Andrew Graff was never one to take the easy route. The 32-year-old has adhered to the adage that good things come to those who work for them.
The Colorado Springs native is sales manager at his mother’s business, Luisa Graff Jewelers, and this week Graff talks about starting at the bottom, being tough enough to serve his country, but not being too tough to admit he’s a bit of a nerd (and a big mama’s boy).
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in the Springs. My mom is from Lima, Peru. She’s an immigrant and a child of war. She had an aunt in Colorado and she came here when she was 13. So, I grew up in Briargate and Black Forest, went to Challenger Middle School then Pine Creek High School, where I graduated in 2003.
Talk about your path from high school to the jewelry business.
Because my mom was a child of war, I’ve always wanted to serve my country. I truly believe in our country and never want it to get to a dictatorship — where people are kicked out because of who they are.
My mother was an immigrant, but came here legally. … She achieved the American dream, and I wanted to protect that.
After high school I enlisted in the U.S. Navy. … I joined the Navy as an engineer and then [worked in Special Forces] on the USS Decatur. One of my defining moments there was becoming the Command Fitness Leader, where I structured training for the command.
How long did you serve?
I was in the Navy for eight years and I got out while in Ohio. During the last two years [of enlistment] I started at the University of Phoenix for my business management degree. I graduated in 2015, two years after I got out of the Navy.
While getting my degree I was working at a GNC [retail store] as an associate. I believe in starting at the bottom. If you work your way up from the bottom, you get discipline, but also in-depth knowledge of what everyone does.
So I started at GNC washing counters and, nine months later, they made me manager. They were going to open a new GNC in Fremont, Ohio, and asked me to open it.
Within a year I took that store to fifth in the entire company. … That’s when I called my mom and said I might be ready for retail.
Were you hired right away?
I was about to graduate but I still wanted to start at the bottom. I’d sent an application to our HR department here at Luisa Graff Jewelers.
I went behind [my mom’s back] because I wanted to do it right — not get hired as Luisa Graff’s son, but as someone who has the credentials for the job.
I still did interviews with our human resources department and went through all the workings as one would who was applying for a position.
I got the job and started here in February 2014 and I became sales manager a year and a half ago.
Talk about your position.
I have four key areas I focus on: performance management, staffing, training and hitting our goals.
I dive deep into the training program. That comes from my military career. … It’s what I was bred to do by the United States Navy. As for performance management, I make sure everyone has a goal specific to their capabilities so that everyone can feel like they’re progressing and developing in their careers.
Did you always think one day you’d work here?
Actually, no. I wanted a career in the Navy, but my path kind of stopped when I broke my arm and dislocated my elbow in training. It meant I couldn’t do what I wanted anymore.
What about jewelry appealed to you?
I’m a huge nerd. There’s so much to jewelry — metallurgy, geology, gemology — right now I’m a gemological student at the Gemological Institute of America. I’m on my way to becoming a graduate gemologist. The gemological side appeals to the nerd in me. I’m actually writing a paper now to the GIA because I think they’ve got it wrong on the yellow color inside of diamonds.
Subatomically, gas is trapped inside a diamond and that’s what creates its color. The GIA is saying the yellow is from nitrogen, when I believe it’s H2P1N1 — two parts hydrogen, one part phosphorous and nitrogen — so it’s more hydrogen than anything.
The colors inside diamonds, I feel, connect the entire universe. There are big blue stars that burn blue because of boron. The gas inside a blue diamond is boron. I believe the gas inside a yellow diamond connects us to our sun, which is essentially H2P1N1.
Have other members of your family worked here?
It’s kind of a running joke in the family. Everyone has had a try, but not everybody is cut out for retail. … I have three step-siblings and one biological brother. Everybody has worked here — some a lot less time than others.
My stepsister is the funniest. She’s a nurse practitioner. But when she was in nursing school she worked here one Christmas season and she said she was going back to nursing because it was easier!
For me, after being on a ship for nine months at a time, retail is easy.
How is retail changing among Millennials?
We have an amazing advantage being in jewelry. Yes, you have Amazon and all sorts of websites trying to get into jewelry, but if you’re not looking at [the product], you don’t really know what you’re getting. This year alone I’ve had six people come in with [a diamond purchased online] that was four grades off. … I think a lot of online companies didn’t expect the overhead of postage because so many people are sending items back because it’s not exactly what they thought it was.
Any advice for your generation?
Be flexible. Millennials are the largest of the working generations right now — the Traditionalists, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and iGen, who are 19 and under. As the largest group, we need to conduct ourselves accordingly. We set the pace for everybody else.
Anything else you want to add?
I’m so proud of my mom. People can call me a mama’s boy. It’s OK. I’m truly proud of everything she’s done.