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.
Q: On your LinkedIn profile you call Roma Moulding the finest picture-frame company in the world. How did you come to that determination?
A: We’re a really different company. When we look at our core products, all of them are made by artisans in Italy, where other manufacturers will try to mimic that through a machine in China. We’ve taken the heritage of fine craftsmanship two, three, four generations and we’re bringing it to people today.
And what we’re so happy about is that people appreciate it and they keep coming back for it, it’s that quality base. On top of that, we’ve invested heavily in the culture at our company as well as the infrastructure and the experience.
We’re all about how that customer experience is feeling. So it’s not just product based, it’s all the components that make up the business: product, service, experience and culture.
Q: In 2014 you were named business of the year by the Vaughan Chamber of Commerce. That’s in the 30th year of the company’s existence. Why do people want to work with you? What makes your business special to current and prospective employees?
A: It’s the vision of our company. We want to take apart this mindset around punching in and punching out, those turn-of-the-century industrial revolution days. It brings me back to my youth when we used to watch Fred Flintstone and he would punch in when he was working for Mr. Slate and then punch out and he would be Mr. Husband.
We really want to blur those lines. We’re pushing those boundaries. We’re in a traditional market: a mom-and-pop picture-frame business. We’re challenging what conventional business practices are telling us to do and doing things like removing punch clocks, no more buzzers, no more in and out times. It’s project based, it’s based on trust.
People want to work for a company like ours because they know once they’re on the team they’re trusted, and they’re allowed to do the finest work of their lives. Even if that means they’re uncomfortable and we understand they’re being stretched and they might fail. It’s the essence of that freedom that makes them want to join us.
I have remarkable stories of people coming to us (for a job) saying they would gladly take a pay cut because they’re miserable, and they’re not trusted, and they don’t feel free.
Q: We’re in a digital age. How do you keep a picture-frame business relevant in the year 2014, and how are you going to keep it relevant long term?
A: That’s something on my mind. Picture frames: it’s not the sexiest product. But I see it as sexy. We partner with some of the most amazing photographers around the world, namely Peter Lik, probably the most renowned photographer there is.
He’s partnered with us to bring, primarily to Las Vegas but also around the United States, the most exquisite photography framed in the most beautiful pieces. He believes he might wait eight or 10 hours for the right shot, but it’s taken Roma a lifetime to put that frame together and marry the two.
We’re also keeping it relevant by moving into e-commerce, where it’s less about framing and more about photography. We look at framing kind of like when you’re putting together your ensemble, or a woman’s dress, we’re the stiletto shoes. She can’t leave without them. And that’s what we do to that ensemble. We complete it.
The online space will allow the general public, consumers, to upload whatever photo, digitize it and do whatever they want, frame it, and have it sent to them. We haven’t launched that yet, but that’s how we’re bringing it: using technology within our industry and making that user experience easy because right now we’re B2B (business-to-business).
Q: Who are your key customers and how do you sell to them? Has that changed over time?
A: Frame shops and gallery shops. We do the lion’s share of our business with those folks. We’ve now moved into the hospitality industry so we’ll do hotels like the Belaggio hotel, which we’ve outfitted, all the way down to your mom-and-pop artisan frame shop in New York City. It runs the gamut. It’s a traditional B2B business so frame shops, galleries and hospitality.
Our venture into the e-commerce world is very separate, it’s not going to touch our existing channel, and that’s what excites us a lot more. This would be the first big push into B2C (business to consumer).
Q: In how many countries are you doing business?
A: We know we do business in about five countries, but where those products get distributed after that who knows.
Q: What’s your role as CEO? Are you more of a long-term strategy guy, or a day-to-day manager?
A: I’m much more of a strategy guy, but I am in day-to-day right now because we restarted three years ago and it takes time to build a culture-based company, it takes a minimum of five years to a lifetime, as (Zappos CEO) Tony Hsieh states. Today I have three primary roles: it’s about the brand, it’s about the culture and it’s about the people.
I don’t think I’ll ever stray from those. What I will do is I’ll take a higher position or a 30,000-foot look at people, culture and the brand. Those are the three main components. Lately I’ve primarily been a talent scout, and kind of an ambassador for this company.
The more I speak, the more I get people interested and intrigued in what we’re doing. Therefore they want to join our team. Therefore they allow me more freedom.
Q: You also call yourself a culture mentor for various companies. What does that mean and who are you helping?
A: One mainly is 360Incentives. A dear friend of mine, Todd Skinner, was their chief happiness officer. We hit it off early on, and we helped each other. Unfortunately he passed away from a sudden heart-attack when he was 40 years old, it was a nightmare. His death put a hole, or a void, in that company. It’s a great company but there was a void.
Jason (Atkins, founder and CEO) has asked me, along with two other individuals, to be a culture mentor for the team. We help support each other. There are other companies I support and help. I don’t do it to get paid. I do it because I love it.
I’m helping with company culture leadership, almost like a consulting role.
Q: Do you ever get the itch to build a company from scratch? Why or why not?
A: I do. I guess that’s where the e-commerce comes in. I want to go into the unknown. I want to explore. I feel like I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for a while and I want to get uncomfortable.
I want to play in an arena that’s big. I want to attract the world’s best talent. I want to start a company culture from scratch. I want people to come to work and be so elated that they almost forget what they’re doing and produce the best work of their life.
I always say this: You can join a company that did it, or you can join a company that’s doing it. And by doing it, you can produce the best of your life. You won’t be talking about the heydays, you’re living the heydays. But you have to believe in it. You have to believe in our culture. If you’re that person, great, if you’re not I’m okay with that.
Q: Do you have any ideas that are completely divorced from what you’re doing now that you’ve wanted to pursue?
A: Something around culture and leadership. Whether it’s a summit or an actual organization, my dream is to go into the worst cultures, I mean the nastiest ones, the ones where they booby-trap people’s rooms. I want to give them the tools to help change that around and impact the happiness in those folks.
Primarily in the roles of family businesses. There’s no book you can pick up that says “I’m a $3-million company.” It’s easy to read about Google or Facebook but not a $3-million business. Someone might say “I don’t have the funds,” and I’ll go in and show you how to do that.
Me and my team we could kind of go in like doctors, do an assessment and say “here’s what you’ve got to do, now we’re going to give you the shovels.” We’re not going to do the work, we’re going to share how to do it. Then we’ll have periodic touch-backs and kind of have them incubate and then we would come back to assess.
Kind of like consulting. It would be fun. Fun as heck. I could see a TV show around going into the nastiest places.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
A: I love reading. My wife and I are building a library in our home. We actually enjoy it. I don’t watch much TV, other than Big Bang Theory, I think it’s hilarious. I enjoy spending time with my wife and family.
I enjoy things like summits, leadership retreats, constant learning and development. I also enjoy playing sports. I don’t like watching them, I’d rather be on the court. I like winning.
Q: Tony Hsieh has been a big influence. How did that happen? Where did you find out about him and how did you come to embrace his philosophies?
A: I was at a trade show in the middle of a ridiculous amount of travel. I was in every city, and I was home very little. I was unhappy. Things were happening but I had no time to myself.
I remember vividly that we were at a trade show in Las Vegas and after they’re done you need to drink. Your feet are killing you, you’ve been up since 8 a.m., and it’s 8 o’clock at night. We went to the space of a friend of ours and we had a glass of wine. He said, “Tony you need to meet this girl I know.”
I started talking to her about leadership. She pulled a book out of her purse and said, “Tony I’m not sure why, but I’m going to hand this to you. I think you’ll enjoy it.”
I read it. I killed the book within two or three days and it was Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh.
This was pre ‘re-start’ and I was cynical. I went on the (Zappos) website, did some research and saw there were tours and classes, but they were all sold out. I went on the waiting list and they called me the next day. I don’t know if that was marketing or not, but it worked.
I got on a plane, I sat in on their two-day culture immersion and the funniest thing happened. They said, “Hey guys, once a year Tony opens up his home to one lucky group to do a boot camp, and it’s you guys.”
And I’m thinking “this cannot be.” So, you’re having dinner with Tony Hsieh. I had my iPod and I’m going up to Tony’s apartment and I sat down with him and told him how much he changed my life. To this day we’re friends, and I’ve been back several times.
So when I go back to Zappos it’s like they’re family. And the thank-you frame we created hangs in the lobby and I’m honoured they put it there because they impacted my life so much and by extension the lives of 150 other families at Roma.