A member of the Prairie Family Business Association, Samantha Tupper of Wink’s Fine Jewelry in Brookings said she was “a little skeptical” when an agent reached out on behalf of South Dakota State University (SDSU) football tight end Tucker Kraft inquiring about endorsement opportunities.

Tupper asked her husband for an opinion, and he said, “do it.” Then, she went to her grandfather, who had owned the business for decades before her and "who is a great resource, and he said the same thing: do it," Tupper said. 

Fast-forward to earlier this year when Kraft proposed to his girlfriend with an eye-popping, marquis-cut engagement ring sourced through his new relationship with Wink’s.

“He totally knew what he wanted, and we custom-made it from there,” Tupper said. “He posted about the ring, and Baylee, his fiancée, also posted about it.”

Kraft, who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers after his NIL deal with Wink’s, has four-year agreement negotiated by Tupper that will include monthly posts about Wink’s and an annual visit to the store for autographs.

“The NIL deal is just one example of the futuristic thinking Samantha is bringing to Wink’s Fine Jewelry,” said Stephanie Larscheid, executive director of the Prairie Family Business Association. “She’s definitely proving she has what it takes to lead this business into its next generation and beyond.”

We sat down with Tupper to learn more about the longtime family business that she’s leading into the future.

First, what is the history of Wink’s? Has it always been in your family?

Wink’s was actually founded in 1963 by V.H. Winkelman, and my grandfather worked for him while he was a student at SDSU. My grandfather, Jerry Miller, had always had a passion for jewelry – he started in the industry at 14 – and after college, he moved west to work for another jeweler before V.H. called and asked if he was interested in buying the business, which he did in 1981.

How did your grandfather evolve the business?

He grew it significantly. When he bought it, it was a little room, and while we’re still in the same location, he expanded and remodeled multiple times. We now have a large showroom, and our backroom where we do repairs is just as big. He really built the business to what it is now: a business known for high-end, top-quality jewelry and honest customer service. Most people will ask if Wink is here because they think his name is Wink. But he mostly kept the business name because it’s catchy.

What was your path into the business?

I grew up in Miller, South Dakota, about two hours away from Brookings, but I always knew this was what I wanted to do. I said it at eighth grade graduation that’s what I wanted to be, and no one ever believed me. None of Jerry’s three kids had been interested in the business. My mom owns a Dairy Queen in Miller. But in high school, I had to do a job shadow and came to the store and did it, and then everything – every report I wrote, every research project, it was all jewelry-focused. I went to Lake Area Tech in Watertown and got an associate degree in fashion and retail merchandising, and then I talked to my grandpa about how I was ready to start. After talking through it, we realized we needed more time to get ready to work together, but six months later, we talked again. I remember he said: “What if I have to fire you? You’re still my granddaughter.” And I said, “What if I have to fire you?” And we knew at that point we were going to be fine. I started working here in the fall of 2014.

How and when did your ownership transition happen?

We were very transparent with everyone from the start. Anyone who came in, he would introduce me as his granddaughter who was going to take over someday. We were open with the public and the staff that I was going to buy the store one day. Then in 2017, we attended a workshop put on by our jewelry buying group about succession planning, and we realized he had a lot to figure out before he sold the business. And I had to come up with the money. But the big thing they asked the first generation was “Who are you if you’re not Jerry from Wink’s Jewelry?” And he really had to figure that out. So that was a moment. And then, we talked about having an “A” team, a good team in place before the transition that’s going to be there after because otherwise you don’t have the right support, and that was something we needed to sort out.

The plan was that from the fall of 2019 through Valentine’s Day of 2020 we would do an inventory reduction, which would help me in being able to afford to buy the business and help my grandpa make some money and retire. I found out I was pregnant with my first child during the sale, and then right after the sale ended, the world shut down for COVID-19. We reopened right before Mother’s Day, and I had my daughter the beginning of June and was off much of the summer, so it ruined Jerry’s planned summer of golfing.

So how did you finally transition?

After I came back, I realized Jerry seemed tired, and my mom thought he seemed off, too. It turned out he needed a double bypass and heart valve replacement, so he was out almost 11 weeks, which put us into Christmas. He came back for that, but the holiday season is really hard in our industry and he was recovering from surgery, and Christmas week, he looked at me and said, “I don’t want to be here.” And I said: “Then go home. I have this.” And it was this monumental pivot. When January came, we figured out how I could buy the business and got it all situated with First Bank & Trust, which was fantastic, and I bought it.

How has it gone since then? Any surprises?

It’s been awesome. I enjoy it. It’s fun to work. There are always trials and tribulations, and you can’t fix everything, but we work in a fun place because we’re doing things to make people happy. I changed our hours so we’re closed Sunday and Monday, which is definitely a generational thing. People need a break, and my staff are so much more efficient now. I had a baby in February this year, and so I haven’t been here much of the year, but I have a great staff, and I could take a maternity leave and not worry about not being here. My husband is a co-owner but has a separate full-time job in sales that involves some travel. But if I need help at the store, he’s here.

How did you learn about the Prairie Family Business Association?

I was introduced to it by other members in Brookings, Falcon Plastics and Medary Acres Greenhouse, and I met Stephanie after we’d already done our transition. But it’s been really cool to see and hear and be part of learning about other family businesses and see other transitions.

What are your thoughts for the future of the business?

Our industry has changed a lot. If you look back 15 years ago, store owners were more all men, and it’s much more female-dominated now, which is awesome. Styles are always changing. Yellow gold is coming back, everybody is mixing for our own style, and men are wearing watches again, so that’s been fun, and they’re wearing them more as fashion than timepieces.

For us, I plan to stay with just one store. I like Brookings, I like being here and getting to know my customers personally. My customers really have become family, and I love how jewelry has a story behind every single piece. I would love for my daughters to work here, but I won’t force it even though it’s fun to know there could be a next generation. My three-year-old says she wants to make ice cream, so maybe she’ll work for her grandma.

About Prairie Family Business Association

The Prairie Family Business Association is an outreach of the University of South Dakota Beacom School of Business. Founded in 1993, the association serves as a South Dakota business initiative and enhances the long-term survival and success of its family business members.

Published with credit to the Prairie Family Business Association.

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