Fred Halpern knew his dream and fortunes were underneath the square pink neon clock and through the front door of the jewelry store he acquired in 1960 at the corner of Main and Broadway streets in East Chicago.
“I was in my own ‘Acre of Diamonds,’” says Halpern, 74, of Schererville, co-owner of Albert’s Diamond Jewelers, referring to the ageless parable. “And it was just one more shovel I would have to dig to get there. I was fascinated with 'Success through a Positive Mental Attitude' (PMA). Nothing could stop me and I wasn’t afraid of failure. I've been broke many times and nothing bothers me.”
The Acre of Diamonds parable made famous by motivational speaker Russell Cromwell explains opportunity doesn’t just come along – it’s there all the time and we just have to see it. It explains that it’s folly to charge off in search of greener pastures. Each of us is in the middle of our own acre of diamonds if only we realize it and develop the ground we’re standing on.
Halpern’s son, Josh Halpern, who is co-owner, says his dad listened to PMA tapes on the ride home from the store every day. “Regardless of where we were, he was going to make the best of the situation,” Josh says. “No matter how successful we are now it stems from what he created in East Chicago. He used to say we should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for what we accomplished there.”
In 1905, Albert Rubinstein set up shop on the corner in the Indiana Harbor neighborhood. In 1960, Fred Halpern’s parents, who were in the jewelry business, acquired the bankrupt store and Halpern began running it at age 21 while he was on summer break from the University of Alabama where he was a kinesiology major.
He left college and never returned. The store had no inventory and no customers. Halpern worked for five years before taking a penny from the company and invented his own business strategy, which he coined “the piranha effect.” The building became a center for water and energy bill payments, Western Union, lottery tickets and currency exchange.
“He created an excitement, a buzz and a buying atmosphere,” Josh says. “He found a way to build traffic into his business. Those things had very low margin and profit and barely covered the expense to staff them but people were in the store. He was savvy and did things that were unorthodox. He did things against the grain and it worked for him.”
Fred Halpern, a Chicago native, married his wife, Donna, on Valentine’s Day in 1968 and they went on to raise two children, Josh Halpern and Holly Metzger . In 2002, the Halperns opened the doors to a new flagship facility in Schererville and opened a second location in Merrillville.
Metzger co-owns two stores, which include one in Northbrook Court and Old Orchard shopping malls in Illinois. Fred Halpern’s brother, Charles, is a buyer and a partner in the company. All stores combined employ 150 workers. More than 120,000 customers walk through the doors of the Schererville store yearly.
Charles Halpern has worked with Fred for 45 years. “The best part is family,” he says. “It’s better being with him than without him. He’s an icon and does things his way, but he’s humble. He wants the best store in the country. It’s like inviting a person into your home. That’s how he wants the customers to be treated. ”
Fred Halpern says everybody wants to be where everybody else is. “I create an atmosphere where everybody wants to be,” he says. “I call my store the love store because we have seven or eight layers of love we put on everybody that walks in. I give as many free things as I can to a customer to make their experience a little different than the next place.” The love also includes freshly baked cookies seven days a week.
Over the years, the streetwise jeweler has taken many risks both within the store and in other ventures including a gold mine, a race horse and an oil well. An investment in cable television paved the way for TV commercials in which he dressed as a swami or interviewed himself. “He was thinking out of the box and it was a catapult for the business,” Josh says.
Although he was influenced by the lectures of Cromwell, Fred Halpern credits his parents for his work ethic and values. They struggled through difficult financial times, yet managed to put five kids through college.
“My father is extremely driven and has a no lose attitude,” Josh says. “He’ll out work and out hustle you.”
Fred Halpern also inherited the gift of an open heart and the sharing of love and compassion from his mother. “We never had a neat house but we always had an open house,” Fred says.
Josh says his dad taught him to be a giver. “One of his lines is ‘Do something great and don’t tell anybody about it,’” he says. “Part of the life lesson was caring about people and to not be selfish but be selfless.”
Josh recalls at age 5 the weekly ritual of spending the afternoon with his dad at a nursing home every Saturday to visit an ailing former building tenant. Josh remembers bringing sweet rolls and passing them out to each and every grateful resident.
Today, Fred supports fundraisers for multiple sclerosis, AIDS and Parkinson’s Disease, to name only a few. His wife, Donna, was diagnosed with MS when she was in her late 20s and now nearly four decades later is in a wheelchair.
Every year he raises money for MS research during an auction at his store and participates in numerous other fundraisers. To date, the Halperns have donated more than $750,000. Last year, they were recognized by the National MS Society Volunteer Hall of Fame in Colorado. Halpern’s brother, Ken, died from AIDS in 1996. Fred Halpern participated several times in The Chicago AIDS Ride, a six-day, 500-mile bikathon from Minneapolis to Chicago,
Donating his time and money to organizations as well as countless local groups and individuals is a way of life for Fred Halpern. The stories are endless: he bought the entire East Chicago Central boy’s basketball team, including coaches, a gold ring for winning the state championship in 2007. Recently he gave someone $25,000 for food in Somalia. Last year, Albert’s gave away 70 watches to the most improved students.
“Everybody I touch I try to make them have a better day,” he says. “I want to change the world one person at a time. I want to make a lot of money so I can give it away. I’d like to live longer so I could be like Bill Gates and his efforts against AIDS. The truth is people who are givers have more fun and enjoy life more than takers. And I’m always going to be a giver.”