Talking Racing And Watches With BJ Nichols, Owner Of Reis-Nichols
We sat down with the man behind the midwest’s premier retailer of watches and jewelry.
As you may have seen, we recently announced our partnership with the Indianapolis-based retailer Reis-Nichols. For me, it's a thrill to collaborate with my hometown jeweler, which is why I was even more excited to talk shop with BJ Nichols, the second-generation owner of Reis-Nichols.
Interview With BJ Nichols
Josh Shanks: Thank you for hosting Watchonista in your beautiful Indianapolis store. Reis-Nichols has a long history going back many decades. Could you give our audience a brief history lesson about Reis-Nichols?
BJ Nichols: Well, the origins of our company begin in 1919 with the Reis Company. It started as a Masonic ring manufacturer, making rings for the Scottish rite, the Shriners, and rings for the members of the Blue Lodge. My father, William Nichols, purchased that company in 1973 and in 1980 we renamed it to Reis-Nichols.
JS: As I understand it, Reis-Nichols was initially only focused on jewelry alone?
BJ: Yeah, primarily jewelry, no watches. The funny thing my dad didn’t really believe the watch business could be successful. He would say "Sell a watch and lose a client." Because, back then, we couldn’t control it. We manufactured the jewelry, so we were in control if something happened…we could fix it. When we sold watches, back then, if something happened, we couldn’t make it right. So my dad’s mentality was that the watch business was tight, the margins weren't there, and you couldn't control it.
But when I took over the business in '82, I wanted the [watch] brands. I saw the brands as a symbol and identifier of a luxury jeweler and a driver for our business. And an additional revenue source. So, yeah, that was my goal. The first watch brand we put in was Baume & Mercier. In 1988, we moved to the Majestic Building in downtown Indianapolis where we stayed for ten years. Then in '98, we built this store. In 2001, we moved the downtown store to Greenwood.
But in '88, when we moved up here, we were the number one jeweler in the state, single or multi-store combined. So, in '98, we opened our 86th street location with our existing brands, and we brought on Patek Philippe. in 2003. But, the most exciting part, to me, about the timepieces business was the learning part and the sophistication of the watches. And I felt like we could do that better than anybody.
JS: And how long has BJ Nichols been in this business?
BJ: Full-time since '82, not long after I graduated from high school. When I was a college student, I was proud to have to get a plaque from my employees that said “Boss of the Year”. I still have it in my office at home today.
JS: That's awesome!
BJ: And I was 20 years old [laughs], and so, I think we had 15-18 employees back then. But before that, I'd work in the summers making Masonic rings and stuff like that.
JS: What was your first nice watch?
BJ: A Baume & Mercier Riviera.
JS: In today's market, both in watches and jewelry, it's a challenging landscape - maybe not from your side - but with online retailers and traditional brick-and-mortar stores. What sets Reis-Nichols apart?
BJ: First of all, I would say the relationships that we build with our customers, and we're passionate, and we care about them. The other, we are diligent. Our diligence is in learning the watch business and educating ourselves and our clients.
JS: What do you love about Indianapolis?
BJ: Lots of things! I love the racing and the sports part of it - the fact that we have a NFL team, and a NBA team. We even have the opportunity to enjoy the arts – with great music, theater, and museums. As others would say, we're like a big, small city. Indianapolis has a lot of the Midwestern values and the warmth and friendliness that you get from a small town but big enough to be able to draw a big crowd. We even get the celebrities, the concerts, and the sports venues that you'd see in a bigger city.
JS: So, let's talk about racing. I know you're quite a fan of racing, and Indianapolis and racing go hand-in-hand. Could you tell us more?
BJ: I love racing! About five years ago, a local gentleman who owns a race shop sold me his coveted Lotus Exige. A beautiful car with a manual transmission. And I started running it at a nearby racetrack, Putnam Park, that I've been going to since becoming a member. And I just fell in love with it.
Ironically, we were running it one day, and my wife was out there, and I was talking to Marco Bicego, who was here for a personal appearance. I was taking him out in the car, and after he said to my wife, "He needs a bigger and faster car." And so that opened the door for me to buy my Porsche GT3, which I absolutely love. Out of all the cars I've seen out at the track, the Porsche ones go the fastest and last the longest. They are absolute engineering marvels. Similar to the Swiss watches that we represent. A perfect parallel.
BJ: And so, I started running that car, and I got the itch to run it at other tracks. So I started running in the GT3 class. I’ve run it at Sebring, Road Atlanta, Virginia International Raceway, and more. Now I have TAG Heuer as a partner on the car, and I have a great relationship with them, and we just have a lot of fun. But there's a lot of learning, and I love to learn.
JS: So, I guess my next question is about some of your clientele. You've had your fair share of drivers come through Reis-Nichols’ door. Do you have a particular favorite?
BJ: What I would say is that we're fortunate to have many legendary race car drivers come through our door. And I've had the pleasure of getting to know some of the ones like Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Tony Stewart, Tony Kanaan, and Scott Goodyear. But I would say that I enjoy the relationship and the racing tips that I've gotten from Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi.
JS: They're helping you out on the track, eh?
BJ: Oh yeah [laughs]! So that's a lot of fun.
JS: Who is your all-time favorite racing driver, someone that you idolized growing up?
BJ: AJ Foyt
JS: As a fan, has it always been IndyCar, or have you ever looked at Formula 1 or other categories?
BJ: IndyCar is still my favorite. I've attended NASCAR events, F1 Grand Prix, and other races all over the country. Yet I still get the most excited about IndyCar.
JS: Looking at all the watches released in 2019, do you have a particular favorite?
BJ: I would have to say the Patek Philippe ref. 5726. The connection with Gerald Genta from the Riviera to this watch, since he designed both of them. The Annual Calendar 5726 I think is cool because of the additional level of complication of the annual calendar and the fact that they've designed it with and been able to maintain the character of the face on the dial of the watch. So, I would say that would be it. And it reminds me of the Riviera too.
JS: Looking forward to 2020, both as a retailer and an enthusiast, what are you most looking forward to? Any particular watches you would love to see made or any trends coming that you would like to see the business grow into?
BJ: As a retailer, developing a younger staff, family members, and becoming an employer of choice is really important. Nothing just becomes legendary. In today's world, it's easy to get lost. As they say today, the ho-hum retailers are struggling, so you have to become legendary and be something that nobody else is, doing something that nobody else is doing.
So, we want to do that from every aspect, that’s why people come to Reis-Nichols. From having six watchmakers in our watch department or having a 12-person jewelry design and manufacturing team. The main thing I preach to the staff, and that we all buy into is adding value.
BJ (Continued): But when customers come in the store, you have to add value to what you're doing and give them the experience, the customer experience, and help them learn and get excited about watches, and know what's coming and what to look out for. Help them understand how to start building their collection and how to appreciate it. And they are getting good value for what they pay.
All these things - repairs, sizing a watch, or special ordering something - all these things that you do, if you do it right, the customer leaves and says, "Why would I ever try and go online?" Or, "Why would I go to their competitor?" So, all of those things are huge. But if you're thinking in terms of adding value, you will do the right thing, and you will grow, and you will be relevant going forward. Regardless of online or other jewelers and competitors, no matter what business we're in, the customer experience is vital.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell & Reis-Nichols)