‘Every Crystal Has a Story’, is the tag line of Forever Crystals. Every person also has a story. Here is the story of Merari Pena and her business Forever Crystal Jewelry.
It started with her father. Merari, a native of Puerto Rico, was raised in the church and at the age of 16 she became a Christian. However it was some years later, in 2003, that she came back to the Lord, wanting to passionately follow Jesus. Although Merari comes from a missionary family, she has always been a business person. Early on in her business career Merari had a specialist advertising agency selling outdoor media space. It was out of a motivation to help her father reach his dream of going to Cuba as a missionary that she got involved in the family jewelry business.
Living from commissions on successful advertising sales, Merari had a lot of time on her hands and she offered to help manage her father’s jewelry kiosks to support him in his work in Cuba. “It really started because I had a desire to serve and do something for God. Running the kiosks was the only thing holding my father back,” she explains, “I didn’t know anything about the jewelry business when I started helping my father. For me it was an enlightening process of learning by trial and error, and just walking with God and him showing the way because I didn’t know anything about it!”
Merari took over the management of her father’s two small jewelry kiosks, but they didn’t really have a name or a particular brand. Soon after she became involved, she began to see that the business had much potential. She gave the business a new name and logo and soon remade the brand, coming up with a scalable business concept for the kiosks. Since then the business has grown to nine company-owned retail stores, in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, employing around 90 people. As well as the company-owned stores, Forever Crystal also has 7 franchise stores in Puerto Rico and a licensed distributor in Costa Rica. The business also sells jewelry wholesale to other small Caribbean Islands. The business is profitable and sustainable with a growth strategy in place.
Forever Crystals began with a simple idea: to create a pleasant experience of acquiring jewelry that is fashion driven, at accessible prices. It is a business embedded in its Latin culture. It aims to celebrate the spirit of Latin American women, embracing their beauty and flamboyance and desire to make a bold statement.
The main target price point for products is around US$20 in order to reach as many customers as possible. The business aims to stay fashionable with new collections launched every year. Their greatest competitive advantage is that they sell fashionable designs that appeal to Latino women, at a price that they can afford. “Many people would ask at the beginning what made our stores different from the Swarovski stores, where they also sell jewelry. Apart from the prices, the very big difference that makes us unique is that our design is very Latin so that makes it colorful and vibrant, their design is very European, and European women are different. We Latin women like sparkly things that represent who we are.” explains Merari.
Quality of product and excellent customer service are important values for the company. The business is committed to provide their customers with products of a high quality, using the best materials. As the website promises, “Our unique pieces are mainly made with Swarovski elements to assure a superior quality providing each client that special shine.” Forever Crystal uses Swarovski crystals in their jewelry pieces and collaborated with Swarovski Gems on a collection made with zirconia that was the first partnership of its kind in the world. Merari shares that when the opportunity to work with Swarovski opened up it felt like a supernatural connection.
Customer service is another important area for Forever Crystals. The company wants to go beyond mere politeness and helpfulness, but to interact with customers in such a way that they share the love of Christ in a tangible way—to let people know that God loves them. This is one of their competitive advantages according to Merari and something she hears over and over again when the customers come back to her stores: They feel loved when they come in! Moreover, the shopping experience is intentionally luxurious with each item placed in beautiful boxes and gift bags, despite highly competitive prices. Merari reports that often customers enjoy being in their stores for hours.
A Missional Company
Merari talks about the importance of being a blessing in the market place. She believes that businesses can – and should – be a blessing to their surrounding stake holders and to the community in which the business operates.
Forever Crystals is quite open about their missional aims. Apart from sharing the gospel message directly in their stores, it also shines through all of their business ethos and operations. Company materials explain, “Our responsibility with clients, employees and shareholders goes beyond just simply providing a product. We strive to give back with grace what has been given by grace to us. We provide this in many ways that include but are not limited to, strategic partnership with missionary organizations, providing employment in a dignified and creative environment and using our operation towards helping in the progression of the great commission.”
Providing great products and good jobs is right at the core of the company vision and missional aims. Forever Crystals is a family business, not only because it really took off when Merari decided to help fund her father’s ministry, but also because the family of the business includes the employees. Merari states that it is has been a blessing that the business has been like a family in which the members pray, watch and consult each other. This is also a great business advantage because it helps keep the business on track with its strategy, mission and vision. As Merari puts it, “When you have people around you with the same heart for Jesus it is easier to get back to the right perspective.”
A key scripture to Forever Crystals is John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This verse is the motivation behind the many programs of evangelization and social work being supported by Forever Crystals through various partnerships.
Missionary trips are part of company activities, as company materials explain, “True to our mission and our vision we maintain active programs of evangelization. Through our missionary work we give food, shelter, churches and the “bread of life” to our local and international communities.” They regularly take their employees into the community to work with homeless people, providing breakfast and also teaching.
Merari admits that the metrics they use at Forever Crystals may not be ideal, but they do honestly help her know how they are doing. Firstly, they use quantitive metrics, as they are easier to measure. Easily measured are sales per store, per container and the speed and quantity of restocking. According to set targets, the company is graded related to performance. For instance, for the sale benefitting the breast cancer campaign, the quantity sold was between 80 to 85 percent, which according to the set performance goals, received a B grade. Total sales for all lines are always graded. This grading brings greater focus on their ‘numbers goals’ and urges the company as a whole to do better.
Merari lists a number of metrics she is currently focused on, “The first metric for us as a business in this challenging time is economic; this year’s sales versus last year’s sales and targets. This keeps us checking that we are actually taking care of the business.” Other metrics relate to the yearly mission-related projects, Forever Crystals seeks to accomplish within the company’s set business goals. “For example,” Merari continues, “We have been collecting Operation Christmas Child boxes for the last three years. Every year we have a goal and our employees have an active part of reaching out to the community to reach those goals. The first year we collected 1000 boxes in our mall stores and every year we have surpassed that. By doing this we promote in our employees the part of our vision, to give by grace what has been given to us.”
A third metric Merari mentions is employee turnover. This metric focuses on how long the business is keeping happy, productive employees and to find out why the ones that are leaving are leaving. According to Merari, Forever Crystals gives their employees a significant amount of professional growth, “Although we want them to grow in our company, we also really strive for them to accomplish their goals, so when they are ready to leave we help them get there.”
The fourth metric is more qualitative in nature and relates to the level of employee commitment to the company’s vision and mission. “One of the evaluations of our management team is how committed are our employees to the vision and mission, we are looking for them to pass this on in a positive way”, Merari explains.
Different kinds of qualitative metrics are used in the business but Merari admits that these are more difficult to handle as they often are highly subjective in nature. One example is the social or “human impact” that Forever Crystals is having on its own employees. The lives of employees are being transformed and this is something that can be seen and heard in daily interactions with employees. Merari includes such feedback as she assesses the business performance of Forever Crystals.
Following the vision
The desire to grow and improve led Merari to consider how to expand her business beyond the nine existing company-owned stores. Beginning in 2012 with one franchise, she decided that one of the ways to grow and have a more significant impact in the future was to sell the business to other people through a franchising arrangement. Merari sees franchising as a way of growing while maintaining some control of the company vision and mission. However, she knows it is a challenge to develop so that the business is handled in a way that will also multiply the vision and impact. One challenge is to find the right business leaders, since they must work for themselves, but also share her values and mission.
“Our vision is to give back by grace what by grace has been given to us,” reminds Merari, “So we are continually looking for new ways to carry out our vision. That happens in many ways, not only in service or giving money to missionary work, but in our own stores we continue to look for new ways to be a blessing in the marketplace.”
This story was first published in full in the Measure BAM Impact report, researched and written by Linda C. and Jo Plummer
Jo Plummer is the Co-Chair of the BAM Global Think Tank and co-editor the Lausanne Occasional Paper on Business as Mission. She has been developing resources for BAM since 2001 and currently serves as Editor of the Business as Mission website.