Warren Buffett's pick for Borsheims CEO took six-year break on rise to the top

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Posted: Monday, October 7, 2013 12:00 am

In fall 2004, Susan Jacques, president and chief executive of Borsheims Fine Jewelry, ran into Karen Goracke at a soccer game. Goracke had been a watch buyer at Borsheims until leaving in 1998 to tend to her growing family.

“I said, 'Why don't you come back and work part time?' ” Jacques recalled. Goracke, 46, who began her career at Bor-

sheims in 1988 fresh out of college, accepted the offer. “My youngest was about four,” Goracke, the mother of three boys, now ages 12, 16 and 19, told The World-Herald on Monday.

She returned to Borsheims and, within a few months, resumed her full-time career with Jacques as her mentor.

Now Goracke (gohr-ACK-ee) has been chosen by Warren Buffett to be the Berkshire Hathaway-owned retailer's president and chief executive starting Dec. 31.

Jacques and Goracke met Saturday with Buffett, chairman and president of Berkshire, to discuss the changing of the guard.

Jacques is leaving Borsheims after 31 years, including 20 years as president and CEO, to head the Gemological Institute of America, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that offers gem and jewelry education and oversees industry standards.

Goracke said: “I am honored and humbled to be named president and CEO of one of America's largest independent jewelers, especially during this exciting time with the Borsheims Boutique at Nebraska Crossing Outlets opening soon.”

For Jacques, it's a return to her educational roots. Jacques, who grew up in Rhodesia, came to America in 1980 to study at the Gemological Institute. She has been on the Institute's board since 1996 and its chairman since 2008. Last June, she was asked to assume the interim presidency after its former president stepped down.

“It's a family decision,” said Jacques, whose husband, Gene Dunn, purchased Gorat's Steak House from the Gorat family in fall 2012. Jacques will relocate to California next June, and Dunn will continue to operate the restaurant, she said.

Jacques will be with Borsheims through the end of the year, while continuing to serve as the Institute's acting president.

Goracke will work alongside Jacques over the next few months.

“We wanted to have a transition period with the new store opening,” Borsheims spokeswoman Adrienne Fay said, referring to Borsheims Boutique, the retailer's first and only outlet store, scheduled to open Nov. 15 at Nebraska Crossing Outlets in Gretna.

“This is also a chance for Susan to bid farewell to everyone,” Fay said. “She really is retiring from retail.”

A native of Omaha, Goracke earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She began her career at Borsheims in 1988 as a saleswoman in the gifts department and was promoted to inventory supervisor in 1989, when Berkshire Hathaway purchased Borsheims, developing a “controlled inventory system” along the way.

“When I got here, we were taking inventory with a 10-key (calculator),” said Goracke, who worked at an accounting firm during her college years.

After she left Borsheims for six years to raise her children, she returned in 2004 as the ladies jewelry buyer.

Both Jacques and Goracke praised the Borsheims culture of emphasizing “family first,” a culture that has allowed Goracke and others to take a break and return.

“Susan has set that example,” Goracke said. “I work better if I have that balance. If my family is happy, I'm happy. When I'm here, I give 120 percent. I love my job. I love a challenge.”

Borsheims, whose employees are 85 percent women, affords that balance between work and family, Goracke said. “It's as close as you can get,” she said, with her schedule allowing her to pick up her 12-year-old son from soccer practice each Tuesday.

“Karen's expertise and experience will help in guiding the company to new heights,” Jacques said.

“She has done an exceptional job of keeping the store properly inventoried and making sure all the brands are getting represented in our store. ... This business is based on relationships.”

Jacques has been president and CEO of Borsheims since being named to the post in 1994 by Buffett. She is one of the few female presidents of a Berkshire company.

Buffett called this an exciting time for both Borsheims and Jacques.

“I couldn't be happier or more proud of Susan,” Buffett said. “While it is with sadness that I accepted Susan's resignation after her long and stellar career at Borsheims, I know that she is accepting a role at GIA that she is passionate about and allows her to give back to the jewelry industry.”

Borsheims' history dates to Omaha's early days of retailing, when Louis Borsheim opened a store in 1870 and, for a time, also operated a store in Council Bluffs that specialized in watches designed to help Union Pacific conductors keep “railroad time.”

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

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