An Interview With Eddie Mannis
Eddie Mannis is a native Knoxvillian, who grew up in the Inskip community and graduated from Central High School. The founder of Prestige Cleaners, he is heavily involved in giving back to the community through efforts like HonorAir, which takes veterans from Knoxville to Washington, DC to visit their respective war memorials. He recently announced his candidacy for Knoxville city mayor in 2019, and we met for this interview in July at his home in west Knoxville.
THE EARLY YEARS AND THE FORMATION OF PRESTIGE
Cameron: What was your childhood to teenage years like? Did you have any hobbies or interests?
Mannis: My teenage years were really focused on working. I worked from the time I was 13. That was pretty much what I did. I didn’t have a lot of hobbies growing up. We just worked, went to school, and went to church. That’s all we did as kids.
After graduating from high school, I moved away for a year to the central coast of Florida, where a friend and his family were in the fernery business. So for a year right out of high school I cut ferns in the fields of Florida.
Cameron: Did you go to college?
Mannis: I was working my way through college in my early twenties while working for Sanitary Laundry and Dry Clean here in Knoxville. I worked between 50 to 60 hours a week and then took classes at night and on weekends at Maryville college. And then I started my own company before I finished college. I don’t have a college education and for a long time I was embarrassed to share that because of society’s views that everybody needs to have a college degree. I do believe in college but I don’t think you have to have a college degree to be successful.
Cameron: How did you come to start your own company?
Mannis: I was doing pickup and delivery for Sanitary, and one Sunday I was looking through the classifieds and saw that there was some used dry cleaning equipment for sale. I called the number on the ad- it was a 584 number, and I knew that was one of my service areas.
The gentleman who answered the phone said he had used drying cleaning equipment that was thirty years old. And he was wanting to get rid of it and move back to New York City. After selling my boat and my car I had enough money for a down payment to purchase the equipment. He did owner financing and we started the company in 1985 with three employees, one of whom was my mother. And so today company wide we have over 150 employees.
We called the company Prestige Cleaners. We came up with that name after brainstorming around the kitchen table one day. And over the years we have become one of the largest independently owned dry cleaning companies in the country.
Our first location was next to the old Mercedes Benz dealership in Bearden, where the Hispanic grocery story is now located. The location was about 1000 square feet and we kept expanding, taking over the building behind it. And then we bought our property off Emory Road and built a 15,000 square foot production facility there that opened in 1994.
Now we have eleven physical retail locations and five pickup and delivery routes. We also have a tuxedo division with retail stores here in Knoxville and also Jackson, Tennessee.
Cameron: What challenges did you face when you were creating Prestige?
Mannis: I was pretty young, 24 years old, when we started Prestige and I really didn’t know what business was all about. What I did know was the importance of hard work. But one of the biggest challenges was managing a quickly growing company with little capital. Every penny we were bringing in we had to spend back out because of that growth. And being in my mid-twenties the reality was no one was willing to lend money to someone so young.
We just had to keep digging and digging until we finally were able to turn a profit, which took us five years. At that point we were able to borrow money to help grow the business. But it was really a process of figuring it as you go, through the school of hard knocks, and learning from the mistakes that were made.
Being an entrepreneur and running a business is hard. Every year there are new challenges- whether it be new regulations, employee shortages, or health care. There are always challenges you have to manage. You really never get to a place where you can coast. I tell my employees all the time that we are either moving forward or we are moving backward. There is nothing in between.
THE ORIGINS OF HONORAIR
Cameron: Tell me about the origins of HonorAir. When was it created, what led you to create it, what does it do?
Mannis: HonorAir is a program that I started in 2007. The mission is pretty simple, which is to honor the service of World War II, Korean, and Vietnam war veterans. The program first started with World War II veterans because the World War II memorial was built in 2004. The average age of a World War II veteran in 2004 was the late 70’s or early 80’s and they were aging out of being able to see the memorial.
I got the idea to create HonorAir from my friend Jeff Miller, who lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Jeff’s father had passed away and while cleaning out his father’s belongings he realized that his father had contributed a significant amount of money to build the memorial, but he died before ever being able to see it.
Jeff started a similar initiative in Hendersonville, and he called me one day and asked if I’d like to come travel with them. And I did in the spring of 2007. It was something I was really moved by. I had the experience of listening to the veterans and their stories and I came to the realization that they were true treasures, and that we needed to honor them for their service.
So when I came back to Knoxville I was inspired to try the project here. I started talking to my dad, who was a Korean War veteran, about his experiences. And I realized I had a good number of other family members, from my uncle and stepfather who were World War II veterans, who had served our country. I wanted to honor their legacy and sacrifice.
We were able to do our first flight in October of 2007. And almost eleven years later we have done 27 flights and have had the honor to serve over 3600 veterans. We have a waiting list of veterans wanting to participate.
It started in 2007 with 133 World War II veterans every time we flew. Today, eleven years later, we will travel with eight to ten World War II veterans and the rest are from the Korean and Vietnam wars.
GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY
Cameron: Many view you as a model of what a successful business person should do in terms of giving back to the community. What other philanthropies and charities have you been involved with?
Mannis: At Prestige we have used the business to organize activities in the community. One of them is Coats for the Cold, which is a partnership with Knox Area Rescue Ministries. During the month of November we collect and process gently used and new coats to give to those in need. The coats are normally given away the first Saturday in December. To date we are close to 200,000 items that we have cleaned and given to the program. That’s been a very special project for us.
Project Classroom is another initiative. When there were lots of budget cuts with Knox County Schools, we tried to figure out a way that we could help the customer’s kids in their classrooms. Customers would write the name of their school on the back of their invoice, and drop it in a box. And at the end of the year we would make contributions to those schools. Project Classroom has given away almost $100,000 to local schools where our customers’ kids attend.
Hope for Haiti was another program we did through Catholic Charities that benefited an orphanage in Haiti. It was a formal dress sale and the proceeds went to benefit the orphanage.
I have tried to make a difference where I see a need. There are many ways to give back. And it’s not just about money. Money can be the easiest thing to give. Time can be much harder, and oftentimes more valuable. When I get to speak to a lot of younger people I tell them that you may not have the financial resources to give, but giving of your time is a contribution and commitment too. And making that sacrifice to give back is important.
INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF BUSINESS
Cameron: What interests do you have outside of work?
Mannis: It’d hard for me to unwind and let go, but I find that the oceans and lakes help me to relax. I love the time I get to spend there. Water helps me to just stop and appreciate the world.
I wish I could say that I read novels, but I read more business books and magazines. And I really get into reading anything political. If it is anything to do with the Secret Service I love to read. When I was a kid I aspired to be a Secret Service Agent!
I have thought about what I would do once I retire. One area would be in mentoring kids, especially troubled kids, who are struggling with their gender identity, sexuality, any of those things that kids are struggling with which really breaks my heart. With the high rate of suicide among some of our youth I think more work needs to be done there to help with that crisis. If I had a calling even now if I could just get to those kids and say, “just hold on- just hold on- it gets better. You can’t see it but it does. I was there where you are and it does get better.” Helping those kids is something I would like to focus on when I do retire.
WORKING IN MAYOR ROGERO’S ADMINISTRATION
Cameron: So you worked in Mayor Rogero’s office during her first term. What was that like?
Mannis: I was on the 6th floor before the mayor got there. I went in November of 2011 to work as part of her transition team. It was a great experience that I loved. I have the upmost respect for Madeline. I was the first chief operating officer ever for the city of Knoxville. I was in the position for 18 months. Probably five to six months in the position it had no job description. You kind of made it as you went, trying to figure out the lay of the land and who does what.
During my time with the city I learned a lot about government. It was a baptism-by-fire. It was a good experience for me learning about government, about people, and about myself.
One of the most important aspects of government I saw was the service component. Coming from a service background it wasn’t totally new to me. My goal was working to enhance the service level of city government. Regarding the legislative process, that was something new to me. I respected the time that it takes, along with the community input process. The time that it takes going through the process, whether it be six weeks or six months- once that process was complete the implementation phase kicks in. And I think there are a lot of ways to move things quicker through that phase.
Taxpayers deserve effective, efficient government. That’s where business really does kick in during the implementation phase. I believe that projects needs to have a timeline- with a start time and an estimated completion time. In my mind it is about accountability. And I don’t think anyone should back away from that.
RUNNING FOR MAYOR OF KNOXVILLE
Cameron: So recently you announced you are running for mayor next year. Why do you want to be mayor and what issues will you be running on?
Mannis: I contemplated running for mayor seven years ago. Madeline and I had a conversation and I chose to wait until she got finished with her two terms. She asked me to and I did. I respected her to do that. I think she’s done a great job. And I thought that would be a good decision for me because that would give me seven good years to say is this just one of those passing kind of desires or do you still have that burning passion in seven years. So I thought that would be a very good test. And I discovered that I still have this passion to really do my part to help Knoxville reach it’s full potential and be all it can be.
Knoxville has so many resources and so many assets, and sometimes I think we don’t realize the opportunity that is in front of us, that we can do big things. And I believe we can do big things.
I think an effective mayor has to be in the middle, with the ability to look from both sides. One issue that is huge for me is economic development. We can’t do anything without jobs, which helps us with our tax base. Without jobs and economic development nothing else really works. That’s the business side of it. With that a top priority of mine is the recruitment of industry to Knoxville.
It’s not so much about recruiting a 5,000 employee company to come here. While that would be great, I’m thinking more of stable companies coming into our downtown that have 50, 100, or even 30 employees. Which would help our downtown to continue to revitalize. I would also help recruit in Knox County because I think there is a windfall in the city for doing that.
Also from an economic impact and development standpoint, I believe tourism is very important to us. Look at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the eleven million people who go there on an annual basis. What percentage of that eleven million do we really attract to Knoxville? I think that is a missed opportunity that we really need to take a step back and look at.
Another issue is how do we support our own entrepreneurs? We have many startups in this community and even more that could happen. Supporting our own local entrepreneurs is another priority for me, especially our minority entrepreneurs.
With regards to education, I would find a role for the city to play in supporting that. I would work with the county and the school board and ask are there things not being done that the city could step up and do? That could be teacher enrichment or helping support the community schools. I would work with Knox County Schools and the Great Schools Partnership to find a role for us to play.
And I’m a strong believer in safe and healthy communities. Particularly the health of our communities and getting our kids healthier, like promoting more activity that gets our kids moving.
I’m also big into supporting the arts. I love art- it’s not sexy to a lot of people but nurturing the creative class that we have here is very important to me. Promoting the music we have here, the visual arts, the performing arts will all be priorities for me.
Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, says it best and it’s a mantra I have. He says that a successful mayor of a city needs to have the mind of a CEO and the heart of a social worker. That is etched into my mind. I believe I have those characteristics.
Cameron: What do you think the biggest issues facing Knoxville are?
Mannis: We are going to have to focus on economic development. Last year I spoke to a fraternity at UT, and one of the questions from one of the young men was, “How can you get us to stay here after graduation?”
I jokingly replied bigger bars and cheaper beer. Then I said, honestly unless we are aggressively pursuing jobs for our young people I can’t ask you to stay here. You are spending a lot of money on college to prepare you for a career and you have to go where the jobs are. We have a lot of people leaving Knoxville after school to go to Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis, or Charlotte, just to secure jobs. And we have to stop losing that talent to other cities.
I’m often asked how do we get more diversity in Knoxville? And my thoughts are how have we gotten the diversity that we currently have? UT brings diversity, Scripps brought a tremendous amount of diversity. Whittle communications brought a tremendous amount of diversity. I honestly don’t know how you create more diversity unless you are bringing in new business. And with bringing in new business you get a more diverse population.
Cameron: When industry like Levi’s left the Cherry street area of east Knoxville it economically depressed east Knoxville. What work do you think can be done to revitalize that area? Do you think it’s possible for more industry to be recruited to east Knoxville?
Mannis: I think no doubt that recruitment of industry to east Knoxville would help. It depends on what kind of industry. I think there are ways to do that. I believe we have to talk about the Zoo and what role it can play in revitalizing east Knoxville. At the Zoo we have half a million visitors every year. And so one of my strategies would be to encourage folks not to get back on the interstate but to go down Magnolia towards downtown. That would put more traffic on Magnolia and lead to more business opportunities. It takes traffic to create more business. That would lead to an increase in retail business. There is probably some property there that could be developed for manufacturing, but the problem now is that there isn’t a lot of manufacturing business anymore. But we could create jobs in East Knoxville with retail business and more restaurants with traffic flowing from the Zoo. That’s not a total fix, but it does help Magnolia.
I would also sit down with lots of individuals from the community there. As Mayor I want to talk with you and not to you. I think I’m a pretty good listener, and I’d rather hear what the people have to say. If there were one hundred people in a room I wouldn’t want to be in the front talking to them. I would want one hundred sitting around in a circle and I would want to be in that circle sitting with them.
If there was a problem, I would say, “Here’s the problem the way we see it. Does everyone agree that this is the problem?” And I would encourage all of us to brainstorm and talk together about solutions. The only option not on the table would be the status quo. I’m not fond of the idea of problem solving that only involves complaining without involvement of the community in finding potential solutions. I’m a big proponent of collaboration.
With Prestige, my management team and I regularly sit down and discuss problems and solutions. Sometimes my ideas are the best and sometimes they are not. My philosophy is to encourage my team to not just bring me problems, but bring me potential solutions as well. In regards to our city, whether it’s east Knoxville or south Knoxville, whatever the issue is let’s sit down and talk about it and collaborate towards solutions.
Some may say that sounds idealistic. And some political people would laugh at that approach. But that would be the approach I would take. I don’t know of a better way to approach problem solving.