ANN SACKS: VISIONARY
Ann Sacks is a serial entrepreneur who won't let a little explosion get in her way.
But first, cats.
When her glass and concrete apartment along Northwest Glisan Street and 23rd Avenue was peeled apart by a gas explosion last October, her first instinct was to break the cordon established by emergency workers to go back for Tank, her cat. Her daughter Amy Sacks pleaded on her behalf on the spot and a worker went back in with a cat carrier. The moggy responded to his name and emerged just fine. Happy ending.
"He went right back to being a little ——," she says of Tank. Sacks is speaking in the temporary showroom of Fetch Eyewear on Northwest 23rd Avenue. This is the showroom and headquarters for the next two years. Another cat strolls by, old and slow, then makes his nest in the photographer's wide-open backpack. The store cat, Elliott, is available for adoption, she says.
After the blast, Sacks and her husband Robert, who runs their real estate investment firm A&R Development, relocated to their farm in Oregon City. "The animals knew the place," she said, explaining why it was a good choice. Her pets would be comfortable there.
Sacks is known in Old Portland as the driving force behind Ann Sacks, the tile company. She started out importing colorful Mexican tiles, which sold well in "the great, grey Northwest" before expanding to a more modern look. She designed tiles while she was president for 12 years and then for two more years where she was creative director. She also designed the showrooms, of which there were 17 or 18. The company also expanded into counter tops during the heady days of granite.
Fetch it strategy
In 1989, she sold the company to Kohler and carried on there as President.
Fetch Eyewear, her current obsession, is a different proposition. The slogan is "Affordable Designer Eyewear." She started Fetch after she left her nice reading glasses on the vacuum cleaner at the Kiss carwash on West Burnside. She noticed there were no stylish reading glasses in the mid range, between the $19.99 drugstore ones and the $400 Chanels.
"I determined there had to be a place for people who had just started into reading glasses, like lawyers, people in the fashion industry, people who wanted to look as chic as possible in readers..."
She did her research and found a factory in China where the materials, from Italy, could be assembled, at the workbench right next to where name brand glasses were being made.
A write up in the New York Times calling Fetch a "channel disrupter" proved the boost that put it over the top, and she expanded into sunglasses and prescription lenses.
It now functions to fund her daughter's non profit animal rescue clinic The Pixie Project.
100 percent ?
Sacks says people shopping for cool specs enjoy the backstory that "100 percent of the profits on each pair of glasses" will go to help animals. That is, 100 percent after materials and labor. Sacks says on a $100 pair of glasses, that would be in double figures, or more than $10.
Although she has recently been in talks with the Newman's Own Foundation, Fetch Eyewear is still a regular LLC, not a B Corp. She has a foundation through which to donate to the Pixie Project. So far, it has been funded by her other companies, but the idea is for Fetch to ultimately sustain the Pixie Project and its work as a vet and spay and neuter clinic.
"The foundation will keep it growing and keep going, and make it something in my daughter's next 40 years that will be very significant."
She makes the distinction between Fetch and say, glasses e-tailer Warby Parker, saying that her philanthropy is more targeted, and that the pairs of glasses Warby Parker was giving away in the developing world were of inferior quality. (Warby Parker donates a portion of its sales to nonprofit groups that train people in developing countries to give basic eye exams and sell affordable glasses to their communities.)
Their websites feel similar: both offer try-on-at-home service, both dangle the magic number of $95 a pair in front of customers (although that can soon rise to $300) and both offer warranties. Sacks believes hers is the best — a lifetime warranty on frames.
"When I did that, people thought I was crazy. But no, I trust people completely. People call us and say 'I sat on my glasses,' and we say that's fine, you're permitted to do that and get them replaced. We just give them a new frame and they come back."
It's company policy.
"Nobody (on staff) ever calls me and says 'Ann, should we replace these, their daughter took a hammer to them?' Of course you can replace them, don't ask me, always yes, always yes!"
The tile world proved quite the MBA for Sacks, a middle school English teacher, and her young husband. She gained handywoman skills when they spent their weekends and summers fixing up a farmhouse to flip in the 1980s. When she discovered the Mexican tiles she realized the world of industrial or mass made tiles had fallen behind other homewares in terms of style.
There were a few high-end tile companies that had "authenticity in the market and were beautifully managed and very expensive. Then the rest, who'd offer a raspberry bathroom with two shades of beige."
With its love of hardwood floors and carpet, America was behind the rest of the world.
"America is a low user of tile, one of the lowest in the world," she says. In places like Spain and Italy, good tile was affordable, popular and more hygienic. "And they had heated floors years ago."
The question was, "Who's going to pay to make a market? I saw companies from Italy spend 30 years and enormous marketing expense, to move up tile here."
Tile technology is stable, but recent improvements in the technology of under floor heating helped.
She sources tiles from Brazil, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the U.S. and some in China.
"In Japan I went to a factory that was 400 years old, and the equipment was 300 years old. They're still making the same tiles. Think of Delft, the blue and white tile (from the Netherlands). They've been making it the same way for hundreds of years."
Working in the tile industry taught her a lot about customer service.
"It was pretty 24 hour. Europe would call you at 5 a.m. and say an order was not going to get on that boat. So you'd call around to see if you could get on another boat that day. When tile doesn't go by boat, it's very painful. It usually costs five times as much to send them by plane."
Who paid the extra depended on who dropped the ball. "We had hundreds of open files, tiles everywhere, clients, makers everywhere..." (Incidentally in luxury markets, such as the Gulf States, they prefer stone to tile. "Glamor is very important there. They go for it.")
So although the Italians spent millions, it was a change in heating technology that opened the door, and Sacks (and Kohler) took full advantage.
A similar thing happened with glasses. Glasses were boring, monopolistic and tied to eye doctor practices.
"Then came Warby! He's paid millions to persuade people they can get prescription eyewear online. So I said, 'I'm going to go in now, it's almost a better time, and find my path to that market that he has brilliantly helped pave the road to'."
What does she call this kind of going in on someone else's coat tails?
"Coat tails! Essentially, it's how we've run our real estate business, our properties in the Pearl." Her husband Robert and her nephew David Schrott run A&R Development.
She goes on to list some of the couple's many properties, such as the building that houses Oven and Shaker in the Pearl, and the Ace Hotel in the West End (see sidebar). They also own Suttle Lodge, a small resort near Bend, which is managed by the Ace Hotel people.
"We bought after John Gray had started with deeper pockets. He paid a dollar a square foot (when the Pearl was just warehouses) and we came in when there was more of a market. We could hedge our risk and but still be bold compared to going into something new."
Having said that, she's knows their capacity.
"We're not going to investment bankers. We're a family business, we do things small."
The morning of the gas explosion, Sacks was restless and left the office to change out of the business attire she'd worn for a meeting with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden. It was a lucky escape from an explosion that blew the front off the building that housed her apartment, Fetch and Dosha Salon, and destroyed the smaller, historic building next door that housed a bagel shop.
That larger building, known colloquially as 2281, was Brad Cloepfil's first residential commission. The now internationally known head of Allied Works had sat down with Sacks in 1999 after she saw his drawings for the Pacific Northwest College of Art's first building.
"I met him and said 'We want a glass building, we don't care about privacy. Make it as simple as possible in glass. And he was excited and so were we."
Cloepfil is still a friend and she turned to him again because Allied Works still has all the construction documents. She also wanted to see what he would do. (The site was not in an historic neighborhood when it as built, so the building doesn't have to "fit in.") She also wanted to see how he would replace the 1890s building that was destroyed, the wooden one that held the bagel shop.
Per city design review rules, the latter will have to look a bit like the one it replaces.
"We're going to try for it not to be vintage," she says with a laugh. It will also have to blend in with the modern building that is being rebuilt." It's a design challenge she find amusing, as much as interesting.
Have to wear shades
For now, Fetch's Northwest 23rd Avenue address is just a few doors south of Salt & Straw. The look is bright white paint, floor to ceiling mirrors and LED strips underneath the shelves. There's little to distract from the 46 styles of frame on display. Ever the designer, it was Sacks's idea to block off the windows and go with white cube look. She is also not above using second hand IKEA furniture, adding an old table and chairs her daughter disliked and had dumped in her mother's garage.
As as sign of how serious she is about opposing animal cruelty, Sacks won't go to countries where it is openly done, where they beat or even eat their dogs.
"Thailand? No. I don't go, I go to Europe..." She won't even accompany her husband on his upcoming vacation to Africa.
"I can't go, it breaks my heart. I'd ruin it for everyone else. My daughter could go, she's very brave, and I'd support it."
Doe she have advice for today's young entrepreneurs?
"It's very enticing to see how some companies scale up overnight and seem wealthy and famous. But 95 percent of business is working with capital you have and not being overleveraged."
Ahead of the game
Patty Merrill, owner and CEO of Cargo, has known Sacks since the 1980s.
"Ann is just a unique thinker, she's brilliant, but she doesn't really call attention to herself," Merrill told the Business Tribune.
Cargo and Ann Sacks Tile used to be next door to each other along Southeast Grand Avenue and Salmon, back when the Central Eastside had little retail and no trendy eateries.
"She was always so generous with her time and advice, even though she was so busy. She was like a mentor to me. She got me my first big contract, to supply chairs and tables for their showrooms in the U.S. Ann worked with me on the designs. It was my first foray and we were late, but she was very patient, and always so supportive. She had great equanimity."
Merrill praised Sacks's "innate sense of design and materials" and said "She always seems to be ahead of what's going on. I wonder if she ever sleeps? They've made a real difference in Portland, no one will ever know how many lives she has touched. I don't know if she has a crowd, I think she flies above all that. But I will always be indebted to her."
And, yes, cats.
"And one of our greatest assets (in the Cargo retail store) is Calla Lily, our cat, a rescue from the Pixie Project."