In an age when closely-held family companies are rapidly disappearing, as shoppers go online for everything from diapers to diamonds, the name Tapper’s continues to stand the test of time – still a trusted and celebrated jewelry business in Michigan.
Talk to Mark Tapper, whose father, Howard, and uncle, Steven, founded Tapper’s Diamonds & Fine Jewelry 37 years ago, and it’s clear that the strength of the business stems directly from the strength of the family.
As Tapper kids stocking shelves in the store, Mark and his sister Marla would seem destined to run the business one day. Even so, Howard encouraged independence in his children, urging them to first follow their own paths. And they did: Marla to Indiana University where she earned an MBA in accounting; and Mark to Brandeis University where he earned degrees in Economics, Education and Business Administration.
Mark went on to Teach for America, sharpening his leadership skills working with special education students in the South Bronx. Gravitating back to the jewelry business and headed for his MBA from Harvard, he was still in New York in 2007 when he met Leora (nee Goldman) in “gem class” at the Gemological Institute of America where they both earned their Graduate Gemologist certification.
Raised in Livingston, New Jersey, Leora had graduated from George Washington University with a degree in graphic design and art history. An elegant and engaging pair, if not yet a committed couple, Mark and Leora would continue to develop their professional skills, working separate stints in luxury retail; Leora in New York with Oscar Heyman & Bros, a high-end jeweler, and Mark with the Louis Vuitton store in City Center Las Vegas.
In 2010, at the age of 30, Mark returned to Detroit to take the reins at Tapper’s flagship store in West Bloomfield. Even before the two were married, Leora took the leap with Mark and joined the family business where she started the estate-buying department which she continues to run today. Additionally, Leora and her sister-in-law, Marla (Tapper Young), instantly bonded over “great finds” in shopping expeditions to vendors. With similar tastes, the two became partners – the “Mar” and “Lee” in Tapper’s newest concept, Marlee’s.
Following in the footsteps of a family deeply committed to hard work, caring for customers, investing in the community and giving back to the city, Mark, Leora and Marla — together and each on their own initiative – have taken their place as young leaders in the community.
Mark and Leora have become active with Federation’s young leadership in Israel and Overseas; Leora recently has been named the NEXTGen liaison to the Hebrew Free Loan Board. Mark, Leora and Marla each have taken active parts in supporting and sponsoring Federation events, including NEXTGen’s EPIC event.
It’s a subzero day in January, but the mall is decorated with red hearts and flowers signaling high season for jewelry, as we walk into Tapper’s flagship store in West Bloomfield to meet up with Leora and Mark. Here are highlights of our chat.
On Family in a Family Business
myJewishDetroit: Mark, you describe your family background as a “quintessential Jewish” upbringing in Southfield. How so?
M: Our connection to the Jewish community was something deeply instilled in us. Much of our family life revolved around our congregation – Beth Shalom in Oak Park, and later Shaarey Zedek. My sister and I are Hillel Day School alumni. I started working in the family business before my Bar Mitzvah, at the age of 12. I would say that my dad and uncle have been my role models in business, in family life and in community life for as long as I can remember.
L: As I’ve discovered, growing up in Livingston is not all that different than growing up in West Bloomfield. My family similarly is involved in the Jewish community there. My grandparents are founding members of Beth Shalom, a large Conservative synagogue, where my family remains active.
myJewishDetroit: Any surprises in returning to Detroit?
M: Though I had been away for a dozen years – in school in Boston and working in New York, then Vegas – coming back to Tapper’s was always in the cards. We’re such a close-knit family. I’ve always felt a strong connection to the city and the community here.
There’s all this negative press about Detroit, especially on the East Coast, and my friends always ask, “How do your parents sell diamonds in Detroit?!”
The truth is we have a great foundation here, and what I tell people is this: from an economic perspective, Detroit is an emerging market and an exciting place to be at this time in our lives. There’s real estate, room to grow – a plentiful “land of opportunity” here for entrepreneurs and people who either want to take risks or strike out on their own.
L: We came to Detroit looking to make a life for ourselves. What surprised me is how quickly Metro Detroit felt like home. There was Marla, inviting us out and including us in everything she was doing. Everyone is so welcoming, I’ve never felt alone here.
M: If there were any surprises for me, it’s how fast and effectively we’ve been able to move the family business in new directions: buying estate jewelry with Tapper’s Gold Exchange and launching Marlee’s, a new jewelry and fashion concept aimed at younger customers.
myJewishDetroit: And now that you have been named President of the company, what changes have you experienced with your family?
M: You know, when we started to transition the business, we worked with a family business consultant who had one essential question that he needed each of us to answer independently before we could proceed. He told us, “There’s no wrong answer to this question; some clients answer one way and others answer the other way.” The question he asked us: Family first or business first? And each one of us answered independently: Family first. So we have that strong foundation – trust, respect and incentive – all built into the business. We may operate in different ways, think about problems and find solutions in different ways, but at the end of the day, it’s family first.
L: It’s a team. Even through the structure says that Mark is President, there are no titles here. Mark, Steven, Howard and Marla run the business together. They all have different strengths.
On community leadership
myJewishDetroit: You’ve both jumped into leadership roles as volunteers in the community. How did you start?
L: We have Karen Kaplan at the Federation – along with Marla – to thank for getting us both involved in the community, specifically through the Israel and Overseas department where we were invited to participate in a Young Leadership Development program. In one of the sessions, I met David Contorer, Executive Director of Hebrew Free Loan, and I was immediately drawn to what this agency does, how it works and what it stands for. So I applied as the NEXTGen liaison to their board . . . and now I’m working alongside this extraordinary group of established professionals. That kind of connection – and mentoring—just doesn’t happen everywhere.
On what makes Detroit a great place to live, work and play
M: There’s a spirit and energy here that you don’t see in other cities. Obviously, it takes money to get things going, but people aren’t just hanging back here, they are investing real time and resources and their seichel (Yiddish meaning wisdom, ingenuity) to move forward.
L: There’s such a diversity of people rooting and pulling for the same things. Living in Detroit often feels like a team sport.
M: You know, a lot of people say to me that it’s been easy for us to move back to Detroit because we have a family business here. But I still believe that the same cornerstone values that built our family business can rebuild our city. And, there’s a real need for excellent people here giving it their all.
The community has been very giving to us . . . and we do our utmost to give back as much as possible.
Restaurants: Bacco Ristorante in Southfield and Pasta Fagioli in Bloomfield Hills
Hangout for coffee: Great Lakes Brewing Company on Maple (a “very West Village vibe”)
Buildings in the Detroit skyline: Detroit Athletic Club and the Comerica Building
Place to take visitors: People usually ask to see our stores. (We also enjoy taking people to Birmingham.)
Vacation place: In Michigan, it’s Torch Lake. Favorite place in the world? Israel.
Destination in Israel: Tzfat
Jewish food: Falafel (gluten free)
Jewish expression: Schmutz (Yiddish for “smudge”)
Diamond cut: Tapper’s exclusive Rock Her World, 81-facet diamond, a round-cut developed with our diamond partner in Israel
Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business, by local author, Gino Wickman
Leora is a painter, a talented goldsmith and jewelry designer.
Mark started his career as a corporate banker. He also worked as a volunteer in the prestigious Teach for America program, teaching special ed students in middle school to read.