When Melba Walton saw the boarded up buildings of downtown Franklin, TN she knew opportunity was waiting. 45 years later her granddaughter, Julie, with baby James in tow, run the family jewelry store, Walton’s Antique & Estate Jewelry.
As a young girl growing up in the jewelry store – she made it her mission to bring the store into the digital age to protect its legacy and keep it around for future generations.
Stephanie Burns: What made you want to take over your grandmother’s business?
Julie Walton: My Maw-Maw, Melba Walton, was a visionary entrepreneur who helped revitalize the downtown area. She was never afraid of trying something different, which is one of the reasons why I think we’ve been in business for so long. In fact, when she moved to Downtown Franklin, most of the storefronts were abandoned and boarded up. But she could see the opportunity in downtown Franklin and chose to open her doors here.
She got started selling jewelry from the hood of her car at local flea markets. When she opened the doors to our first location in 1974, it was a time when women were not able to get a loan on their own. In fact, she had her husband, Jack, cosign in order to pursue her dreams of becoming a business owner. It was never assumed that I would take over the family business and didn’t feel pressure when I explored different pursuits after college, and was naturally drawn back to the business. One summer, my dad made me an offer to try the family business. Per his suggestion, I came home for a few weeks to give it a go. The rest is history! Having the opportunity to first explore other avenues gave me an even greater appreciation for my family business. It also allowed for me to grow as an individual and professional, imparting wisdom that I could then apply to the family business.
My grandmother passed away a few years ago, if she were here, she would be thrilled with the success of Walton’s and Downtown Franklin. She was one of the first that really lead the charge to revitalize Franklin, and I see it thriving for generations to come. Now as a third generation female business owner over 50 years later, I am honored to continue her legacy. She would never believe that I am selling antique jewelry online now.
Julie Walton with son, James, at the Walton’s Jewelry Store
Burns: Did she impart any business lessons to you that you can share with us?
Walton: I think about this often, and wish that I had been a part of the business when my grandmother was in better health. She was always “Maw-Maw” more so than the “strong female entrepreneur and business owner” to me, largely because I was not old enough to appreciate her incredible talents and perseverance as a business woman. What I did learn are not individual lessons taught in one sitting, but rather life lessons learned over time. The main lessons she always taught me can be applied to business; always be kind, trust your instincts, and stand your ground.
Burns: What were the challenges you faced when bringing your brick and mortar business into the digital age?
Walton: I remember my dad telling me, “we’ve got to find a way to make money even when we are closed.” Opening our online store was a way for us to do that. Our presence on social media has been a huge opportunity for us to connect with antique jewelry lovers and collectors all around the world. Everyone is already on their phones, so what better way for us to promote our business then to have our jewelry shoppable from Facebook and Instagram!
I have come to find that many generational businesses die after the second generation. I believe this is due to the fact that many do not want to change with the times while still holding true to their roots. With that in mind, it was extremely important to bring Walton’s into the digital age for us to continue to thrive and grow since that it how the modern-day consumer wants to interact with a business. Maw-Maw was never afraid to try something different and that inspired us to get online!
When I came on board, we were still hand writing receipts, logging inventory in a notebook, and had a weak internet presence. In order for us to enter into the digital age, I first had to make numerous structural changes behind the scenes. This was by far the biggest challenge. I implemented new processes, introduced our first point of sale system and built our new website. We all had to learn how to incorporate the ways we had been doing day to day practices into the new methods. It was a challenge for us all, but worth every struggle to get to the place where we are now. I was able to grow our social media following, build our website as well as allow our customers to shop with us online, while still upholding the values, traditions and quality that our customers are accustomed to experiencing.
In 2017, I was chosen to be one of eleven business owners from across the country to become a member of Facebook’s Small Business Council. Being a member of this council has allowed me to connect with other small business owners across the country, providing tools to further strengthen our online presence. We have people come into our shop all the time who pull out their phones and show us a picture of a ring they saw on Facebook.
Nowadays, it is a common occurrence for us to sell a five-figure engagement ring over Facebook Messenger to someone who has never seen the ring in person. Everything we do digitally I want to be a direct reflection of what people experience when they come in our showroom. Whether that’s emailing with us, shopping on our website, browsing our Facebook and Instagram pages – the experience you have in those avenues reflect the experience you have in person. Shopping and interacting with a business online can still be personal and catered to that individual, which is our ultimate goal.
Burns: What kinds of mindset growth did you experience when you took over the business?
Walton: Having been in business for 45 years, it is incredibly important to understand the strengths the business has had for it to have continued to be successful. Rather than going full throttle to make a change, I have found that it is extremely important to first understand why something is the way it is or has been done the way it has for so long. There are often key elements of the practices that have been in place that should be understood to determine the best way to move forward. Sometimes, they do not pertain at all to today’s day and age, while others have components that should be incorporated into the changes made moving forward.
Burns: What are you hoping your son learns watching you run a business?
Walton: Having my son, James, who was born last year, has made it even more important to continue to grow our online business. I’m not able to always be on the sales floor or in my office like I was before, so having the opportunity to work from home is very important. Being able to answer questions that our customers have at 5am when I am up with him has made it possible to continue to sell jewelry online even when I’m not in the storefront.
When I was growing up in the store, I remember watching my dad and my grandmother show kindness and compassion to all who came through our doors. They prioritized getting to know their customers and treating them as friends, rather than just another client. They invested in our Downtown Franklin community, not only because they cared but because they understood that when the tide rises, it raises all boats. They often put in extra work hours, but always put family first. These are the things that I hope my kids learn from watching me run this business.
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