Fred Rowe Is Just a Kentucky Country Boy, but He Has a Gem of a Business—and a Lot of Security
It is not a place where you'd care to make a false move. In the otherwise typical American street outside, one can spot turbaned Indians, Russians in fur hats and Latin Americans as well as agents of Tiffany's and the Sharper Image catalog. These are the customers of the nationally known House of Onyx. Inside its HQ the American behind it all sits protected by steel doors, armed guards, electronic surveillance, double-bolt locks and digital key systems. Behind his desk is a gun case full of loaded weapons, mostly semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, and on the desk is a loaded .44 Magnum and an Ingram-MAC-10 semiautomatic pistol with 30 rounds in it. Says the American meaningfully: "I deal with important people."
The unlikely setting of this closely guarded action isn't the diamond district of a teeming metropolis. It is Greenville, Ky., a town of 5,000 in the hard heart of the state's strip-mining region, which claims more millionaires—mostly from coal—per square foot than anywhere else on earth. Specifically, we are in the office of Fred Rowe, gem dealer extraordinaire, who sells diamonds, rubies, sapphires, you name it—and whose inventory, he claims, includes more cut onyx than there is in all of Mexico.
With 30,000 customers a year, ranging from truck drivers with $100 to spare to potentates who plunk down $700,000, Fred Rowe, 51, is a major player in the world gem trade. He enjoys the role. "Many of our investors come from the radical right and have no confidence in the government's ability to take care of us," he says darkly. "We speak the same language." In his wallet he carries a card identifying him as a grad of an amateur guerrilla-training outfit near Atlanta. But religion is his driving force. A self-styled "narrow-minded Christian" who is a deacon at the local Baptist church, Rowe says, "If you read the Bible diligently, it provides a better business background than an MBA. The message is, if you do things in a proper manner, you'll be rewarded. Not just an ultimate reward, but a constant reward here on earth." Rowe reads the Book diligently, and he has been rewarded. He drives three Cadillacs and an Olds '88, wears "seven ounces of gold" around his neck and owns most of downtown Greenville.
Of course Rowe has a purely earthy message too. "Rubies and sapphires have retained their value over the past 2,000 years," he says. "The same can't be said of currencies. And I myself own no stocks."
Rowe is the son of a retired wildcatter (an independent oil driller). His $10,000-a-day business has its roots in a job he had in high school as tour guide in Mammoth Onyx Cave near Horse Cave, Ky. He started the House of Onyx in the basement of the First State Bank on Main Street in Greenville in 1967, and by 1971, selling to the trade and private dealers, he was the biggest onyx dealer in the world. By then Rowe had expanded into harder stuff, like diamonds; today onyx is only 10 percent of his business.
His wife, Shirley, and two of their three children help out in the shop next to the courthouse, which has 35 employees, but Rowe alone is on the cutting edge of the business. He spends half his time traveling here and abroad. At home he's at his desk by 6:30 a.m., works till 5 p.m., breaks for dinner, then returns to his office for three to five hours more. On the road he finds people fascinated by what he does. "Everyone seems to have an aunt who took a garnet out of Czechoslovakia and wants to know how much it's worth," he says. "They'll pick my brains for hours." And although he spent 77 days in a Mexican jail on a smuggling charge in 1972, he says it was a bum rap and that his success is based on his good name. "You just don't go back on your word," he insists. "If you do, it gets around and you're out of business."
The most common question he gets, of course, is "Why do you stay in Greenville?" "Many times I'll be doing business in a foreign land and there'll be more people in one building than live in Greenville," he says. "But this is my hometown. And you can't match the security. A stranger won't come and go without everybody knowing it." He smiles. "We do all right for a bunch of unsophisticated country boys."
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