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On Bob Mednikow’s Best Day At Work He Met His Wife, Betty

On Bob Mednikow’s Best Day At Work He Met His Wife, Betty

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Bob Mednikow
Bob Mednikow,
Mednikow Jewelers, Memphis, TN

BOB MEDNIKOW LOVES to talk about the jewelry business, race cars, and a beautiful woman named Betty, the love of his life, who happens to be his wife.

“Betty gets a little upset when I introduce her as my first wife,” Mednikow, 90, says.

He still owns (and drives) the car he courted her in, a 1955 vintage Sunbeam Alpine, identical to the one Grace Kelly drives in the movie To Catch a Thief, which won an Academy Award for best movie of 1954.

The best day he ever had at work was the day in 1960 that Betty, with blazing dark red hair, walked into his family’s Memphis store, Mednikow Jewelers; naturally, he rushed downstairs to assist her. “I could not believe God could make a woman that beautiful,” he says. Eventually, Mednikow talked her out of entering the Miss Arkansas Pageant and into marrying him instead. “I didn’t want all those other guys to see her in a pageant; they would want dates with her,” he says.

During the Korean War, Mednikow was commissioned as a second lieutenant stationed in Germany, where he learned to race sports cars, a pursuit that became a hobby. When he joined the family business, his father, John, told him, “You can’t sell diamonds with grease under your fingernails and an oily rag in your pocket,” so he’d send Bob to Walgreen’s to buy supplies to scrub his hands.

John was born in Russia and came to Kansas City, MO, at age 13 in 1902, learning the business from the bench up. “He was a craftsman,” Bob says. Bob’s uncle, Jacob, had immigrated earlier and established Mednikow Jewelers in Memphis in 1891. John merged the two branches of jewelry businesses and relocated to Memphis when Jacob died.

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Bob and his own son, Jay, who have worked together for 30 years, have devised a foolproof system for settling any disagreements that arise in the business.

They ask each other, “What percentage do you think you are right?” Bob says. “If Jay thinks he’s 90 percent right and I think I’m 60 percent right, I’ll give it to Jay. Only once did we both think we were 100 percent right, so we settled it with a neutral party after a shot of Scotch.” The arbiter, the late Willard Sparks, an investment banker, client, and family friend, said, “Bob, Jay’s right. Let’s have another drink.”

“I’m most proud of the fact that Jay has taken over with the same enthusiasm and the same integrity that I learned,” Bob says. “I’m the fourth generation. Jay is the fifth. He will be carrying on when they carry me out and I know that Jay will carry it on well.”

Jean Matthews, executive director at Mednikow’s, says Bob retains as much enthusiasm for the business as anyone possibly could have. “When he has discovered a beautiful diamond or ruby or sapphire, he will take that around the store and share it with all of us, and we all ‘ooh and ahh’ at it like it was a new baby.”

When not at work, Bob runs three days a week on a treadmill, and if the weather is nice on Sundays, he runs outside, too.

Betty, 80, worked with Bob in the business while Jay was in college. She’s long retired, but Bob doesn’t have any plans to do so. “I don’t think I’ll be ready to retire until either Jay or the IRS tell me I need to,” Bob says. “I’m a people person.”

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Online Extra: Q&A with Bob Mednikow

Q. What do you like about the jewelry business?

A. There’s a certain consistency that people don’t see. Christmas comes every year and it’s like that old O’Henry story. Men are going to buy a nice gift for their mate and women are going to want to buy a nice gift for their children. A happy time for us to sell our jewelry. Changes in fashion affect jewelry like the length of a skirt or hairdos. But the basic thing is people want something beautiful to wear. There are parts of the world wear people didn’t wear clothes but they wore jewelry; it’s an expression of who you are.

I read an article by an attorney who had intended to close his father’s jewelry business when he died, but he didn’t close the store. Instead he gave up the practice of law and stayed on as a jeweler. Because jewelers deal with the happiest people on earth and as an attorney he felt that all he was doing was settling arguments. That’s exactly how I feel. It’s a business I love and I’ve passed it on to Jay because he feels the same way.

Q. What do you look for when hiring?

A. We have a marvelous staff. We look for ladies and gentlemen who have integrity and love jewelry and that’s more important than being a high powered salesman or being a gemologist or anything like that.

Q. How do you deal with changes in technology?

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A. Jay was a computer science major in college. When I don’t know what to do I call him; when he doesn’t know what to do he calls my granddaughter.

Q. What did you study in college and how did you acquire your jewelry knowledge?

My degree was in accounting and then I went to business school at Harvard, in the executive education program.

Q. What other interests did you have growing up?

All the Mednikows are either jewelers or musicians. When I was in the eighth grade I had my own band that played at parties. But my parents decided I needed braces and one weekend my musical career ended. (He had played the trumpet and it just didn’t work with braces.) I have a sister who is a classical pianist who was a professor at Julliard. Jay’s children all have a musical bent.

They may be interested in the business or they may wind up on Broadway.

I had also been wondering if you would be able to use the photo of Bob Mednikow with his car? I don’t know if it would work for your layout but it’s relevant to the story.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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