It's a Wednesday afternoon at Simply Majestic on Williams Avenue in Mystic, and the sun is beaming through the front windows, setting off a dazzling sparkle from the rings, bracelets and necklaces in the display cases.
From her jewel-toned office with French doors open to the sales floor, President and Co-owner Susette Tibus greets her customers with the same kind of sunshine.
"I hope you had a good time in Vermont," Tibus calls out to a female customer, whom she greets by name.
"The next date you have, I need to screen," she says to another female customer. "Because those last two [guys] – forget it."
Tibus takes a genuine interest in people. In fact, she's known for it.
"My mother is from this area, and [when I started working here] she said, 'Have you met Susette yet?" says Tricia Cunningham, executive director of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce.
Cunningham wasn't sure.
"She said, 'you'll know when you meet her,'" Cunningham says with a laugh.
Say "Susette" in this town and nearly everyone knows who you mean – the strikingly attractive Filipino woman with glossy hair and flawless skin who looks and acts 10 years younger than her biological age, and is always exquisitely dressed. Today, she's wearing a tailored cobalt-blue dress that hits just above the knee. She is accessorized with — no surprise — beautiful jewelry, including a pearl and diamond ring.
"I like being a lady," Tibus says. "I appreciate a gentleman treating me like a lady. I am not a very big woman, and I don't lift heavy weights. But as a lady I believe I can move mountains."
Tibus, who serves on the board of directors for Mystic Aquarium Institute for Exploration, has the intelligence, the star-power, the sales skills and the drive to be successful globally, says Peter Glankoff, executive vice president of marketing and public affairs for the aquarium.
But since she started on her career path in the 1970s, she has chosen to use her gifts to become Mystic's best friend.
"People don't call their jewelers up and ask advice in their personal lives," says Linnea Lindstrom, an interior designer and former executive director at the Chamber. "But I have been in her office when that happens. She is a doer, with a commitment to her friends and her customers, and to her entire community."
Susette was born in Mystic, one of three children of Cres and Tina Tibus, both of the Philippines.
"My father was a graduate of the military academy in Philippines and was an intelligence officer," Tibus says.
He joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, where, despite his education and background, he became a cook and barber on a submarine. After the war, he opened Esquire Barber Shop in Uncasville.
"He wasn't bitter," Tibus recalls. "He didn't look to others to make changes, he overcame obstacles by setting an example."
For a girl of Filipino and Spanish heritage, growing up in a small, predominantly white town, that message resonated and became words to live by.
"You start noticing you are different when you are about three years old," Tibus says. "One day I came home and sat in Dad's lap and asked, "Am I different?"
Her father asked her to name her best friend. She did.
"Does she have eyes?" he asked.
Yes, she answered.
"Lips? Hands?" he asked.
Yes and yes.
Her father went through a long list of body parts, and each time, Tibus had to agree – she and her best friend were alike.
"He never mentioned color," she says. "It does not make you who you are. You make yourself who you are because of who you surround yourself with. I didn't feel prejudices. It was a great, great upbringing."
Today, she is "like my father in the barber shop," Tibus says. "I listen all day long."
Her staff follows her example. They do not use industry jargon with their clients, or greet anybody with, "May I help you?"
"It sounds like the customer took a wrong turn," Tibus explains. "They came in here for something."
It is her mission to find out what that need is, and to fill it.
But she also remembers. And follows up. And sends thank you notes – hundreds and hundreds of thank you notes. Her other secret to success?
"Do what you do best," she says. "Find the right products and treat your customers – and the people you work with – like friends. We don't try to be everything to everybody. We find the right product, treat people right, and they come back."
Friends say it's more than that. "She has such a magnetic personality – vivacious, enthusiastic, loving – there is nothing about her you can't love," says Lindstrom. "She has a personal connection to all those around her – whether it's a customer or someone she just slightly knows. People are drawn to her."
These traits come naturally to Tibus, echoed her husband and Simply Majestic co-owner Chuck Sneddon. The couple made a conscious decision early on to utilize her skills to their best advantage.
"When we first opened up, we didn't have marketing dollars, so we branded Susette," Sneddon says.
"I went to every Chamber function. It really helped with business that I was involved in charity and philanthropy," Tibus adds.
"It is Susette's natural role and always has been," Sneddon says, admitting he is more of a "Green Acres" kind of guy – referring to the 1960s television show.
"He's here with a great staff, and that enables me to go out and do the philanthropy," Tibus says. "It's very important to me, and not just for business. We do good things for people. It makes you feel good."
Doing good things also means keeping a schedule many would find exhausting. She is the past president of both the Olde Mistick Village Merchants' Association and the Chamber of Commerce. She co-chairs the Mystic Outdoor Art Festival, chairs the St. Edmund's Medal of Honor award for Ender's Island, and with Cunningham, hosts the public access television show, "Mystic Matters." She sits on the boards of Mystic Aquarium, the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, and the New England Filipino American Association, among many others.
Tibus is also the chairwoman of the Stonington Police Commission – the governing body of the police department that oversees its $4.5 million budget. She is the third woman to hold that post, but people are still surprised when they see this tiny woman running the commission meetings – it is a far cry from burly actor Michael Chiklis, who starred in television's "The Commish."
"I am sure – behind the scenes – there are questions [about me being too feminine]," she says. "But it's how you handle yourself. If you project confidence, self-esteem, humility, I think it comes across. I can't go in there and act like the cops. You have to be who you are."
"If you look at Susette's history in town, when she is involved in something, she throws herself into it," says Stonington Police Chief Darren Stewart. "She comes prepared, she investigates the issues, and talks to people. She is efficient in a way that gets business done, and makes sure citizens are served in a good way."
"She's pretty tough, though," says Steve Coan, a former Police Commissioner and president and CEO of Sea Research Foundation, the non-profit that runs Mystic Aquarium. "She could go head-to-head with any criminal and win."
"Being successful can be weighed in different ways," Tibus says. "For me, it's being in a community like this, doing what I do and the blessings that come every day."
Her appreciation for the life she's built is also evident, friends say.
"She is an incredibly vibrant person, but also very humble," adds Coan. "And it is interesting for someone who is so vibrant to also be so self-effacing. She can light up a room. She walks in and all of a sudden, everyone in the room is laughing. It is a tremendous quality."
While she seems perpetually upbeat, that is a choice, Tibus says. There have been bad days – she and her high-school sweetheart divorced early, both of her parents have died, and the store has been robbed.
But she makes a choice to get dressed, put a smile on her face, and reach out to others, rather than dwelling on herself. And if she needs a lift, she drives down Route 27, where she can see the fog lifting off the river, and reminds herself she has made a wonderful life in this small, beautiful place.
"You can turn a bad day around by saying you're going to have a good day," she says.