Staying Power: An interview with ARA Chairman Ricky Bromberg, president of Bromberg’s

Untitled designRicky Bromberg still recalls the day he got his first “paycheck,” if you could call it that, he said. It was June 30, 1966. “I was six years old at that time,” he remembers. “I got a 50-cent piece for being the elevator operator at our downtown Birmingham location. That was my pay for the day.”

Now as president of Bromberg & Co. Inc., he is the sixth generation of the family to lead the company. Bromberg’s was founded in 1836 by his grandfather’s great-grandfather, Frederick W. Bromberg, for whom Ricky is named. He can’t remember a time when his life didn’t revolve around the family business.

“I have always wanted to do this,” Ricky said. “When I was a kid, the jewelry store was where I’d play; where I’d spend most of my day. There was not much difference in the conversation at home and around the dinner table than what was talked about inside the store.”

One of Bromberg’s early Mobile, Alabama locations. The company opened its first location in Mobile way back in 1836

This year, Bromberg and Co. is celebrating an impressive anniversary, its 180th year in business. That makes the business America’s oldest known family owned retailer. It’s a milestone not lost on Ricky Bromberg, who couldn’t help but smile when describing the unique and intertwining story of his family and company.

In 1836, Alabama was in the midst of a population boom as settlers continued to move into the young state. It was primarily a state of small farmers, with pockets of larger landowners in central and south Alabama. Cotton was the chief commodity, and cotton exports transformed Mobile – the state’s only deep-water port – into one of the largest cities of the American South. Commerce was the driving force behind the thriving city of Mobile, and it was there that Prussian immigrant Frederick Bromberg chose to open his business.

Those first years were incredibly difficult, with fire, disease and even war testing their efforts. His grandson, also named Frederick, took over and grew the business, eventually moving it to Birmingham around the turn of the century. In the early 1900s, he and his sons managed to keep the store alive and thriving throughout the Great Depression. Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Bromberg’s saw tremendous expansion.

Alabama Retail 2015, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. (Photo/Hal Yeager)

Today, the company is known for its engagement rings, diamonds and statement pieces of jewelry made by exclusive, world-class brands such as David Yurman, Rolex, Roberto Coin and Mikimoto. The company also carries a large selection of china, crystal, sterling flatware and other gifts and collectables. Bromberg’s has stores in Mountain Brook and at The Summit with its corporate offices in downtown Birmingham. The Bromberg family also owns Underwood Jewelers in Jacksonville, Fla., with four locations there.

One member can make a difference 

Ricky’s term as chairman of the Alabama Retail Association began in January. “I’m honored to be a part of the voice for retailers in our state,” he said. While the company has been a member of the association since 1992, Ricky says he got actively involved in 2000 because of a state sales tax issue.

“We had a sales tax audit, which showed we owed $500 in back taxes and interest on items the company had donated to charity,” Ricky said. It never occurred to him that his company would owe taxes on charitable onations, and he didn’t think it was right for the state to tax such donations. “We were trying to do the right thing and to be generous, and then were penalized for doing it.”

Ricky made it his personal cause to take up the issue, but he wasn’t getting far. After a suggestion to contact his trade association, Bromberg made a call to ARA’s lobbying team.

“The Retail Association, through its collective voice, carries a lot of clout in Montgomery. And they listened,” he said. It took a few years, but the Inventory Reduction for Charitable Purposes Relief Act is now law. Any donation of inventory valued at less than $10,000 is no longer taxable.

“I’m pretty proud that it really passed!,” said Ricky. “To me, it’s a great example of what the association can do on behalf of its members. I encourage all retailers to bring these types of things to ARA’s attention. One person, one phone call, one conversation can really make a difference.”

Moving the organization forward 

“I have big shoes to fill,” said Ricky, describing the leadership of George Wilder, the association’s immediate past chairman and owner of The Locker Room in Auburn and Montgomery.

“He did such a great job, and I am happy to carry forward the work of the association.” The issue top of mind for Ricky today is efairness Alabama Retail 2015, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. (Photo/Hal Yeager)or marketplace fairness. Currently, the government only requires retailers who have a physical presence in a state to collect sales taxes, while those that sell exclusively online get a pass.

“All retailers welcome competition, whether that is through the Internet or the store next door. But, we should all be playing by the same rules. The law, as it stands now, doesn’t treat us fairly. The government is giving an advantage to one type of business over another,” Ricky said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

What’s next?

Ricky is proud of his family ties to retailing. “Retailers everywhere are the bedrock of communities. It’s not just about employment; retail is part of the fabric of everyday life. How many silent auctions have you been to? How many live auctions? What supports those – its local retailers who donate a lot of those items. Who sponsors Little League teams? It’s the local business owners,” said Ricky.

Ricky says there was never any pressure for him to take up the family business, and that’s the same frame of mind offered to the next generation. “There is another generation, so we’ll see if there is interest in carrying the business forward within the family. Time will tell,” he says.

Founded: 1836
Number of Employees: 38
Mentor: Frank H. Bromberg Jr. (my father)
Smart Move: Marrying my wife, Nancy
Learning Moment: Receiving various job assignments over the years without warning!
Wisdom Shared: Slow and steady wins the race

Bromberg’s at 2800 Cahaba Road in Mountain Brook and 131 Summit Boulevard at the Summit are open Monday through Saturday. The Mountain Brook store is open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., while the Summit hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.


Story by Melissa Johnson Warnke

Photos by Brandon Robbins and Hal Yeager

This article is the cover story of the February 2016 Alabama Retailer.