The Wonderful Life of James Avery- Part 1

On April 30, the world lost a giant of a man. James Avery, the founder of James Avery Craftsman, passed away at the age of 96. A short period of time has passed and HCBN is learning more and more about the man behind the largely successful jewelry company.

Recently, HCBN met up with Howell Ridout, Vice President of Real Estate & Development at James Avery Craftsman. Mr. Ridout gave his time to speak about James Avery and man he knew him to be.

Ridout tells HCBN that it was a privilege to work with James, who he called him Jim, over the last 43 years. Ridout had been on staff with him three times in those 4 decades. He describes his time with James Avery as ‘a very long and fascinating journey’.

Mr. Ridout recalls meeting Avery shortly after he graduated architect school and connected with him right away. “I met Jim at the architectural firm where I worked right out of school and was made his project manager almost immediately. I think we hit it off because we had a similar design aesthetic and a similar kind of driven work ethic and personality. After two or three years, he hired me away from my architectural firm.”

A little while down the line, Ridout wanted to venture off and start his own company and James Avery understood, agreeing to be his first client. His new business was successful but Avery called him up one day and told him to sell his business, come back to Kerrville and he would put Ridout in a position. That’s what Ridout did.

After venturing out on his own again, 10 years later he returned once more and has been with the Avery company for 16 or 17 years.

He tells HCBN, “James Avery Craftsman has evolved into a very different company than it was in the mid 70’s. And Jim had already been working at it for a couple of decades, it was really fascinating.”

Describing Mr. Avery, Ridout says, “He was a powerhouse of a personality and you usually knew when he entered the room. If anything was going to have his name on it, he was going to see it to the end that it was done right.”

“The four things Jim founded the company on were simplicity, integrity, meaning, and universality. Keep it simple, keep it meaningful, do it with integrity, and strive to be universally appealing.” Individual wooden plaques can be seen with these words on them in the design studio at James Avery Jewelry in Kerrville.

Ridout recalls a few details passed to him by Avery about his time as a bomber pilot in World War 2. Avery flew 44 missions and Ridout believes his plane was shot up a couple of times. His crew had a lot of respect for his leadership and ability to bring them home safely. Mr. Ridout says, “He went over there with that kind of leadership and came home with it and applied it to the manner of running his company.” Ridout explained that Mr. Avery kept up his flying, owning a small plane at one point.

Ridout states, “James Avery named his company James Avery Craftsman instead of James Avery jewelry because he wasn’t really positive of what he wanted to make; furniture, doors, jewelry, or whatever the endeavor was.”

To this day, the James Avery company still has it’s own mill workshop and furniture building arm of the company. There they are still building many fixtures. The corporate furnishings in the James Avery conference room are custom Avery pieces that Ridout and Avery designed and built. Ridout says that James was all about integrity and honesty so in all of the James Avery stores the fixtures are all solid wood so they can be what they appear to be.

“It’s fairly unusual for an artistic person to take an artistic endeavor and have it turn into a strong, viable business that had an outreach to millions of people. In some ways, Jim’s story is the quintessential American success story. One guy, in his in-law’s garage, with a few pieces of scrap silver and a few hundred dollars in capital and actually build a business that’s a multi-million dollar, a multi-state business that has an outreach to millions of people.

Jim was all about making a difference in people’s lives. He made a huge impact in this town in many ways, as an artist, as an employer, as a philanthropist, as a community leader. He was willing to invest his time in being on various boards. Jim served on the school board as well as the KPUB board. He helped make things we have in our town stronger and more impactful. He was willing to invest both time and money in a lot of ventures.”

James Avery was described as having a generous heart by nature, Ridout believes that he felt like people who managed to somehow be fortunate enough to be successful had an obligation to invest back into the communities that helped them become successful.

Rideout explains that the company has a “pretty robust charitable giving program. Members of the Avery family have also been individually great. Being generous is in the DNA of the family as well as the company. The company’s program is all about ‘If you’re going to bother to do something, do it very well.”

“I love working there, he treated his employees and customers well. It’s not uncommon to go into a location and find a grandfather, a daughter, and a granddaughter working. It is kind of like a family tradition for some.”

HCBN asks Ridout what his favorite memory of James would be.

His answer was, “There are a lot of them. One of them was a trip to Mexico we took together. Going through there, hunting down stone masons, artisans, to do special projects on our campus and working with those people. Traveling with James through Mexico and working side by side with him, stopping for a margarita or two along the way.”

He adds, “I remember one particular trip we took, we piled on a plane to Guadalajara. We had a great time and got a lot done. Some of the columns that are on our campus today are from that trip.”

He was asked, “What is something you learned from Mr. Avery?” Ridout says, “He reinforced to me that if you are going to do something, make it substantial and do it with integrity. He didn’t make designs that were ever frilly or fancy or embellished. You can look at his designs and they were strong, sculptural pieces that just exuded strength. You pick up a piece and it weighs more than you expected it to weigh because it was substantial. There was a lot of beauty in how he approached his art.”

He continues, “Another reason why I love being with the company is that everything is sort of woven together. The same kind of strength and integrity of his designs and sculptures of his jewelry were the same qualities you find in the furniture he built, the display cases we designed and built. You can find it in our font styles, catalogs, storefronts. It was one story expressed in many ways. It wasn’t a different philosophy for different people, they do all things generally in the same way.”

He remembers Avery as an enthusiastic person. He was prone to getting up in the morning with a new idea. When someone would ask James what his favorite design was, he would reply, “The next one.”

Another memory Ridout has of Avery is, “One day  I was struggling with what to get my wife for Christmas. I wanted it to be special but I wasn’t coming up with any really good ideas. Jim told me, ‘You know Howell, I have an idea. Let me check into it. Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you if I come up with a good solution.’ I showed up in his office the next afternoon and he opened his desk drawer. He pulled out a gold chain and on the bottom of it was a pendant that had my wife’s interlocking initials that Jim had personally designed and created with his own two hands. He said, ‘Do you think she will like this?’ I said, yes! She definitely will. I didn’t expect that. He went out of his way to do something special and gracious.”

Ridout recalls Avery as being very giving. A banner in the visitor’s center readers “Giving is what it’s all about” to remind everyone that was a founding principle of the company.

He says that the entire Avery family had the same values. They believe in taking care of people and treating them right. “They do a beautiful job of walking the tightrope of taking care of people and customers and doing great things while still managing to be a highly successful business entity.”

“Jim loved jazz. We would sometimes find a jazz bar and have a glass of wine and listen to jazz. A lot of people didn’t know but he played the piano and he was good at it. Every now and then he would sit down and do his own jazz interpretations.”

Ridout explains that the company’s future looks very strong. “We currently have the most effective and high-quality management team, associates and staff at every level and I have loved working with Chris and Paul. They have their own gifts, talents, and skills that they bring to the company but they operate on the same level of integrity and care of the people inside the company and the customers. We now have the resources to venture into new opportunities that we have never had before. The company’s impact will grow beyond Texas in the future decades.”

HCBN would like to thank Howell Ridout for taking the time to meet with us. We also plan to sit down with a few other members of the James Avery Craftsman team in hopes to bring their inside stories to our readers.

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