By Sue Botos
Just like his dad Frank, Andrew Eilberg did not begin his working career by taking a shine to the family jewelry business.
After graduating from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, the younger Eilberg secured a job with Standard & Poor’s, but soon found that the world of Wall Street finance was not for him. “I hated the job in New York,” Eilberg stated to a visitor at Marlen Fine Jewelry in Rocky River. “I was in fraud analysis and 1 percent of it was big cases, and 99 percent was routine.” He eventually called his dad and said he wanted to come home.
Frank Eilberg recalled that he was surprised with his middle son’s decision, but he could relate. “I didn’t want to work in the family business,” he said, adding that after graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a business degree, he worked as a buyer in the electronics department of the Halle’s department store in the Westgate Shopping Center.
He was offered a job with Pioneer Electronics, but since the company did business with Halle’s, his accepting could have been seen as a conflict of interest. “They said to get a job elsewhere for a while, and then come to work for them,” Eilberg remembered.
As fate would have it, Frank Eilberg’s father David needed a short-term worker at his Westgate store to fill in for his manager, Irv Stillman (father of future Rocky River police Chief Kelly Stillman), who needed a few months off after suffering a heart attack. But due to complications, Stillman had to retire. “I basically never took another job,” Eilberg said.
In 2009 Andrew, 28, became the fourth generation to join the family business, which traces its roots back to his great-grandfather Bernard, who was born in Lithuania. A watchmaker by trade, Bernard Eilberg was a pioneer in the standardized watch parts business.
Leaving pre-World War I Europe for Boston, Bernard Eilberg was “hired on the spot” as shop manager for the Waltham Watch Factory after describing his work with standardized parts.
Eventually Bernard sent for his wife and children. “After visiting relatives in Cleveland they liked it so much, at least Grandma liked it so much, that they stayed,” Frank said. By 1914, when the war began in earnest, Bernard opened B. Eilberg Fine Jewelry at East 55th Street and Woodland Avenue in Cleveland.
In the 1950s Frank’s father David and his two uncles Marvin and Leonard entered the business. “My grandfather realized that the business was not large enough to support four families, so they opened a store at Southgate,” Frank said, adding that the name “Marlen” came from combining his two uncles’ names. Another location, run by Frank’s father, opened in Westgate in 1953. After the original Cleveland store closed in the late 1950s, a second Southland shop opened “to separate the uncles,” Frank recalled.
The survivor due to his father’s successful business practices, the Westgate store was a fixture until the demise of the mall in the early 2000s and its reconfiguration as a “lifestyle center.” After researching a new location for his store, Frank Eilberg decided on Detroit Road in Rocky River. “This was a good area and I kept driving down the street and turning around in this gas station (at the corner of Detroit and Prospect Avenue),” he recalled.
Feeling there was a reason that he was being drawn to that spot, Eilberg asked at a Rocky River Chamber of Commerce luncheon about the owner of the gas station. “Paul Spremulli yelled over from a nearby table, ‘It’s mine.’ I asked him if he wanted to sell it, and later, I bought it with a handshake. That has to be the single-largest deal made at a chamber event,” he recalled with a laugh.
Although Frank learned the jewelry craft from his father, starting at the age of 12, he sent Andrew to an associate in Asheville, N.C., to hone his skills for six months. “What I learned from my dad was an antiquated method. Now it’s more of a business. When I started I spent four hours on the sales floor, three at the workbench and one on management. Now I spend two hours on the floor and six hours (dealing with business).”
But people are the most important aspect of the business, and many of Marlen’s customers have been coming to the business for generations. Frank recalled more than one occasion of selling engagement rings to a second-generation client. According to Eilberg, keeping his grandfather’s philosophy of treating people with respect has seen the business through the ups and downs of 100 years. “You have to keep building your customer base and keep people happy,” said Andrew, who said he really feels no pressure in carrying on the business. “I’m betting on him,” said his dad.