair.

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: I agree. We saw that coming 10 years’ ago. It is not like it just crept up on us. Our strength is being a great long term partner to brands. We have the relationships in place so, if we can continue to enhance the experience, we will keep demonstrating our importance to customers and our partner brands.

The pendulum swings from one side to the other, but the brands that work consistently with the strongest partners are doing the best.

Brands have been fantastic at improving their training, which is not easy because staff in retail tend to come and go. But they have made a science out of training, they have modules and training apps. They are helping us to be really well-informed so we end up being an extension of the brands we work with like Rolex, Omega, Cartier; all of them.

WATCHPRO: Many of the major retail groups, as well as independents, are opening branded stores with franchise agreements. Is this a route you are considering?

STEVEN HOLTZMAN: Absolutely. We are in discussions for both Miami and Chicago. There will be more news about both markets to come.

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