You’ll be hard-pressed to find an Ostbye employee with a tenure of less than a decade.
In fact, when Ostbye President Craig MacBean introduces workers at the jeweler’s warehouse in Plymouth, most of them will tell you they’ve been with the company for upwards of 20 years.
“We just had a polisher retire who had been with us for 40 years,” said MacBean. “He put a lot of pride into every piece that he was a part of.”
Ostbye manufactures diamonds and gold fashion jewelry for more than 2,000 independent jewelers around the United States and has been in business for nearly a century. And, as MacBean will tell you, the relationships the company has forged are an integral part of its success.
“It’s a cliché, but we really are a family here,” he said. “That’s the beauty of a small business – we all have each other’s backs, and everyone here goes the extra mile for each other.”
A “Hands-on” Business
MacBean’s great grandfather, Walter Ostbye, started the business in 1920. Initially, Ostbye was going to work for Wimmers, a jewelry store in North Dakota. But, for reasons unknown to later generations, he instead decided to start his own business.
“As the story goes, he was at the train station (heading for North Dakota) and changed his mind, and decided to start a jewelry manufacturing business,” said MacBean.
Turns out the decision was a good one. Wimmers was Ostbye’s first customer nearly a century ago, and still is.
MacBean’s father, Jack, married an Ostbye, and came into the business when he was in his thirties. He’s since retired, leaving MacBean at the helm.
Ostbye manufactures diamond bracelets, pendants and earrings to sell to retailers in the United States, Canada and Europe. MacBean says roughly 80 or 90 percent of the company’s products are gold, the rest are silver. Around half of Ostbye’s merchandise is bridal jewelry.
Ostbye does the majority of its work with small, independent retailers. Name a town in Minnesota and MacBean can likely name the local jeweler Ostbye works with.
The industry has no doubt changed since Ostbye got its start, but MacBean says the jewelry business is still about craftsmanship, and that’s something he enjoys. The entire jewelry-making process happens at Ostbye’s warehouse, from creating a wax mold to polishing the finished product.
“It’s not something that’s made from a computer or a machine; it’s made by human beings who genuinely care about putting together the best piece of jewelry they can,” said MacBean. “I think that’s one of the things that makes jewelry special – the artistry behind it.”
Nowadays, clients will ask for a piece of jewelry they’ve seen on social media. Lab-grown diamonds are also becoming popular.
But, MacBean says, it’s still a very “hands-on business.” He adds that the trust Ostbye has gained with clients is a big reason for the company’s longevity.
“We’ve always been honest. I don’t think you can last 99 years without being honest, especially in this business, where trust is so important,” said MacBean.
Ostbye will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2020. And, to mark the occasion, employees and clients will commit 100 acts of kindness. MacBean says the logistics aren’t completely solidified yet, but workers will be donating school supplies to children, and providing food to the needy, among other things.
Looking further down the road, one might wonder if the business will be passed on. MacBean has three high-school-aged kids. Whether or not they decide to take on the business is their decision, he said.
MacBean had already been successful in the corporate world before starting at Ostbye in his early 30s. He believes that taking a path other than that of the family business after high school was helpful.
“It helped that I had proven myself somewhere else and had learned from other people besides my dad,” said MacBean.
For now, he said, it’s hard to tell what the future holds.
“If it goes on to a fifth generation, that’s great,” said MacBean of handing the business off to his kids. “But the timing would have to be right for them and the company. They need to go figure out their stuff on their own first.”