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Larry J.B. Robinson spent a lifetime grooming himself for the role of The Diamond Man. And then the curtain came down.
As before, a number of respondents felt they just couldn't imagine him as anything other than the "Diamond Man. "
- From a 1986 survey by National Market Measures Inc.
After 30 years of success and acclaim, neither could Larry Robinson.
The stores and the radio ads are gone now, silenced by recession and bankruptcy. Lost, too, is most of the $5.7 million he invested, along with some of the $3.7 million in personally guaranteed loans.
The rights to his father's name, J.B. Robinson, were sold away years ago, along with the retail jewelry chain that first transformed Lawrence Rapport Robinson into Larry J.B. Robinson, The Diamond Man.
The reputation - well, the reputation is the reason Larry Robinson is sitting here at all.
Alone in a bare office high in the Terminal Tower, all that remains of his greatest role are the scrapbooks and memories and questions. Hands that once appeared in publicity photographs festooned with diamond engagement rings, 10 to a finger, now rest unadorned on the glass-topped table before him. Immaculate as always in a crisp white button-down shirt and dark suit, he slumps in his chair, reflects for a long while between questions, and leaves to take a phone call when the interview turns from his civic involvement toward his recent financial troubles. Upon his return he speaks slowly and directly, choosing a variation of the carefully rehearsed phrase he has used with media and friends throughout the negotiations involving U.S. Bankruptcy Court cases 91-10152 and 92-10153.
"It's been the saddest time of my business life."
He waits. Hearing only silence, he looks at his audience a moment longer, then bows his head, covering his eyes with a hand. When he speaks again, the silky baritone has shrunk to a whisper.
"It was just such a defeat," he says. "It's so sad."
For more than a quarter century, Larry Robinson was lionized as one of Northeast Ohio's shrewdest businessmen and most dedicated civic leaders. His radio spots for J.B. Robinson Jewelers Inc. - delivered in earnest, soothing tones meant to convey sincerity, nice people and low, low prices - had established him, or at least his broadcast persona, as an icon of regional pop culture. Strangers on the street or in restaurants would stop at the sound of his voice, etched into memory by thousands of commercials.
You're the Diamond Man, they would say, smiling and shaking his hand. We grew up listening to you on the radio.
On Jan. 13, 1992, however, The Diamond Man went off the air, shocking creditors and community alike when he filed papers requesting Chapter 11 protection from creditors for his latest ventures, the four-store Antwerp Diamond Centres Inc. and the 10-store Royal Acquisition Corp. Sixteen days later, he stunned friends and associates again when he announced that the stores - under his control for less than two years - would liquidate rather than reorganize, effectively ending his 30-year career in retail jewelry.
Until now, Robinson - normally among the most visible and accessible of business and civic leaders - has declined to be interviewed regarding the bankruptcy, deferring to a written statement which cites recession and diminished consumer spending as the reasons for default. The statement repeats his public script of the last several months: "This was the most difficult business decision of my entire life."
And yet the questions remained. How could a veteran retailer with a national reputation for marketing and financial savvy - a man worth by some estimates $15 million or more - lose two chains and more than $5 million in less than 20 months? How could a business with no indicators of underlying problems - his stores were paying vendors and accepting shipments of new merchandise through Christmas 1991 - collapse virtually overnight?
But perhaps most important, at least to Larry Robinson, is this: How will the loss of his role as The Diamond Man - the small-time jeweler made good, the sharp-as-a-tack entrepreneur with the civic heart of gold - affect his reputation among the Northeast Ohio community he has served for so long? Friends and associates say that despite decades of accomplishment and public recognition, or perhaps because of them, The Diamond Man remains acutely vulnerable to criticism of any kind.
"It's a terrible embarrassment," says a friend. "Somehow you get to the end of your career and the last thing turns sour. The last period on the page. He feels he's let a lot of people down. I think that's what makes this so excruciating now."
Others are less charitable. "This is a guy who's put together a well-manicured image and all of a sudden it got tarnished," says a former associate who claims Robinson asked him to "say nice things" for this article. "Larry has a history of, when the media is following him, calling up acquaintances and employees and telling them what to say to the media. Larry's a planner. That's part of his success. [But] you can't blame great ability when things go well and the recession when things don't."
After months of silence and whispers, Robinson has agreed to answer the questions at last, consenting to a series of reflective discussions with Corporate Cleveland regarding his life, his …