It was in the early 1980s and Marshalls Jewelers was a mere 90-something years old when a fresh-faced Poly horticulture/architecture grad, who was moonlighting as a waiter, walked into the shop to pick up a going-away gift before skipping town.

Thirty-some-odd years later, Jeff McKeegan is still designing, creating, touching lives and fostering generations of customer relationships for the business that shares a birthday with the Eiffel Tower.

Marshalls Jewelers’ fourth owner took a break from celebrating the shop’s 125th year, put down his tweezers, took off the funny looking magnifying glasses and talked about reinventing while sticking with what works, his resemblance to Bob Cratchit and referred to his old boss as his mentor.

What personal quality are you working on?

Oh my. Probably efficiency. When I am working with a client or on a design, I tend to get all consumed and forget everything else. Like paying bills or keeping appointments! I think I have what Herb Caen used to call the “monkey mind.” And patience. I am doing pretty well with that these days, but I still find that once I have worked through a design or a plan, I want it to be done NOW so I can move on to the next thing.

Which fictional character do you most relate to?

Lately there are days I feel like Jabba the Hut, but no. Maybe Bob Cratchit. Not enough time off, lots of responsibilities, slogging through the day’s work. BUT always cheerful. I am fortunate in that I wake up every day in a great mood. Even when everything is the darkest, I still wake up happy – at least until I run head on into reality! But as you keep moving forward things usually come out well in the long run.

Where would you like to be right now?

On a beach in Uruguay. Or maybe hiking a forest on the South Island of New Zealand. Actually right now I am most interested in getting to the coast of Northern Ireland to visit the family farm that I recently discovered. Just about anywhere really. When retirement finally comes I will be off like a shot. But it is always nice to have such a great place to come home to.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Compassion. Humility. To put people first – before things, before process. I was fortunate to have the previous owner of Marshalls – Clifford Chapman – as a mentor. I have never known anyone who gave of himself more every day. His concern and care for others was complete and genuine. Working beside him daily for years was the best schooling I ever had. I can only hope to be half as caring myself.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Always an architect/designer. It is what brought me to SLO in the first place. Even when I was in the single digits I was drawing flying cars and Jetsons style houses. My Dad gave me my first drafting set at 7. Although I am not an architect today, I do get to design every day – and be a part of the Central Coast!

125 years puts Marshall’s in the same age group as Coca-Cola and Orange County, do you have any tips for businesses that were not open when Oklahoma was Indian Territory?

Of course there are the basics – you must have a passion for what you do. You must be willing to work hard. There must be a vision for what you want your business to be. In the jewelry business I say that anyone, any store or studio can have good merchandise to sell. You have to set yourself apart with the service you give. It is the personal connection that keeps you going strong. I love that we have clients now whose families have been with us for generations. To engender that kind of loyalty you must not only treat people well, but let them know by your actions that they are important to the success of the business.

How do you keep the flame alive after 125 years?

Although sometimes I may look like it, I have not been around for all 125 years! Manuel Marshall, Art Marshall, Clifford Chapman, myself. Four owners who each had to make the store their own. It can be tricky. You have to reinvent yourself from time to time. But you don’t want to run the risk of losing what you have, what is already working. We were each fortunate to learn from the one before – no abrupt changes. However, for me personally it is our clients that keep me “on fire.” Each one is different, each situation new. I love what I do and hope to be around for a few more years.