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An entrepreneur with a gem of a life story

Listening to Irving Mann recount his 80-year life story, one cannot help but think it would make great material for an epic novel.
Founder and chairman of Mann’s Jewelers Inc., Mann grew up in the watchmaking business, but his background in the craft took him well beyond Rochester, to places like England and France, and later to Canada.
Since 1969, Mann’s Jewelers has been located at 2945 Monroe Ave., where Mann moved it from a downtown location. When the company began in 1949, the business comprised only Mann and his wife, Gertrude. Today the company has a staff of 40, which in the past has included at least 10 of Rochester’s jewelers, and has grown into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
Mann was born in Buffalo, where his father, uncle and grandfather ran their jewelry store, Louis Mann and Sons, which became part of a long family history in the jewelry business that began in Russia in 1836.
At age 25, his uncle contracted a form of pneumonia and died, leading to a cascade of tragedies in the Mann family.
Grief-stricken, Mann’s grandmother died two months after her son. A short time later, Mann’s grandfather died, leaving Mann’s father alone to run the store.
“He lost his father, his brother, his mother, and now he had a 2-year-old son and a wife,” Mann says. “So he was overwhelmed and disposed of the business. He sold off Louis Mann and Sons, paid off all his debts and began looking for a job.”
Mann’s father looked all over the state but chose Rochester, where some relatives were living.
In 1929, Mann’s father found a job at a watchmaker’s shop at the corner of Main Street and Clinton Avenue. Mann remembers a story his father used to tell about the interview he had there before he got the job.
The shop owner asked his father to repair some watches to evaluate his performance, Mann says. But he found it peculiar that the shop owner took out measuring tape and measured the distance between his shoulders.
“My father thought, ‘This guy is wacko,'” Mann says. “But he found out the guy wasn’t such a wacko. The guy had a very small store, as I said, and a very small window.”
Mann says his father was put into a space behind the shop window that was no more than 3 feet wide. There his father was to sit, facing the passersby while he repaired watches.
“And if he hadn’t fit into that little space, he wouldn’t have gotten the job,” Mann says with a laugh.
“I remember, as a 2-year-old, going back with my mother and saying, ‘There’s Daddy.’ And people were stopping all along Clinton Avenue, looking at this fellow fixing the watches,” he says. “Of course, people, even today, if I take one of my jewelers or watchmakers and expose them to the public, it stops traffic. People want to see what somebody is doing. If we ever open up another store, that’s what we’re going to do.”

The next generation

Mann, however, says he has no plans to open another store. That decision likely will fall to his daughter, CEO Nancy Mann.
“We’ve definitely talked about expansion,” she says, adding there is a lot of value in the Mann’s name, but she revealed no specific plans for the future.
Mann’s daughter and son, Robert, both work with him at the company he founded with his wife, Gertrude, in 1949. Robert is chief operating officer.
Mann and his wife began Mann’s Jewelers downtown in the lobby of an apartment building.
“The place was as big as the palm of your hand,” Nancy recalls.
It was there that Nancy, as a 7-year-old, made her first sale. Her family jokes that after that, there was no turning back.
After attending St. John Fisher College, Nancy attended the Gemological Institute of America, later joined Mann’s and became part of the family’s ninth generation of jewelers.
She has worked at Mann’s for 28 years. Mann says Nancy has been instrumental in making the store into a multimillion-dollar business.
“She’s a born pro,” he says. “She had just a naturally affinity for the business.”
Robert has been at Mann’s for the last 15 years, working with his mother, father and sister. His wife also works at the company. His time at the firm has given Robert a good opportunity to know firsthand what many customers have said about his dad for years.
“Working alongside (my family) for the last 15 years, I see what great people they are-great businesspeople and great, loving parents,” Robert says.
But what perhaps has contributed most to Mann’s success is his father’s sincerity. Robert says he and his sister read a lot of management books and subscribe to a number of publications that report about new and innovative management styles, but they find that a lot of what they read, their father already knows.
“He encapsulates a lot of the ideas (we read about), which is basically about doing the right thing,” Robert says.

The war years

Long before opening his own shop in Rochester, Mann was drafted into the Army and sent to Mississippi for basic training. He was 18; he had just graduated from Franklin High School. It was 1943.
“They handed me my diploma with one hand and my draft notice with the other,” he says.
At that point, due to his watchmaking background, Mann was told he would be assigned to repair military machinery. Instead, he was sent to basic training.
After a short period in infantry training, he shipped off to Europe.
“Next thing I knew I was on a boat to England, where in the South of England we practiced assaulting beaches for invasion work,” he recalls. “We did that for three months, and by June of ’44 I was on a boat in the English Channel.”
Mann was to be part of the third wave to approach the beaches of Normandy.
“I never saw anything like it,” he says. “It was phenomenal. You felt that you could virtually walk from one ship to another. All the ships were that close together and that many in the English Channel.”
But none of the commissioned officers knew where they were going or what exactly they were about to do, Mann says.
“We had no idea where we were going until President Roosevelt came over the loudspeaker on all the ships and said, ‘You are now about to embark on the greatest campaign, the greatest adventure of your life,’ and we were going to go to the beaches of Normandy.”
As the ships approached the beaches, Mann says, he could hear the sound of the Allies’ own weapons, the large cannons aboard the U.S. ships, the destroyers and aircraft carriers.
“It was a constant din of shells whining over your head and hitting the beaches just ahead of us. And that kept up all the time,” he says.
To add to the intensity of that day, Mann had another fear to contend with.
“I had never learned how to swim-to this day. And part of the instructions to the officers (was) that, since they were going to be an amphibious force, everybody had to learn to swim, do so many laps, and so on,” he says.
But at that time, Mann was assigned to do radio work, which involved carrying a heavy radio to keep communications with his company’s outfit and other companies.
“With that 30-pound radio on my back, carrying a rifle and side arms and all the rest, had I slipped off that boat I would have sunk like a stone,” he says.
Finally, as his team was approaching the landing nets, he told his commanding officer: “I’ve got a problem.”
“I said, ‘The rules say I cannot go down those landing nets until I can learn to swim, but I never got to that. What do we do now?’
“And he looked at me and said, ‘Mann, I have one bit of advice for you,'” Mann remembers. “‘Don’t slip.’
“We were in the third wave hitting the beach. So it was dark. … As we went down the landing nets, there was a jeep waiting for us in the landing craft.”
He recalls sitting in the back of the jeep, behind the lieutenant and his driver. They were within 150 yards of the beach when the jeep fell into a shell hole.
“The shell hole had to be about twice the size of this room and we were in the middle of it,” Mann remembers.
The three of them were trapped inside the hole as the water began to rise.
“The lieutenant and the driver, they both knew how to swim. I was standing on top of the machine gun watching the water come up higher and higher, and I thought, ‘I’m never going to make it to the beach.'”
Fortunately, Mann said, an amphibious tank drove by. Its driver jumped out of the tank and into the water to tie a tow chain around the jeep’s bumper. The jeep then followed the tank to the beach.
“That was the beginning of D-Day for us. It was dark by that time. A lot of the shelling had started to subside. We were taking our positions. There was a little town that we had to meet at, which was a town called Sainte-Mere-Eglise; it’s become quite well-known in D-Day history.”
On June 5, 1944, Sainte-Mere-Eglise was the first French city liberated by American paratroopers.
“Paratroopers had landed incorrectly at Sainte-Mere-Eglise ahead of us, and when we got into Saint-Mere-Eglise and got up there eventually, there were the paratroopers hanging from their parachutes, they had been machine gunned and bayoneted while they were still hanging from the trees,” he says.
It was his troop’s first contact with the brutality of the war, Mann says. “It was a big mess, and we lost a lot of people there. But after that we were able to regroup and started off on our objectives, which was to take very small towns.”
Mann and his troop were transferred from company to company, until they were transferred to Gen. George Patton.
“Not exactly the most beloved individual you ever ran into, but we were under his control,” Mann says. “He had his approach and regardless of how many men it took he was going to take the objective.”

End of combat

Mann lasted until mid-December 1944, three days before the Battle of the Bulge.
“Then I got hit,” he says, “In some ways, if I was going to get hit, that was a good time because that’s when the Germans counterattacked.”
Mann nearly lost his leg. He was sent to a hospital and then flown to England for treatment.
“In some ways (I felt) relieved, because when you get hit, after you have been in combat for as long as I had been-I was the very last one left in my squad,” he says. “I had seen replacements come, die off or get shot, get replaced. It was a question of not if you get hit, but when you get hit, was it going to be a wound that would remove you from combat or were you going to get killed?”
During his recovery, like many soldiers, Mann received psychiatric treatment.
“When I would hear a car backfire, I would be ducking for cover. It’s automatic,” he recalls. “You can’t control it. At night, thunderstorm, lightning. Middle of the night, you’re sleeping, first thing I knew I was under the bed. That’s how you survive. If it’s not instinctive, you’re never going to make it.
“It took a little over a year to get me to the point where I was functioning in a more normal way. To this day, a lot of noise, if I’m not prepared, I will react.”
His daughter says it is only recently that her father has felt ready to talk about those years.
“For a long time it was very difficult (for him) to talk about the war,” she says.
But Mann has good memories too. He remembers his parents sending him cigarettes to use as currency. Cigarettes and silk stockings were more valuable than money then.
While he did not smoke, he remembers trading the cigarettes at a nearby farmhouse for eggs and milk. He recalls making scrambled eggs in his helmet.
After he was shot, Mann needed four months to learn how to walk again. Gradually, he was weaned off crutches and then his cane.
With a smile, Mann remembers the day Paris was liberated.
“I was with Patton when we liberated Paris, and it was wild, let me tell you. Everything was open to GIs,” he says.
The Americans were greeted with hugs and kisses.
“The men were bringing out wine that they had buried in the ground waiting for the Germans to leave,” he recalls.
“I never drank, and I don’t drink today, but the complete enthusiasm of the French people at no longer having the Germans telling them what to do, was just unbelievable, and it lasted. It lasted for quite a while. So different from what it is today.”
Mann was awarded the bronze star for his bravery in World War II. He also received the combat infantry badge and presidential unit citation.
Today, Mann’s children have established an award to honor others for their heroism.
The Irving Mann Hometown Hero Award recognizes the area’s most heroic police officer of the year. Mann’s presents the officer with a Rolex watch and a check.
“My father is good to the core,” Nancy says. “It’s unusual to find someone as genuine and sincere as he is.”
Mann’s family is active in the community. Nancy supports the Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong where she serves on several committees. Robert is a supporter of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League Inc., the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society at Lollipop Farm.
And Mann sits on the boards of the Jewish Home of Rochester and Rochester General Hospital. He also served on the board of the former Genesee Hospital.
Mann once wanted to become a doctor. “Sometimes, my wife jokes and says, ‘Hasn’t your degree come through yet?'”

Post-war career

After being discharged from the Army in 1946, Mann pursued pre-medicine on the GI bill at Syracuse University, the University of Rochester and the University of Buffalo. But he began to wonder if it was the right career path.
“At that age, you think life has passed you by. You spent all of those years in the service, and I said, for me to continue with this type of career I’ve got another seven or eight years of school,” he says. “As I look back it now, I regret not having completed that.”
One of Mann’s cousins recently had graduated from a prestigious watchmaking institute in Toronto and become a master watchmaker.
Mann decided that if he was going to enter the watchmaking business he was not going to do it the way his ancestors did, by learning from the previous generation. Instead, he said, he wanted to know the reasons behind the process.
At the Canadian Horological Institute, students were not allowed to even touch a watch until they spent six months of the two-year program learning the theory and physics of watchmaking, Mann says.
He attended the school on the GI bill, and stayed with relatives in Toronto.
In February 1948, Mann’s cousin, Gussie, and her girlfriend, agreed to set each other up on a double blind date. The girlfriend brought a friend of the family, named Joe, for Gussie, and Gussie brought Mann.
“So we went out and had a hell of a good time. Roared. We had such a good time, I invited her out again,” he says.
By May, the two were engaged, and in August, they were married. Gussie and Joey got married a month later.
Gertrude and her family had emigrated to Canada from Russia in the 1930s. Because she could speak English, she took charge of the family.
She went to business school and studied typing and shorthand. By the time she was 17 she was working full time. When she married Mann, she was working for a British import-export company.
Mann finished his final year at the Canadian Horological Institute, and the couple moved to Rochester.
For the first few months, Mann worked at his father’s downtown store, Al the Watchmaker.
As a child, Mann already had worked at the jewelry store as an errand boy. He got to know many of the craftsmen during the 1930s. By 1935, Mann was old enough to work inside the store, where he says he learned some valuable lessons about the jewelry business.
“Being in the store, I could hear what was going on. I began to acquire information about the industry from many different facets: from the standpoint of the craftsmen, from the standpoint of the customers who were walking in,” he says.
“I used to stand around and listen to what the jewelers were saying to the customers. So, it all stuck, way back in there someplace. It’s been a treasure of information I’ve relied on through the years.”
When he opened his own downtown store, at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Court Street, Mann and his wife quickly established a routine.
Gertrude got a job at a silk screen company around the corner from Mann’s shop. She went to work at 7:30 every morning, and he opened the shop at 8 a.m.
“I didn’t have any customers at that time, so my father would give me some,” he says. “I would work on the watches, and I’d get a commission on whatever I did as I tried to pick up some business off the street for watchmaking.
“Jewelry, forget about it. I didn’t have any money for that. So, it was watchmaking, watchmaking.”
The store was 10 feet square, he says, and had no restroom-only a closet with a sink.
But Mann enjoyed the couple’s routine.
Every day at lunch, Gertrude would meet Mann at the shop. The two would prepare a makeshift table in the closet and eat their bagged lunches in shifts.
While Mann ate his lunch in the closet, Gertrude minded the store and vice versa. They kept up their routine for four years until Gertrude quit her job and went to work for Mann.
The couple waited 10 years to have children.
“Our routine was work, work and work and try to put a buck aside and we didn’t spend it on anything we could speak of,” he says.
By the time Gertrude joined the store full time, Mann’s was starting to prosper.
Mann was getting walk-in traffic and students from the Rochester Business Institute, looking for class rings. Then he started to sell prom favors and slowly began to build an eclectic inventory that included greeting cards, toasters, typewriters and sewing machines.
“You name it, and I sold it,” he says. “There wasn’t anything that was beneath the image, because there was no image. I wanted to bring as many funds in the store to make the business grow as quickly as possible and as much as possible. So anything I could find and make a profit with, that’s what I would do.”
And every time a tenant in one of the building’s apartments vacated, Mann would expand his store.
“Eventually, we went from 100 square feet to 1,500 square feet, by just taking over these apartments on the same floor,” he says.
Mann and his wife stayed at the store for 23 years, when Mann got word that as a result of urban renewal, his store would be torn down.
“It was one of the most traumatic things that hit us,” he says. “Here we took 23 years to build this business up, and now they’re throwing us out with no place to go.”
“They wanted to funnel everything through Midtown Plaza, and they did, but what they did as a result of that is they killed all of the stores around it that were supplying walking traffic,” Mann says. “And when there was no walking traffic, stores died off. So, Midtown Plaza was the curse of downtown and has been a curse to Rochester ever since.”
The couple had one year to find a new location and move out of their downtown store.
Gertrude found the location of today’s Pittsford store, which had been a shoe store.
She told Mann it was a good location, but he was skeptical. He was convinced that Pittsford was not yet developed enough to support the business.
But then, he said, he started to look at his customer list, and found out his customers were mainly businessmen who worked downtown. Their wives, he says, lived in Pittsford and Brighton.
“So I said, ‘Do I want to be where the men are, or where the women are?’ That’s when I went to the bank,” he says.
He had a contractor visit the site and learned it would require $150,000 to convert the shoe store to a jewelry store.
But despite a pristine 23-year record with his bank, the bank advised against the move to Pittsford. It suggested he move to a mall or plaza instead, indicating that all of the stores in the same space had gone out of business after only a few years.
But Mann was confident. There was not another jeweler between Pittsford and downtown-he had studied the demographics- and he was sure the business would work.
Even so, the bank would agree to the loan only with 80 percent collateral.
Mann had a family to support, but he and Gertrude agreed to put up everything they owned and accept the 10-year loan.
“We spent a lot of sleepless nights, the two of us, after the kids were in bed. But we felt this was a turning point,” he says.
Once they moved in, it took only two years to pay off the loan. They have been at the same store for the last 35 years, through most of which new hires and expansion have been constant.
Over the last 10 years, Nancy says the company has grown from 28 employees to 40.
Ten of the jewelers now in Rochester worked at Mann’s.
“I trained them too well,” he jokes.
The store still is growing as it fills spots to improve staff support for certain areas, he says.
“So we’re hiring for here and there, and we’re bringing them in,” he says.
In 1990, the store space expanded to 4,500 square feet. Five years later, it took over adjacent space and expanded another 1,500 square feet. Today it is 6,000 square feet.
Robert says his father long has resisted the trend other jewelry stores have joined in moving into multiple shopping mall locations. Centralizing the expertise of its work force has helped build a stronger business.
Another trend Mann’s has resisted is being swallowed by a larger corporation.
“We’re looking to buck that trend in much the same way we buck the mall trend,” Robert says, adding that the company intends to remain in Rochester for many generations to come.
Mann is very active in the strategy of the business and has a clear idea of the future of Mann’s.
“I’ve got some promotional ideas that I think are going to be phenomenal that are going to improve the success of the business beyond what it is now,” Mann says.
“But we’ll see what management thinks.”
(rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

07/08/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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