A tribute: Ron Mickel, founder of American Frame
In 1967, in his garage in Toledo, Ohio, Ron Mickel was cutting metal picture frames. “That’s peculiar,” his daughter Laura thought. As it turns out, Ron was taking the first steps in the creation of what would later be called the American Frame company.
Forty-four years later, Laura and her sister would become owners of the company.
On Monday, April 13, 2020, Ron passed away. This blog post is a tribute. It includes the recollections of Laura Jajko, current company president, and Dana Dunbar, CEO and CFO. Also included are comments made by Ron himself during the production of the “American Frame: 40 years” anniversary video of 2013 (which can be viewed, in five parts, on YouTube).
He was his own boss. (He had no choice.)
Laura Jajko: Dad knew from an early age that he didn’t want to work for anyone else. He couldn’t work for anyone else.
Dana Dunbar: Our grandfather helped get Dad a job at GM. He’d fall asleep at his desk. He hated it.
“The reason why I became self-employed was I could never hold a job,” Ron Mickel said, “and I had many different jobs. Always got fired. I had to work for myself. I had to do it my way.”
As a kid, Ron worked in a Toledo hardware store. In 1967, he bought a Toledo hardware store.
Laura Jajko: One winter, he bought a bunch of snowblowers. It didn’t snow that year. The next summer, he bought all those lawn mowers, but it rained all the time.
“I always look at failure as an experience,” said Ron, “and crisis from the failure provides new opportunity to go elsewhere, to do things differently, to look at things differently.”
Picture frames: a natural extension
Soon, Ron changed the inventory at his hardware store to paint and wallpaper, with a garden center.
“The trade journals said that if you have a wallpaper department, you should have a display of picture frames,” Mickel said. “I got to be very good at picture framing and color coordination. Little by little, our picture framing capabilities grew and I got rid of paint and wallpaper. The store became Ron Mickel Fine Custom Framing, then the Ron Mickel Gallery, northwest Ohio’s first modern art gallery.”
The ad that changed everything.
Dana Dunbar: What really propelled his business forward was the American Artist ad.
“In 1973, I took a page ad in the classified section of American Artist magazine,” said Mickel. The ad offered 13 frame samples along with a wholesale price list, for $2. He called his company ASF Sales, as in “aluminum section frame.”
“For a couple weeks, I’d forgotten all about it,” Mickel said. ”Then, I went to check the P.O. box. There was a stack of envelopes. The first actual frame order came soon after, from Chico State University in California. It included a check for $400."
Via mail and phone.
The business grew thanks to brisk sales through mail order and over the phone. “We were one of the first companies to have an 800 number,” said Ron. “That really opened up more sales. We even did a commercial for AT&T that ran throughout Ohio.”
“That’s when I changed the company name. ‘ASF’ was a tongue twister, hard to understand over the phone. So we became American Frame Corporation.”
Early memories of the business.
Dana Dunbar: 1988 was my official start. I worked for Dad in high school. I’d drive to work in my school uniform.
Laura Jajko: My earliest memory of the business was when I was about 13. I came home from school, walked in the garage and there’s Dad, with a saw. “What’s up with this?” I asked. “I’m cutting picture frames.” I thought it was the weirdest thing. My first job was to file the ends of picture frames so they were smooth.
Later, dad gave Laura and Dana real jobs.
Dana Dunbar: After college, I’d moved to Tennessee, but I had no family or friends there. So I called Dad and said, “I’m ready to come back. Do you have anything for me?” “Yeah,” he said, “you can do the books.” I was always good with money. So I learned how to balance the books, write checks, answer phones, and work the showroom.
Laura Jajko: After going to college out west, I was living in San Francisco. I’d just had my first child and was working for Sprint, in technical support for national accounts. I wrote a business plan for Dad. My idea was to take the company from just making do-it-yourselfer picture framing kits to doing custom picture frames for companies. One of my first clients was Sprint Communications, the company I’d just left.
Dana Dunbar: Before the internet, dad had product sheets, flyers, that he’d send out upon request. Back then, he loved the J. Peterman catalog. He loved how small it was. It had simple drawings of products. One of the barriers to people purchasing from us was, “Oh, gosh, I can’t put together a frame myself.” We decided to send out something that was more of a learning tool for putting frames together versus something you just throw away. So Dad and I collaborated on what I named “The Handbook.” I wrote the copy for it. We were always refreshing it.
He didn’t stand still.
Laura Jajko: As a business owner, dad was always happy, upbeat, excited. He loved people and his product. He loved craftsmanship, and pushing the limits with technology. He was always looking for “the next thing.” Dad didn’t stand still. He was decisive. He always erred on the side of action. He took risks.
At all times, a man for the times.
“We believe in automating anything we can to increase productivity,” Mickel said. “For example, automated computerized mat cutters. Mats used to be cut by hand. It would take a couple weeks to cut a thousand mats. With a plotter, which is a computerized mat cutter, you can cut a thousand mats in a couple hours.”
Laura Jajko: Dad’s signature saying was “Out of crisis comes opportunity.” That’s front and center to us during the COVID-19 pandemic, because we are truly in a crisis. This has been pretty awful having day after day of the unknown. But we’re handling it.
Dana Dunbar: Right now, in 2020, we’re in uncharted territory, but Dad has given us the tools to navigate this. I think we’re as ready as we could be, because of him. I feel confident about that. I’m not afraid.
Laura Jajko: I’m not afraid at all. It’s crazy but I’m not afraid of it.
Attention to details.
Dana Dunbar: Dad was very meticulous. His shoes were always impeccable, he polished them every morning before he left the house. Even when he wore jean suits, they were pressed. He was meticulous about his yard, his home, his business.
Laura Jajko: I think that’s why he liked metal frames. The clean, sharp edges, they’re easy to work with.
Ron the father.
Laura Jajko: What was he like as a father? This is where our experiences are a little different. Dana always talks about how I broke him in. I’m the oldest. Our brother Mark is a year younger, and Dana has a twin brother, Matt. Four kids within 5 years of each other. I was the dicey one. He was very strict with me. He was less strict with the other three.
Dana Dunbar: I never challenged him. I was just quiet.
Ron’s sons, Mark and Matt, also worked at American Frame. While still in school, they cut frames and did other jobs. After college, Matt became the company’s staff photographer. Mark, a professional musician, wrote a radio jingle:
“Do it yourself, c’mon and do it yourself,
with frames from American Frame.
Down in the heart of the Arrowhead Park.”
“Call now and request a catalog,
24 hours on the telephone line,
American Frame, American Frame.”
Always, a family business.
In 2017, Ron officially sold the business to Laura and Dana.
Dana Dunbar: Dad could’ve sold it to somebody else, but it was important to him and to us that we keep it in the family. Leading up to the sale, we had a clear vision that he was excited about.
Laura Jajko: He had his office next to us and we enjoyed having him as a mentor. He’d come in every day.
Dana Dunbar: But it was a “closed sale,” and with closed sales, the IRS won’t let the seller be involved with the company anymore. That was hard for us because we couldn’t talk to him about business. He had to be “hands off.”
Laura Jajko: Now, we’ve owned the company for more than three years. We knew the first three years would be really hard. We didn’t think it would be this hard. (laughs)
He did what was right.
Dana Dunbar: Dad always provided healthcare for his workers, and did so from day one. No one had to write a law or tell him that it was the right thing to do. The entire plant is air-conditioned. It was the right thing to do, to have your employees have a comfortable place to work. He had a lot of faith in the people who worked for him. As a result, we all wanted to impress him.
“I’ve always felt strongly that your employees should be as comfortable as possible with the job they’re doing,” said Mickel. “We added air-conditioning, carpeting on the floor, comfortable chairs, a clean environment. People spend more time at work than they do anywhere else. Consequently, we have more employees that have been here 20, 30, 35 years. Once they come, they don’t leave. We treat people as entrepreneurs. They have a job to do, they know what they have to do, and they do it on their terms.”
Laura Jajko: Going forward, we’ll continue to honor those basic things. Our workers will always have the right tools, the latest technology. You’re not going to be working on a clunky old saw. And he always thought price was important. Artists needed to be able to afford what he was selling. He loved sales. When business was slow, ‘Let’s throw a sale,’ he’d say. That was always magic—keep that sale going.
“I was never afraid to make a bold decision,” said Mickel. “If you work hard enough, and long enough, good things are gonna happen. All my decisions were based on need. I wasn’t one to say, ‘Well, maybe next year.’ I never waited for next year. If I had thought something was right to build this business, I did it and didn’t look back.”