My father, Jerry Mitchell, came to the U.S. in 1965 after escaping from Romania via Italy along with his mother and father. Life in Romania was hard in the years after WWII as the country became a communist dictatorship known for imprisoning and killing tens of thousands of its own citizens for 'crimes' such as engaging in capitalism. My grandfather Leo was one of those imprisoned for being a capitalist. So when they had the opportunity to flee to Italy and eventually come to America, they left everything behind and jumped at the chance to escape.
They settled in Milwaukee in part because my grandfather was in the leather business in the old country and Milwaukee was the leather capital of the U.S. at that time. None of them spoke much English, but they learned fast. They had no money and only a temporary place to stay, so on their first night my grandfather went out to look for work and ended up washing dishes at John Ernst restaurant until 2:00 in the morning. When it got late and he hadn't returned home, my father and grandmother thought something terrible had happened to him, but when he came home with a pocket full of cash, they were thrilled. Like most immigrants, they saw this country as one giant opportunity with the freedom that Romania lacked to work and succeed.
My father's educational background was as an engineer specializing in hydraulics and automation. Within a couple of years of being here he moved up from hand-work like making resistors and other electronic parts to working for a large company called GPF and eventually working freelance on custom projects for himself. It was during this period that he got a big break. He was hired to design a modern conveyor system to automate a leather tannery and maximize their production efficiency. This was a big and complex job, but he eventually finished the project and received compensation of about $60,000, a huge sum for a recent immigrant from Romania. This gave him the means to start his own engineering firm, so he found a location in the Third Ward of Milwaukee and named his business "General Automatic Corporation."
My grandfather Leo had a long history in the leather business in Romania, going all the way back to making leather buggy whips and boot laces for soldiers. In his first year here he would take any job he could get, including working outside as a parking lot attendant in downtown Milwaukee. Through this and other odd jobs for the first couple of years, he managed to save enough enough money to start buying and selling leather. This business grew until he became a kind of middle man for small companies who didn't buy in enough quantity to deal directly with tanneries. The business was called Bucharest Leather, named after the city he came from.
He eventually opened an office on the west side of town and began traveling to the fashion district in New York and to other related businesses around the country selling leather hides. What he saw in the fashion market made him interested in designing and producing a line of women's handbags. He enlisted the help of my father, who really wasn't very interested at the time given that he had just started his own engineering firm.
Reluctantly, at first, my father helped out. They would go shopping and buy handbags as samples and deconstruct them, learning how they were made and then coming up with new patterns. Little by little my father became engrossed in the project because, much like his engineering work, it was a challenging puzzle that needed to be solved. My father and grandfather were quite charming with their accents, snappy attire, and sky-is-the-limit outlook on life. They managed to get some meetings with various buyers and even CEO's at the time. One of the first of these meetings was an ambush of sorts with the president of J.C. Penney, who took an instant liking to them. Without really having a coherent line of bags, they somehow convinced him to place a fairly large order. Now all they had to do was ramp up production and figure out how to properly manufacture handbags. They started working on setting up the factory and Jerry was hooked. He fell in love with leather and leather work and never went back to engineering again-- at least not in the traditional sense. The first year of production was rough and there was a steep learning curve with lots of problems and mistakes but they persevered and continued on. In the next ten years they would improve their offerings and quality dramatically, and sell to lots of other stores like Dillards, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and many others.
Then, starting around the late 1970s, my father had the idea that he could design and build higher quality briefcases than those he saw offered in the marketplace. His focus shifted toward smaller-scale production and customized products sold directly to customers. He became obsessed with trying to make a briefcase that was both elegant and durable. He wanted to address the weaknesses in briefcase design at the most critical stress points where the bag was most likely to break over time. His engineering background paid off as he was awarded several U.S. Patents on innovations in briefcase and wallet design that we still use to this day.
Around 2005 my father's health started to suffer and he began to decline from dementia. Eventually I took over the company and moved things even further in the direction of small-scale, artisan design and quality. I started by eliminating mass production techniques and building each item to order using only the finest premium leathers available. We dramatically simplified our offerings by focusing exclusively on briefcases, wallets, and a few other select accessories. The reach of the internet enabled us to find an audience for these much more specialized offerings that wouldn't have been possible during my father's brick and mortar years. Our company is now intentionally as small as I can possibly make it with a total of three employees: Lisa, my Mom and Me. Lisa and my Mom do all of the prep work like cutting, staining, gluing, etc. and I stitch every single product that we make myself. It's not a formula for getting rich, but I sleep well at night and our quality control is extremely high.
The funny thing is that to this day our legal title is still "General Automatic Corporation" -- an old name which has almost nothing to do with the business we are in.