Marc Friedant of ‘Robbins Brothers’: “Never forget to look for the opportunity, even in the worst of situations”

Never forget to look for the opportunity, even in the worst of situations. This past year has been rife with challenges. Looking for the opportunities, as well as dealing with what’s right in front of us, was how we made it through — and I believe we’re stronger because of it. As a part of our series about […]

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Never forget to look for the opportunity, even in the worst of situations. This past year has been rife with challenges. Looking for the opportunities, as well as dealing with what’s right in front of us, was how we made it through — and I believe we’re stronger because of it.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Friedant.

Marc Friedant has over 30 years of experience across diverse industries as a financial and operational executive. Having started his career in food products, and later in jewelry, beverages, beauty, houseware, and hardware products, his combination of understanding success and how to manage through difficult situations uniquely positions him to take advantage of disruptive opportunities by combining his diverse background and experience with his instinct for identifying areas of growth and expansion.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was born and raised in Philadelphia and am the oldest of three. If you know much about being raised in Philly, you’ll understand that we’re a unique bunch. We thrive on controversy and negativity, and for better or worse, my Philly roots are pretty evident in much of what I do and how I motivate myself and others. Early on, I set my sights on becoming a doctor and started as a pre-med major at Temple University. Fairly quickly, I realized that acceptance into Med School required me to figure out how to survive and excel in organic chemistry….and much to my chagrin, that was just too tall of an order for me. Fortunately, because I was always fairly good with numbers, I had the foresight to have loaded up my course curriculum with accounting and business classes which allowed me to pivot towards a career in accounting, finance, and operations.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Robbins Brothers was one of the first retailers to begin carrying lab-grown diamonds 10 years ago. Since the beginning, it’s been an important part of our business, but recently I saw an opportunity to further elevate our lab diamonds and position them in a way that no other lab diamond company, or retailer, was. It’s been a privilege to help take this part of the business to the next level, and as a result, we’ve seen our average ticket increase due to the mix of product we’ve been selling, how we’re selling them, and how we’re messaging them. Lab diamonds continue to be a major trend amongst millennials, evident by their popularity growth, which is reported to be 15–20% annually. With this rise in popularity and strategic decisions we made within areas of merchandise, sales, and marketing, our lab diamond sales have become a larger portion of our overall business.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first “real job” after grad school was with a food manufacturer — a baked food products business to be exact. I was hired as a cost accountant and tasked with creating a system whereby we knew exactly how much a product cost us to manufacture in order for us to set the right wholesale price. So, like any “kid” who’d never been in the real world, I thought I knew everything. For the first month, I spent my time out on the production floor, wearing goggles and carrying a stopwatch. I wanted to look the part — but really, I was clueless. So, my big faux pas, if you will, was that I thought that if you started with 50 lbs. of flour, 3 lbs. of yeast, 5 lbs. of sugar, 5 lbs. of chocolate chips, and 6 gallons of water (which weighed about 50 lbs.), you should end up with 113 lbs. of cookies at the end. When I saw the batch yielded 96 lbs., I started to question things. I even argued with, and got belligerent with, the mixing/baking crew that they were either making mistakes in mixing, were making the cookies the wrong weight, or worse yet, were dropping the dough on the floor. What I didn’t take into consideration was that when you bake the dough, the baking process removes liquid and moisture while the product is in the oven. A concept that was so far outside of my brain, that it took a few weeks for me to “believe” that there was such a thing as “bake-out” which impacted ultimate yield. What a jerk I was…

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have many mentors along my journey, but the four who impacted me the most are my father, John Schiavo, Bob Starr, and Todd Christopher. My dad, Gene Friedant grew up during difficult circumstances. Born just before the great depression, he lost his mother at 11. His father, an immigrant from Ukraine, did what he could to take care of my father, but for many years, my dad went from relative to relative without having the benefit of a traditional family structure. Nevertheless, his drive, determination, and willingness to continuously reinvent his various businesses really impacted me. He ultimately had a modestly successful home-based business that my brother, sister, and I all had a chance to learn and to “work” in. It wasn’t anything that any of us chose to maintain, but all learned commitment, determination, drive, success, and failure from those experiences.

Next up was John Schiavo. John was one of my early bosses and provided me my first opportunity to put my accounting education to practice. Not merely from a traditional “debit and credit” perspective, but in using accounting and finance to make informed and appropriate business decisions. John had a unique combination of creativity, marketing, and sales experience, all with a strong business operations mentality. His combination of skills encouraged me to broaden my perspectives, to become less narrowly focused, and he gave me my first initial exposure to general management. John went on to be the CEO of Otis Spunkmeyer, a baked goods manufacturing and distribution business.

Fairly early in my career, I found myself working for a business that was struggling through significant operational and financial difficulties. After leading the business through a bankruptcy filing and ultimately a sale of the business, I joined a “restructuring/crisis management” firm that specialized in helping businesses of various sizes across a multitude of industries deal with crises. There I worked for the founding partner, Bob Starr, who was a seasoned banker. Bob was the kind of guy whose first response was always “No,” which was his way of forcing a junior person to approach him with a well thought out and prepared point of view before just throwing out ideas. He was a stereotypical father figure who was always teaching and mentoring. In dealing with struggling businesses, what I learned from Bob, is that many businesses start down one path, only to navigate away from what the business did best. The learnings from my crisis management experience have helped shape me to challenge the norm, to challenge conventional ways of thinking, to challenge the notion of “this is how we’ve always done it,” but to continuously level setback to the core product, the core service or the core differentiator that your chosen path identified. Businesses are combinations of many things but trying to serve too many masters has been the undoing of many organizations.

Finally, about five years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a truly disruptive entrepreneur. I joined a business Vogue International and had the career-altering opportunity to work with Todd Christopher. Todd is a third-generation hairdresser who was a serial ideas person. Over 20 years ago, he became fascinated with consumers’ willingness to spend a lot of money on salon shampoos and conditioners. He was intrigued enough to develop “salon-like” products that could be distributed through mass channels, drug store chains, mass merchants, grocery stores, etc. He created and marketed a line of products that ultimately positioned Vogue to be a top 10 haircare brand in the US. We had a company that was growing at 25% per year, in a category dominated by mega-consumer product companies (L’Oreal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble to name a few) that were growing at 1% to 2% per year. Todd’s company was incredibly disruptive at every turn, from marketing strategy, to packaging, to fragrance to promotions, etc. Todd followed no norms, and in fact was a student of norms, just so he could come up with a contrarian strategy. His nimbleness and astute understanding of his customer’s tastes and needs allowed him to build a business that he ultimately sold for more than 3 billion dollars. A truly remarkable talent with whom I had the pleasure to work.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Here at Robbins Brothers, we’re about to celebrate our 100th anniversary in 2021. We have incredible people and a wonderful culture that has withstood the test of time. Now having said that, what I try to do is navigate all of those things while gently maneuvering the company to take advantage of new opportunities and visions to leverage all our good DNA. In this particular instance, ripping the band-aid off or dramatically changing our course would not only be disruptive to what we do best, but also disruptive to our core culture and experience. Jewelry is an industry of such deep traditions — from the beginning of time, people have adorned their bodies in jewels. We need to recognize that, and to also understand that from styling to gems offered, we’re not going to upend what is already in place. That said, we are always looking to enhance, stay relevant and add value to our bridal consumer base, which is a base that’s always changing and with each new generation, has different expectations than the previous generation.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

To challenge the norm or the expected. Things become “expected” when boundaries aren’t pushed. Push boundaries, challenge the old way of doing things which will ultimately lead towards improved performance, better outcomes, and creative disruption.

Because of my financial mindset, my first answer is usually no….this turns out to be my way of working with folks to come up with the best answer or solution to a given problem. “No,” when delivered appropriately, is a push-back, and can be very successful when working with a team of people. Once they realize that “no” is part of the process and not the answer, it’s a development tool to force people to really think recommendations through, and to challenge them in their own minds. Ultimately, better answers and better results come through this type of debate.

Never forget to look for the opportunity, even in the worst of situations. This past year has been rife with challenges. Looking for the opportunities, as well as dealing with what’s right in front of us, was how we made it through — and I believe we’re stronger because of it.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Well, if you ask our associates at Robbins Brothers, I’m always challenging the norm — always asking lots of “why’s?”. I know that’ll never change. Understanding how we got to where we are is exciting, and it gives me opportunities to push for change. We’re operating on a solid foundation, so shaking things up isn’t so much “betting the farm,” but rather maximizing business success while retaining a strong bond with what helped us get here. I can’t tell you what’s next, because you might tell our associates……and I love to keep everyone guessing, so stay tuned!!

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I’ve recently been reading and listening to Simon Sinek….and like most of his followers, I first listened to “Start with Why.” I’m now in the middle of “Leaders Eat Last” and as a believer of a form of servant leadership, Sinek’s words have helped me moderate my innate tendency to be a bit of a control freak, to be the “fixer” for everyone around me. I’ve been forced to take a step back and view business leadership to be much more like parenting. As a father of three wonderful kids, I’ve tried to protect them while simultaneously allowing them to explore, fail, and succeed on their own. As a business leader, I work very hard on making sure that decisions are the result of discussion and debate. I tend to want the answer/direction decided quickly, but now understand that much better answers are the result of the collective group aligning — and driving towards the best decision, not just the fast one! Just like being a dad, I know my kids will stub their toes, and bloody their noses — nothing different in managing an organization, but the desire to achieve and succeed, helps those temporary wounds heal.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t take counsel of your fears” — now I really wish I learned and practiced this much earlier in my life, but fortunately, I finally figured it out in my approach to business. Essentially what this quote means to me is that so many of us choose not to make decisions, and not to make choices when confronted with difficult issues. Because of “fear” many choose to do nothing, only to be shocked and saddened with the ultimate result of their lack of choice and lack of conviction. How I now interpret this is to make the decision and to not let the process of choosing and deciding paralyze you. Ultimately, if the decision turns out to be wrong, you can make another decision to try to end up with the desired outcome. Failures help streamline thought processes that lead to successes.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Listen more, talk less. There are so many people talking right now, so much noise around all of us, with not much substance being said. At Robbins Brothers, we’re in the business of listening to people so that we can figure out how to best help them. Oftentimes people may not know exactly what they’re looking for, so we have to listen even harder. In our business, we train our associates to listen, to not have preconceived ideas about our guests, to not start directing someone based upon the belief that “we know what they want.” In the real world, I think if we could all learn to listen more, and really understand the other person, we all might get to a better place together.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can keep up with me by following Robbins Brothers online at I will also offer tips and advice on our social channels: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @RobbinsBrothers.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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