Reporter


Bob McCann (left) works with his only employee, Cecil Lucas,at Iron Gate Antiques. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Choose a job you love, the saying goes, and you will never have to work a day in your life. Even billionaire Warren Buffett says he happily “tap dances” to the office because he so much enjoys what he does.

Bob McCann doesn’t tap dance to his business, which specializes in restoring antiques, clocks and furniture, but the decorated and retired Marine probably would were his shop, located in a former sawmill, not a seven-mile drive from home.

Many of us in our 60s are looking for a post-retirement calling to keep us sharp. McCann, 65, has found it. He considers himself lucky because he gets to make people happy, stays busy and earns a little money doing it.

“This is a labor of love,” said the owner of Iron Gate Antiques, located in well-heeled Loudoun County, Va.

“I’m not making money, but I’m not losing money.”

Iron Gate has grossed about $1.5 million or so in the last 10 years, enough to put a couple thousand dollars a month in McCann’s bank account after expenses.

He doesn’t need the money. He collects a $55,000 annual pension for his 26 active years in the Marine Corps, and afterward had a top-paying technology career. His wife has a good job in the defense sector.

This is a guy who wakes up thankful every day. Three decades ago, he barely survived an accident that killed several shipmates and left a two-inch hole through his leg.

And now he’s thankful that he has survived long enough to indulge his affection for old and well-made objects.

“The best part is the joy of working with my hands and watching the satisfaction on people’s faces when they see the finished product,” McCann said.

One client, he recalled, brought him a small maple desk. “I took the blanket off it and she just started bawling,” McCann said. “She said, ‘It looks the way it was when I was little and it brings back so many memories.’ ”

I know the feeling. I recently spent a considerable sum to restore an antique, wooden Singer sewing machine cabinet that included the iron foot pedal that my mother pumped to make the needle bob. My eyes well up every time I look at that piece and think of my mom, sitting in the dining room, working at that sewing machine when I was a kid in Syracuse.

People like me make McCann’s little boutique go. We pay through the nose for the memories housed in those pieces of furniture. Loudoun County’s median household income is one of the highest in the United States, and some of those clients are millionaires from Virginia horse country and beyond, but some are average Joes.

“I do have wealthy clients but I have some middle-of-the-road people, too,” he said.

McCann charges by the job. He works like mad, arriving between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday and leaving around 6:30 p.m. He also works from noon to 5 p.m. most Sundays.

McCann bought Iron Gate, including its 600-name trove of customer data, for $20,000 in 2007 after its previous owner died. He inherited one employee, who earns “a whopping $15 an hour.” McCann doesn’t pay himself a salary, but Iron Gate’s profit comes to about $12 for every hour he works. He rents space for about $1,900 a month, including utilities.

The business is on track to gross about $140,000 this year.

McCann said he gets a lot of business because of his expertise in the dying art of “seat caning and rush seating.” That’s another way of saying he can fix chairs that most others can’t. As we spoke, he had 26 chairs stacked in his office awaiting repair from across the Washington area.


Bob McCann demonstrates his skill at ‘seat caning and rush seating.’ ( Katherine Frey /The Washington Post)

Like most professional services businesses, the trick is in estimating the cost of the jobs. Each year, he takes on about 200 repairs, each of which can take hours, days, weeks or more; one curved bench that he caned took four months. So he needs to get those estimates right.

His most expensive job involved the restoration of 18 pieces of smoke-damaged furniture that a woman had inherited from her great aunt. McCann billed the client $20,000, netting him about $3,000 — or about a 15 percent return.

“The key is being able to look through the piece to determine how much it’s really going to cost to restore,” said McCann. “It’s rare for me to lose money. We have done hundreds of pieces, probably 2,000 since I bought the business. I have lost money on maybe two. I just eyeballed them wrong.”

He works on chairs, cradles, sewing machines. He took one old pump organ and converted it into a desk.

The mainstay of Iron Gate is client work, but it’s not the entire business. McCann trolls auctions and antique dealers for artifacts he can restore and sell at retail in his shop. He bought a set of six chairs from the 18th century, made of bird’s-eye maple, at an auction in nearby Culpepper for $30. He is asking $1,000 for the lot.

McCann learned his woodworking skills growing up in Oxford, Ohio, where his father was an electrician and the family lived in an old house.

“He was always fixing furniture,” McCann said of his dad. “And I had a knack for it.”

In 1970, he dropped out of college after one semester (“it was boring”) and joined the Marines. That was pretty risky back then, because the Vietnam War was still going strong.

The Marines trained him to operate mortars, which fire shells at high angles to drop them on nearby enemy positions. Most of his basic training class went to Vietnam, but McCann ended up aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence, where he served as a bodyguard to the ship’s captain.

After a year, he moved to London, where he guarded Navy personnel.

Selected for an officers’ program in 1976, he was sent to Texas A&M University. He graduated in 1979 with a degree in management, and was promoted to second lieutenant. He eventually became an aircraft maintenance officer in charge of 130 men on the supercarrier USS Nimitz. McCann’s team was tasked with making sure several of the ship’s aircraft were in working order.

That’s where he had a life-changing experience.

During training exercises off the coast of Florida — 24-hour operations involving live, .50-caliber ammunition, as well as Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles — a plane crashed while trying to land on the carrier’s flight deck one night around midnight, setting off a blistering fire that ignited the live ammunition and rockets. Fourteen men were killed, including two standing near McCann. Forty-eight more were injured.

“We were standing, putting out fires, and an explosion occurred 10 feet away,” McCann said.

A missile blew, killing two servicemen who were holding a fire hose with McCann and sending a piece of shrapnel tearing through his calf.

“The angle I was facing was what saved me,” he said. “Any other angle, and I would have lost my leg.”

McCann was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, which is the highest peacetime award for heroism.

His recovery took six weeks. After he finished his deployment aboard the Nimitz he was stationed in Norfolk, where he ran the Navy’s version of the Federal Aviation Administration.

He retired from the Marines in 1996. Then he earned up to $200,000 a year working for private technology companies around Washington.

He took a year off in his mid-50s to care for his son while his wife attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then he bought Iron Gate in 2007.

McCann said that Iron Gate really isn’t about profit. It’s about doing something you love and making the most of every day. We all should have that feeling.

Not surprisingly, he has never forgotten that night aboard the Nimitz.

“Before the Nimitz, I was a ramrod straight, by-the-book Marine Corps officer. After almost dying during the fire, my attitude changed. I started enjoying life. Now, I have fun all day long. Neighbors even complain that my laughing at work is too loud.”