Charles Harris proves that the best business is conducted with integrity—and a whole lot of heart
BY CORRINA MOSCA
With much of today’s corporate world following a “dog-eat-dog” mantra, it’s becoming increasingly more rare for a business to be built entirely on a foundation of ethics. Charles Harris, CEO of The Empire Group, prides himself on running a fair, moral business—and demonstrates that a successful business and virtue are not mutually exclusive.
Harris got his first taste of the jewellery industry as a teenager, working part-time in a jewellery store. However, he was soon turned onto the watch business, taking George Brown College’s watchmaking program in Toronto—from which he graduated with honours.
This switch, says Harris, came from his affinity for micromechanics. “I’ve always been a creative prototyping, building, manufacturing, making type of person,” he says. “I eat, sleep and breathe watches and clocks. Making things is my true passion.”
Soon, Harris started his own watch repair company in Markham, which worked primarily for retail chains. After 20 years of business, Harris shut down the company in 2009 and opened The Empire Group in January of 2010.
A UNIQUE TAKE
Originally, The Empire Group acted as a clock repair company to the non-trade retail public. However, larger chain stores began to seek out Harris’s skills, leading him to also offer a watch repair business for retailers.
When he began The Empire Group, Harris found that “there were a lot of repair houses, but not many that would take on complicated jobs,” he says. “Everybody wanted to do the simple jobs because it was quick, fast money. But when it came to the more technical stuff, few and far between were able to do it.”
Harris felt that his skills as a master watchmaker would enable him to tackle those difficult repairs. “I’ve built just about every part of the clock over the course of time through repairs,” he explains. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re the clockmaker to the clockmakers—there’s no component that I can’t make.”
Soon, word got out about Harris’s unique abilities, bringing a new set of projects to his company: family heirlooms and antiques. With his large storehouse of centuries-old clock movements and parts—the most extensive in North America—Harris was able to restore pieces that other shops just couldn’t mend.
“One of the things that I take pride in is when I’m able to restore a family heirloom,” notes Harris. “To repair a watch or clock that’s been in the family and has been handed down from grandpa to dad to son, to let them know that they can have it in working order once again—that is why I do what I do. It is so satisfying to know that you can restore somebody’s timepiece and bring those memories back.”
That being said, Harris’s desire to restore these timepieces is twofold. “We live in a disposable world, an instant gratification world,” he says. “What I do is an entirely different ball game. I work on timeless, precious timepieces that are more a matter of history than disposability.”
By restoring these pieces, Harris not only allows older eras to live on into today’s period of mass production: he is able to run a green, environmentally-friendly business. This is reflected in the company’s mission statement—the brand is part of Toronto Live Green, working to promote a healthy environment through its methods of disposal and its ways of conducting business.
AN ETHICAL LIFE
This sense of ethics is also felt in the way that Harris treats his clientele. With each step of The Empire Group’s repair process contingent on the needs of each individual customer, Harris feels that the company’s service is a “personalized” one.
“I tell my staff all the time, we may fix watches and clocks, but our job is customer service,” he explains. “That’s the whole key. We will move heaven and earth to make sure that our customers get what they need.”
Harris notes that while many repair companies will tell customers with difficult repairs that there are “no parts available” to fix their goods, The Empire Group is always willing to “go to the mat” for each of its clients. “If there’s a chance of finding a part, I will go all over the world to find it,” he says.
This eagerness to please does come with a price, though—especially when it comes to the efficiency of the business. “In order to be efficient, you have to move a large number of repairs, but we still try to treat everyone like an individual. It’s a balancing act,” admits Harris. “But again, I won’t forfeit quality just for speed. I don’t cut corners on quality; it’s always the best it can possibly be.”
Harris’s morals are also reflected in the way he works with his competitors.
“My belief is that the thrust of my retail business is clocks, while the thrust of my watch repair business is to the industry,” he adds, noting that he does not advertise his watch repair business to retail consumers. “At no point do I want the industry to believe that I’m double-dipping. I don’t want to take business away from anyone; there’s enough repair work out there for everybody.”
BUILDING AN EMPIRE
In order to offer a wider, more comprehensive range of services to his customers, Harris opened Timeless Innovations—a jewellery repair shop for the non-consumer trade public—on January first of this year. For this project, Harris teamed up with Beverly Serrao, the ex-vice-president for the Zales Corporation.
“Bev and I have known each other for 30 years,” says Harris. “After much conversation, we decided that the industry could really use a repair centre that did everything under one roof.”
Timeless Innovations allowed them to accomplish just this. Now, retailers can send all of their watches, all of their clocks and all of their jewellery to one location—The Empire Group.
“Stores can now do one shipment once a week to send everything in, which means less work for them,” explains Harris. “That’s one phone call when it comes to customer service, and then less expense as far as the shipping costs.”
For Harris, this also reflects a sense of completion in his own career. “I started working part-time in a jewellery store when I was 15 or 16 years old, and I learned the bench trade of being a jeweller before I even got into watchmaking,” he says. “Now, it’s all come full-circle.”
Harris’s extensive achievements prove that even in today’s corporate world, business doesn’t have to be conducted aggressively or deceitfully. Be passionate, be fair and be wise, and success will follow.
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