Photo: Andrew McMurtrie Gem Shopping Network Technical Director Sultan Kapadia, left, and CEO P.J. Lynch talk in a production room behind the scenes of the 24 hour Gem Shopping Network in their Duluth studio.
DULUTH -- Through the company's growth from buying time on satellite television to its current 33,000-square-foot building in Duluth, Frank Circelli has remained loyal to his employees and values.
Circelli, founder and chairman of The Gem Shopping Network, has parlayed a "radio voice" polished in the hills of Tennessee into a 24-hour shopping network that boasts more than 170 gemologists. The network, in its 15th year, offers merchandise that averages around $1,700 per piece, ranging in price from $25 to $250,000.
Circelli, a one-time wholesale gem dealer, turned a hobby into a business that is broadcast to nearly 40 million households nationally on the Internet and on most major cable and satellite providers, and is growing even in the flagging economy.
Some of his long-term employees said Circelli's genuine and charismatic personality connects with viewers.
"That man can generate money like crazy," said James Powell, who has worked security for Circelli for more than 10 years. "He has that aura about him that makes people want to buy from him. He doesn't like to sell people no junk."
Circelli, who is among the pioneers of television shopping, began with "Gemstones with Frank," a satellite shopping show viewed mostly by rural audiences sandwiched around baseball card and coin shows.
Circelli then debuted "Shop at Home" in 1988, two years after the Home Shopping Network and a year before QVC. Circelli was the first on television to sell gemstones.
P.J. Lynch, CEO of The Gem Shopping Network, said Circelli often implored viewers that if they were interested, he would need to buy more satellite time to stay on the air.
"It was so thrilling to hear the phones explode," Circelli said.
Circelli said in the 1980s that c-band satellite time cost $100 per hour, and the bank of six phone operators would often overflow. The company now has the capabilities of up to 53 operators, and Lynch and Circelli are proud that the company makes its own jewelry and cuts all of its own stones.
"Every day, every hour, you have to be selling," Lynch said. "This business does not stop."
The network sells mostly colored gemstones, 14-karat to 24-karat gold, higher-graded accent diamonds and estate jewelry.
In the first three years of The Gem Shopping Network, Circelli said the company grew by 30 percent each year. The South Florida native settled on Duluth for the company's headquarters because of its southern hospitality.
He also wanted to move away from an industry that lacks honesty and integrity.
"It's hard to find honest people in jewelry sales," Circelli said. "We wanted to educate the public, so they don't get ripped off. We don't hire sales people off the street. We have professionals in the trade that do the selling."
As a wholesaler, Circelli traveled the world to buy gemstones directly from mine owners, from Africa to Brazil, Burma, Thailand and Colombia. In the early 1980s, Circelli said his group had Chinese mercenaries lead them through Colombia because, armed with machine guns, they were the only people the Colombians were afraid of.
"When you hear about the blood diamond, it's true," Circelli said.
Lynch, with more of a business background than the homespun Circelli, often greets employees with a caffeinated "Happy Monday." Lynch said he regularly visits the company at all hours of the night to remind employees that he cares what they're selling no matter if it's 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.
Lynch is still amazed to tell the story of the first time he entered the original Howell Street headquarters, a 5,000-square-foot building, where the live cameras and showroom were 10 feet from where an armed Powell guarded the door.
Lynch joined the company last year as a consultant, but was named CEO in February after he had corporate experience with companies that produced laser speed devices for law enforcement and red-light cameras.
Powell and Stevie Whitener, the company's receptionist since 2002, said Lynch brought more organization and professionalism to the company.
Circelli admitted that Lynch's addition meant a more corporate structure to a company that he built with a family business model. Yet the company didn't lose Circelli's values, he said.
"He's the closest person to me that I've ever had working for the company," Circelli said. "His heart is taken with the company."
Lynch is a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy, and graduated in the top five percent in his class from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
"People are more motivated," Whitener said. "Customer service is learning a better way to talk to people. Our sales are up."
Added Powell, "We had a bunch of people trying to run the company, but couldn't. He brought some good ideas with him."
While Circelli and Lynch have entertained the idea of expanding overseas, the security and logistics of selling to other countries is to be determined. Circelli said he's had offers to open networks in England and Japan, but doesn't plan to pursue those in the near future.
With Lynch at the day-to-day helm, Circelli has more time to spend with his family as his wife, Emily Brantley Circelli, a Suwanee attorney, recently announced she would be a candidate to be the Judge of State Court of Gwinnett County. Brantley and Circelli have three daughters and also spend time with charitable endeavors.
They recently supported "Living Water for Girls," an organization that rescues and rehabilitates women from prostitution and commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. The Circellis in November auctioned off a tourmaline and diamond pendant for Living Water, and matched the proceeds, which were valued at more than $5,000.
Circelli said he dreamed as a boy to become like John Beresford Tipton, a character on a 1950s television series that centered on Tipton giving $1 million to everyday people.
Circelli added that transition to Lynch was smoother than he thought.
It's that transition that's been key to the company's sustainability, from Circelli, who previously held several roles, from president to on-screen salesperson, to Lynch."It's not a couple of guys with an HD camera in a garage," Lynch said. "It's a real live business. Part of what's important for us is that on the other end of it is we've been here for 15 years. We have a founder that's committed to quality."