A father-son duo takes Ohio’s Marlen Jewelers into its centennial—and beyond
Frank Eilberg, owner of Marlen Jewelers in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, Ohio, always knew his son, Andrew, had a good head for business. “He’s just an incredible numbers guy,” says the third-generation retailer. But after Andrew enrolled in the prestigious Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Frank assumed his company would never be big enough to appeal to his son, who had dreams of working on Wall Street. Andrew did nab a job in finance—at Standard & Poor’s—after graduation, but discovered almost immediately that the high-stakes, pressure-cooker Wall Street world wasn’t for him. “I absolutely hated it,” the 27-year-old recalls. “I called my dad and said, ‘What would you think about me coming home?’?” Frank’s reaction: “You could have knocked me over with a feather, I was so surprised.” In 2009, Andrew officially joined the company, bringing his financial smarts and customer service skills to the 100-year-old jewelry store. His assimilation has been so successful, the father and son partners are working on a gradual exit plan for Frank, who’s looking forward to retirement—and seeing how his son will grow the business his grandfather founded on his own. “Do I expect big things from him? Yeah,” Frank admits. “I expect him to blow me out of the water.”
Frank: I was sure none of my three sons would go into the business. My oldest is a computer geek and is doing great things, and my youngest is a teacher. I thought Andrew would go into big business. I had gotten involved with [business methodology] Focus Management around 10 years ago, but hadn’t really drunk the Kool-Aid completely—but enough to make it worth my while. Since Andrew is a numbers person, I decided that if he was going to go into the business, he should learn about it the right way. I sent him to my friend, a jeweler who is a Focus guy from start to finish. I told Andrew, “You can come work for me if you work for him for six months first.” When he came back, he had a whole different perspective.
Frank: The transition was relatively smooth. He came in with the understanding that if things didn’t go well, he was going to be shown the door. Just the fact that he’s my son did not guarantee that he would take over the business. We went in with the understanding that he was an employee, not the boss. In a small business, you have to learn every aspect of the operation—even spend some time on the bench. We do everything in-house except for the actual casting. When Andrew used to spend summers here, he was mouthing off one day and I sent him upstairs and told the bench guy to work with him. I have a good crew here. They took him under their wing and shaped him up.
Andrew: The transition into the store was really easy, in [part] because I think my dad’s wanted to retire for about eight years now! I do think the store is a good fit for me. I love it. I love that it’s always changing. There are always new things to see—always new things to find out about. When we come up with new designs that are different, I get to be one of the first to see them. That’s exciting.
Frank: I’ve been very fortunate—we’ve always had a very stable store. Andrew built the inventory this year; I let him go and experiment. But I’ve never been a very strong numbers guy. We finished the year meeting my goals.… I’m sitting there fat and happy. Then we have a Focus call and they’re saying, “Hey, you have two months to get rid of your inventory.” Here I am thinking I’ve hit a home run. Andrew will be better with the financial side than I am.
Andrew: My dad has been very supportive of my ideas. There have been a few times where he’s said, “I support you and your ideas 90 percent of the time, but I don’t back you on this one.” I wanted to change a lot when I came in, then I came in and saw how the business actually ran, and now I can change it more efficiently.
Passing the Baton
Andrew: I’m a jack-of-all-trades here. I’m the youngest, so I’m tech support [laughs]. I’m also buying. Am I a good buyer? I haven’t yet decided. More or less I run the day-to-day. More and more, my dad’s giving everything over to me. He’s always said, “Hey, this is your money, too.” Now he’s actually giving me the books and saying, “Look, it really is yours. If you want to spend it, just have a way to replace it so we can pay our bills.”
Frank: I’m working on getting out of daily operations. I haven’t boarded a plane for business in two years, which I love. He’s doing the buying, inventory management, and control. He’s basically running the sales floor. I’m more his conscience and alter ego at this point.
Andrew: [Frank] is extremely savvy. He took us from a mall store and built a freestanding business. He stays on top of me and makes sure I’m setting goals, writing them down, accomplishing them, then making new ones. When I look aimless, he says, “Grab your sheet, see what you need to do.”
Frank: My best advice for someone bringing in the next generation is to have them work for someone else. Inventory management is critical now, and he learned how to do it the right way. When I went to work for my father, there were some father-son issues, and by having Andrew work for someone else first, it eliminated a lot of the friction. It’s better if someone else teaches them the basics. You tell your kids something 20 times and they will totally blow you off, then a stranger will say the same thing and they will take it as gospel.