This is the second in a series of three interviews with entrepreneurs who attended MastermindTalks in Toronto for two days of presentations, roundtables and networking. Tony Gareri is the 36-year-old CEO of his Vaughan, Ont.-based family business, Roma Moulding, which designs and crafts handmade Italian frames.
Question: When and how did you start to rise through the ranks of the family business?
Answer: My background is Italian. My father emphasized early on that during the summer holidays you have to go to work. We’d go through the summers, there were no breaks. I’d always go from school to making picture frames, that’s all I knew when I was a child.
Growing up, I started to like what I was doing, primarily working with my hands but I loved the product. So that was easy.
From there I did my education, because I knew without it I wasn’t going anywhere. I did my degree at York University, I did the Atkinson (business) program there, which was awesome. I graduated in 1999, during the dot-com boom when everything was going bananas.
I entered the company and the first challenge I had was when they put in front of this terminal, it was a UNIX TinyTERM, and I didn’t know that world whatsoever.
But as I was quickly learning the business I knew that something had to change. We were doing relatively well but it wasn’t great. I tried not to knock into things too much and just kind of do what I was told. Slowly but surely I moved into marketing and sales, then into a VP position. Then ’05 and ’06 were really great years for us.
In 2008, all hell broke loose and I checked out of my family business. I hated what I was doing, who I was, my leadership. I hated everything.
From there I went to do some self-learning, and understand what I wanted in life, and what I wanted ultimately was to be happy. So how could I be happy at work? My father’s upbringing was that if you wanted to be successful work had to hurt. That’s just what they believed and that’s what they were taught.
I just believed it differently and I would look primarily at U.S. companies – I would see the Googles of the world, the Zappos’ of the world – they seemed to be having extraordinary fun producing extraordinary results.
I didn’t really believe it until I went there and that’s when the epiphany happened: Holy cow, these people are actually having fun. It’s chaotic, but they’re having a boatload of fun. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to give my lanyard back.
From there I came backed and pitched to my father that I could save the business, but things were going to change dramatically. He, primarily, was going to be very uncomfortable.
It was what I call a restart of our business.
Q: It’s never easy to pass a business down from one generation to the next, but yours has survived and thrived. What were the keys to the transition that made it work?
A: I’m compelled to help family businesses do that handover, do that transition, because it’s very difficult. We needed a clear understanding of what trust was going to look like, and we created structures around communication.
It was really a father-son heart-to-heart conversation around what was going to make us comfortable, and what I needed to do to build trust. We built whatever systems we had – board of directors meetings, annual meetings, whatever that may be – we built the structure and worked on that.
It was primarily based on what my father’s needs were. So I over-delivered on his needs and slowly but surely we went from meeting every day to every week to once a month to once a quarter. Now that the trust is built, he’s able to let go a lot more.
Today he’s no longer active day-to-day, but he does do some things because it’s his life, he loves it. He has supplier relationships. He’s chair of the board.