The Jewel Fits for Chuck Cooper

Our Mississippi April May 2015ourMississippi Magazine
April / May 2015
Online version of  this article here.

Chuck Cooper’s jewelry career began with candy.

While most ten-year-olds are reading comic books or collecting baseball cards, the owner of Van Atkins Jewelry in New Albany was operating a successful candy business out of his family’s department store.

“There wasn’t a candy store anywhere around back then,” recalls Cooper. “I bought candy bars from a wholesaler and took them back to our store. People from other businesses would come in to the store and buy candy from me. I made about $100 a month by doing that.”

The Van Atkins name is one that is very familiar in Holly Springs, Oxford, and the surrounding areas. Cooper’s family opened the first Van Atkins department store in Mississippi 1959. The original Van Atkins store in Walnut Ridge, AR, had already been in operation for 10 years. In addition to selling candy, Cooper worked in the men’s clothing department throughout his childhood and well into college.

It was obvious, even from a young age, that Cooper had an eye for opportunity. In 1980, during his freshman year of college, he made a decision that would forever shape his future. He took some of his candy profits and essentially started the store’s jewelry department with $1200 worth of gold chains. Once the chains sold, Cooper took the profits and purchased more.

“We had a huge old cash register in the store back then,” Cooper says. “The bottom drawer in the register was mine. Whenever someone sold a gold chain, they put the money in the bottom drawer.”

At one point, Cooper thought he might go into the medical field. He even majored in pre-med at Ole Miss. But shortly after selling his first diamond, he realized where his true calling lay. He frequently sold jewelry to Ole Miss faculty and staff, even helped a few fellow students pick out diamonds for engagement rings. As soon as he graduated college in 1985, he established an official jewelry department within the Van Atkins store.

For five years, Van Atkins’s inventory consisted mostly of moderately priced jewelry. That is, until Cooper had a chance meeting with a wholesaler that specialized in estate jewelry. He presented Cooper with an ornate platinum ring and suggested Cooper add the ring to his collection.

Reveals Cooper, “I was very hesitant. It was beautiful, but it was more expensive than anything else we sold. I didn’t think anyone would buy it. But the guy told me, ‘Give it a try. If it doesn’t sell, I’ll buy it back.”

The ring did sell ¾ quickly. Seeing yet another opportunity to expand his business, he invested in more antique jewelry. Most of the estate jewelry Cooper purchases today is between 50 and100 years old. Sometimes the jewelry is in need of repair, but Cooper is passionate about refurbishing each item and returning it to the show stopping piece of jewelry it once was.

“Antique jewelry is a lot like an old house,” he says. “Sure, it’s cheaper to build a new house. But once you restore an old house, there is nothing like it. They don’t make jewelry like that anymore and there are people out there that appreciate that.”

Today, Van-Atkins has evolved from department store to solely jewelry. It is known across the South as one of top estate jewelers, with clients coming in from as far away as Nashville. Van Atkins has even seen their share of celebrity clients, but as a true business professional, Cooper says he doesn’t give out any names.

Family still remains the cornerstone of the business. Cooper’s wife Rhonda, in addition to three of the couple’s four sons and their daughter-in-law all work at the store. Two of the Cooper’s sons, Van and Ray, both have degrees in gemology from Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in Carlsbad, CA. Van is currently studying jewelry design at GIA, while Ray is a skilled hand engraver.

In November 2014, Van Atkins moved from its home since 2001 ¾ the former Bank of New Albany building ¾ to a completely renovated location that used to house a hardware store in its heyday. According to Cooper, the new store provides three times the space, but still possesses the charm that they are known for.

As for the future, Cooper says he is going on focus on, “making this the best jewelry store in Mississippi. Our selection is what makes us competitive, even with bigger jewelry stores like in Memphis. But it’s our great employees that have made us so successful. They really care about the people who come in to our store and know how important the buying process is.”

Debra McGee: Thinking of Others is Key to Success

Our Mississippi Winter 2014ourMississippi
Winter 2014
View article here.

When Debra McGee, senior vice president and director of minority business development at BankPlus, is asked about the key to her successful career in banking, she humbly replies, “It’s not all about me.”

“Doing things for others, that is what’s important,” she goes on to say. “It’s the little things that make our communities and our state a better place.”

It’s that philosophy that drew McGee to BankPlus almost 15 years ago. Born and raised in the Palmer’s Creek community of Hattiesburg, McGee attended Petal High School and later received a degree in Business Administration from William Carey. After college, she intended to follow some friends out to Texas to get a job in the oil industry, but looking back she says she realizes God had other plans.

McGee’s first job after college was as a teller with Citizen’s Bank in Hattiesburg, now Trustmark. Through hard work and determination, she continued to grow with Citizen’s, eventually transferring to a branch in Jackson. After an impressive 18 year career, McGee was approached by BankPlus to manage their Adkins Boulevard branch, which was being constructed. At the time, McGee says BankPlus was still a small institution diligently expanding into other markets.

“BankPlus had that small, community bank feel,” she explains. “They were all about providing customer service, no matter what walk of life you came from. It is a great place to work. They believe in giving back and making a difference. It’s like a breath of fresh air in that we are not just a name.”

Shortly after becoming manager of the Adkins location, Nissan North American announced they were building an assembly plant in Canton. McGee was asked to work with the management team at Nissan to establish BankPlus as its bank of choice. She eventually formed long-standing friendships with members of Nissan’s management team, which lead to McGee’s appointment as Nissan project manager. Her key role – establish a full-service BankPlus branch within the plant.

Says McGee, “It was different than what I was used to because we had never opened a branch inside a manufacturing facility.  I had to oversee building the bank, hiring staff, and making sure the branch was able to service all the plant’s employees.”

The venture turned out to be a success. Later, BankPlus approached McGee about working with Jackson State University to establish the same type of relationship she had forged with Nissan. Together, BankPlus and JSU have developed a unified alliance that brought banking services to the campus in addition to a $1 million endowment to the School of Business to establish an accounting professorship. At the bank’s Dalton Street branch, located adjacent from the University, McGee oversees small business development for individuals and minorities in addition to financial literacy classes and mentoring for students.

In addition to business development, McGee is responsible for bringing new banking products to the market for BankPlus customers. She is particularly passionate about finding ways to teach people how to help themselves and become more financially savvy. One program McGee helped to establish is the CreditPlus program, which teaches participants how to make wise financial decisions through seminars and products that assist with establishing good savings habits and effective credit management.

“I really enjoy my job,” McGee adds. “I am a people person and I like taking part in providing resources that allow people to help themselves.”