By Michael Kinney
For the bulk of the 39 years Tipton’s Fine Jewelry has been in existence, they’ve been able to stay out of debt.
That was a goal that started in 1981 with Kathy and Mike Tipton, and that goal has been passed down to the next generation to their daughter, Kara Tipton-Smith, when she took over in 2018.
For a small family-owned business in today’s economic climate to remain financially solvent is something the Tiptons are proud to see on their ledger.
However, that streak ended in 2017 when Tipton’s Fine Jewelry moved from inside the Central Mall of Lawton to its current location of 6121 N.W. Cache Rd. In order to make the transformation to a stand-alone shop, the store incurred its first debt and took out loans.
While the 44-year-old Tipton-Smith said the store is now bigger and better because of it, they were looking forward to paying off the loans and going back to their debt-free existence.
Sadly, that plan had to be delayed when the Coronavirus pandemic struck and Tipton-Smith had to shut her store for two months.
“It was scary knowing that we had loans to pay for the store, but not bringing any income in,” Tipton- Smith said. “That was a scary thought.”
But after reopening, Tipton-Smith made a decision that would seem unthinkable to some during an economic downturn. She made a purchase that was not necessarily going to bring money into the store now, but could prove beneficial down the road.
Tipton-Smith said she invested $8,500 on a special air filtration system from Extreme Microbial Technologies (EMT) out of Ohio.
“It’s been known to remove 99.9% of all viruses, to include the COVID,” Tipton-Smith said. “So, it’s supposed to be the most state-of-the-art-air filtration.”
According to EMT, their system is 97.7 percent effective, specifically against COVID-19.
Tipton-Smith ordered the system in July and expects it to be installed by Sept. 1 before a possible second-wave of the COVID-19 hits, if it does.
“It’s only typically in plants where they’re making mass production of different food items,” Tipton -Smith said. “During the downtime, we did investigate different air filtration systems that’s going to go through our HVAC system.
“So, it’s actually one of the only retail businesses in the country that’s going to have this installed. I’m really excited about that. For my em- ployees, there will be a safer environment. And then, for my customers coming in, it’s going to provide a healthier, safer environment.
“My air filtration system is always going to be cleaning the system all day, every day, to provide a cleaner and safer air for everybody.”
Tipton-Smith said she doesn’t know of any other business in Oklahoma that has the same air filtration system and she said they are one of the few retail shops in the nation that will have one.
As a relatively new boss, Tipton-Smith admits this was a major move for her to make. But she believes it was the right one – not only for safety, but for economic reasons as well.
“I’m pretty proud of it. I mean, it was a big step for me to take, and it was expensive,” Tipton-Smith said. “Especially with the COVID right now how can I justify spending this much money? But then I’m like, “How can I not justify it, and somebody gets sick?
“So, it’s an investment in my employees and my customers.”
The air filtration system is just one of several decisions that Tipton-Smith has made in response to the pandemic that she wasn’t expecting to have to deal with when 2020 started.
But, when businesses throughout Lawton and the rest of the state were forced to close down in March due to the spread of COVID-19, Tipton-Smith found she was working with a blank notebook on how to respond.
Since nothing like this had ever happened before, she was having to make it up as she went along.
“I know that I made quite a few phone calls to the city trying to figure out guidelines and find out more information,” Tipton-Smith said. “And it was very difficult to find out information on what to do. So, most of the things, I was just grasping at straws and saying, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do?’
“Hopefully, this is going to be with the plan,” because there wasn’t a lot of information that was given out to local businesses.
“It seemed like they were focused more on larger chain stores. And so, they were trying to figure out how to get those stores open, but not a lot of information was given to the smaller businesses.”
From the moment Tipton’s Fine Jewelry closed its doors, Tipton-Smith said she was already looking ahead to what it was going to take to be able to reopen.
“I started (thinking about) those different things that I thought I would have to have done,” she remembered. “So that way, when they did announce that we could reopen, I wouldn’t have any downtime trying to fill those needs.
“I already had my glass screens up on my cashier’s stand. I had the hand sanitizer, Lysol; I’d already prepared for my reopening. As soon as they said we could open, my doors were open the next day. I didn’t have to have any downtime to prepare for that.”
Because they were able to open so quickly, Tipton-Smith was able to do something she wasn’t expecting.
After keeping her entire staff during the shutdown, she found she needed to hire more workers.
“Since we’ve been open, actually, our sales are about 12 percent higher than last year, so sales have been really good for us since we’ve reopened,” Tipton-Smith said. “I anticipated possibly letting go of some of my employees. I kept everybody employed during the pandemic. I didn’t lay anybody off. “I’m actually looking to hire two or three more bodies just to be able to keep up with business.”
The store still has a longway to go to get back to pre-COVID-19 numbers. Overall, Tipton-Smith estimated they are (down) 27 percent from last year’s numbers.
But, she said the store is on the right path. And just as importantly, she believes they are prepared if the pandemic continues or comes back in another, stronger wave.
She even has taken steps to ensure her store will stay open if another state-wide shutdown takes place.
“I’ve made changes to make sure that I don’t have to close my doors again,” Tipton-Smith said.
“We purchase gold off the streets and diamonds off the streets. I did not know that was an ability that we could have done in March.
“I did do my research with that, because pawn shops were able to stay open, and other buying places were staying open. I have made that addition to the store. So that way, if it does come down to it again, my doors can remain open, since we’ll be considered a banking institution.”
COVID-19 has all been a learning moment for Tipton-Smith. She says she learned about her city, her business and herself.
“We’ve been in business 40 years, and I’ve been here 24…I think that it taught me that if I can come through this pandemic, by golly, I could probably make it through anything,” she said.
“I think learning the ins- and-the-outs, and providing my staff (with the) different training that we did during the downtime, and just knowing, I think, that I can keep my doors open – or even if we have to close (temporarily) – we can actually recover and be bigger and better than we were before.”
Story by Michael Kinney/Michael Kinney Media
Photos by Peter Contos.