Family Business Confidential: Arto — Handcrafted Ceramics in Los Angeles Since 1966

by | Mar 18, 2022 | Celebrating Family Business

Business:  Arto
NxtGen: Armen Alajian – 2nd Generation
Position – President

Can you tell us about the start of your family business?

Our family business story goes back to my grandfather, who was orphaned in Armenia and found himself alone in Syria as an 11 year old.  Fortunately, the wealthy Armenians in Egypt ransomed back thousands of Armenian orphans  and brought them to Alexandria, Egypt.  My father, Arto, grew up in Alexandria and Cairo and lived an easy carefree life as there was a lot of European wealth in Egypt.  Arto worked in his family business designing and cutting leather shoes, unfortunately the family lost their business when the socialist government of Nasser took over in 1952.  Arto then moved to Beirut where he worked for British Airways scheduling flights and eventually made his way to California.

In California, he went to school at night to become an airplane mechanic and during the day sold milk from the Adohr Farms delivery trucks.  He was always very artistic and he started dating a ceramisist.  She made murals and did work on the San Gabriel and San Fernando Missions.  The outside of her murals were brick veneer and he started showing the tiles to his milk customers.  Eventually he quit the milk business & school and started making and installing tiles full time.

During those early days, Arto designed and manufactured the product and completed all of his own installations.  My Dad was a perfectionist, he never had more than two crews.  He was good at his job and very communicative and he resonated well with high end clients.  The company’s official start date was 1966; however, he was doing work before then but assumed it was artwork so didn’t have to get a license.  Needless to say, he was wrong about that.

What was your first job in the family business?

I started working in the business when I was 8 years old. My first job was working on the wet saw, and no it isn’t dangerous.  I also raked leaves and did other tasks and, of course, didn’t get paid.  My parents divorced when I was ten and my younger brother Varoujan (VOD) and I didn’t see much of him.

I went to work full time for the business at 18 years old and between 18 and 24, I quit five times and was probably fired five times.  I started off making and installing tile because we did both manufacturing and installation.  I went to university to become a Metalurgist but didn’t finish; I like materials, especially concrete and clay/ceramics which are great materials.

I met my wife when I was 19 and while our two crews could feed one family, it couldn’t feed two families and having a family mattered to me.  I also wanted to run the business so my Dad and I argued about how to grow the business.  We decided to focus on manufacturing and that’s when the business took off.

I was pretty angry and crazy during those early years and each time I quit or was fired was very real.  However, my father and wife connected behind my back and worked hard to keep the bridge from being burnED because they both knew the importance OF family and business.   After that initial bumpy ride, things started to get pretty easy.  I was the General Manager in charge of operations and my father was the Chairman and did the big stuff like buying a building.  I was given the reins to grow the business and we grew and grew and grew.

Do you think that you would have had a relationship with your father if there wasn’t a family business?

That’s a question I’m working on with my own kids…how to structure a family office.  But no, I don’t think we would have come together in the same way if it wasn’t for the business.

It’s interesting, family farms are looked at differently than other family businesses.  When you talk about the family farmer, nobody refers to them as the son of a farmer.  Why is it different for other family businesses?  Why do you carry the stigma of being the son of the owner?  You’re constantly asked can you repeat your success?

Can you tell us about the growth of the business?

We continued to grow.  We had a building in West LA and bought a building in Gardena that was four times bigger and we filled it up.  Then we bought another building and filled it up.  Then we bought a third building, which is also full.

My brother was still estranged.  There was peace, but not really.  My Dad had a heart attack in 2001 and my brother joined the business and is in charge of manufacturing.   Currently, we’re at 85 employees.  We manufacture 95% of the products we sell and import 5% from Europe.  We sell across the United States and overseas hotels in Mexico, China and the Caribbean.  Most of our work is residential, but we also do heritage and prestige work.

What is your long-term goal for the business?

We’ve started talking about generational change from the perspective of a broken family because it’s the business that brought the family back together.  My dad was successful because he brought two brothers who were not necessarily working together.  The business succeeded after he passed away and if I can accomplish the same thing, I think the business will continue to be very successful.

I’m starting to explore a Family Office because the family business could change forms based on the interests of my kids.  My kids aren’t going to have the money like the Duponts, but I don’t want to make things easy for them.  Money corrupts and that can work against everything. I care about keeping them together as a family.

What Family Members are working in the business?

Besides my brother, I have one daughter that worked in the business but she left.  I think she’ll return to the business once she picks up other skills.  I have one son that is a fish in water and he’s going to do very well.  He’s got the personality type…hungry.  I have another son who just started running errands for me.

I was advised that I don’t have to have my kids get involved in every aspect of the business to feel connected to it.  That was an incredibly important lesson. One of my daughters works in the boneyards selling odd lots of tile.  I have another daughter who likes hand painting tiles so she hand paints tiles.

Did the family business dominate your dinner conversation?

My family didn’t talk about the business, we lived the family business.  Our kids were (& still are) homeschooled, and a large part of their education was travelling with me and talking to the customers.  This helped them build confidence meeting people but it also gave them an organic relationship with the business.  A real highwater mark for me was when one of my sons shared his version of the family business history and how we grew and expanded over the years.  I knew that the family business was firmly implanted within his essence.

What’s your favorite event for employees?

We don’t really have events for our employees.  I think of myself as a recovering enabler meaning we’re trying to become a large part of our employees’ life.  My father gave loans to numerous employees, many of which are never paid back.  He helped them develop their own businesses and own lives which was very rewarding.

We have eight ladies who hand paint tiles which is very demanding work.  Between work, kids and home, there isn’t time for them to focus on their own fitness & lives.  Prior to Covid, we brought in a personal trainer so they could get exercise and focus on themselves.  Even though we quit bringing in the trainer during Covid, they continued to do workouts together without any coaching.

The most important thing is recognizing your employees are people and deserve that respect.  One afternoon, I had a meeting with a friend and after the meeting I walked around and said goodbye to all the people.  As we were leaving, he asked me how often I stopped and said goodbye to all the employees. “Every day”, I said.

Are there any “family rituals” around the business?

My dad and I would come in every New Year’s Day.  We would open the doors, turn on the water.   It was our superstition.   Since he passed, I’ve continued the tradition.  I’ll come in on New Year’s Day, smoke my yearly cigar, drink port, journal and try to set my mind on the year ahead.

What is one memory from the family business that you cherish the most?

The five or six years after my Dad and I made peace was truly special.  He was enjoying the creativity and fruits of his labor.  I was enjoying running and operating the business.  It wasn’t that the business had this spectacular growth, it was that together, we found our places in the company and with each other.  It was a special time.

About You

 

  • Biggest non-family idol or inspiration Seth Godin (business writer)
  • What keeps you up at night?  Not knowing what I’m missing. Where is the cliff?
  • First job before going into the family business? Worked at McDonalds
  • What are you streaming? Movie The Guard (multiple times) from 2010
  • What’s on your turntable or Spotify playlist? Anything Radiohead
  • Favorite LA Sports team The Raiders / Kings / Dodgers
  • Favorite place to listen to music  When I’m on computer, in trance, working
  • Quintessential LA activity or experience  Going to Phillipes and walking around Union Station
  • Desert, Beach or Mountains All three
  • Where do you take visitors to spot celebrities? Not a big fan of celebrities, places I take visitors, Marine Rescue, Art Studios, Fort McArthur, Royal Palms
  • Best part of living LA Diversity of places. Each small area has its own distinct charm
  • Least favorite part of LA homeless
  • Favorite restaurant  JaMe Enoteca (El Segundo)
  • Best junk food Flying Dutchman at In and Out
  • LA Social Causes We have eight children; three biological and five adopted, we have a place in our hearts for the orphans
allen.esrock@nxtgennexus.com
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Allen Esrock is the Founder of NxtGen Nexus, a platform for the next generation of family business owners which is based on his experience of growing up in a family business. Prior to that he started Jitter Fingers, the first safe, social networking website for tween girls and their bffs with Jitter Finger clubs in 12+ countries and 250+ cities in the US.

About the Author

Allen Esrock is the Founder of NxtGen Nexus, a platform for the next generation of family business owners which is based on his experience of growing up in a family business. Prior to that he started Jitter Fingers, the first safe, social networking website for tween girls and their bffs with Jitter Finger clubs in 12+ countries and 250+ cities in the US.