There’s a magical feeling of excitement in the air. It’s noticeable from the first moment you walk through the door. Nothing about this place is typical—from the decorated replica statue of Michelangelo’s David to the speakers pumping loud music, it’s clear that these people think differently. For 30 years, Roma Moulding has done more than buck the trends; they’ve created them.
A tour through Roma Moulding’s headquarters in Toronto clearly shows that this is a company on the move. Although steeped in European tradition, its modern strategies and products keep them ahead of the curve. Founded in 1984 by John Gareri and Nino Talotta, Roma Moulding has grown from a small, local producer of fine art frames into a truly global phenomenon.
The company works with master artisans in Europe, who use centuries-old techniques to create awe-inspiring mouldings. They source designs from Africa, Asia and beyond. Their award-winning products are assembled right here in North America. With such a broad, international scope, Roma Moulding really does have the world in its hands. In order to truly appreciate what Roma Moulding is, it’s important to understand how and why they exist.
Step back 30 years. Reagan is President. Pop songs from Wham!, Tina Turner and Prince blare out of speakers speeding by in Chevy Cavaliers. The big, bad L.A. Raiders are Super Bowl champions. The world is becoming more connected and the appetite for luxurious home furnishings is growing quickly. Meanwhile, back in the suburbs of Toronto, John and his brother in-law, Nino, work part-time jobs framing photographs at night to support their young families. Then John realizes something’s missing. The mouldings lack life and excitement. They appear as an afterthought in the art creation process and aren’t able to truly elevate a piece or assimilate into a home’s interior. John knows he can do better.
“I thought, ‘There’s no future with these frames and it’s creating a massive void in the North American market’,” John says. “It was a huge opportunity and I immediately started thinking that I could search Italy for beautiful frames to bring back to North America.”
Into the Unknown At this point, John took an enormous leap of faith and decided to go out on his own. He knew that better products were being created in Italy and started to nurture his European connections. Before long, John had established himself and opened Roma Moulding in late in 1984. At the time, Roma was a small operation and John had his hands on every aspect of the business.
“I would go out all day and take orders. Then I’d return at night to build the frames. The next day I’d go deliver all the frames and take more orders. It was my way of getting an edge on the competition. Speed, craftsmanship with a personal touch.”
By focusing on quality and style, John created a line of high-end products for an underserved market. From there, a series of expansions—including opening distribution centers throughout the United States—truly put Roma on the map as a key producer of fine interior furnishings. However, due to rapid expansion, the company found themselves negotiating with neighbors to occupy any nearby warehouse space.
“We had grown so much that we started asking our neighbors if we could use part of their facilities; then we asked the people behind us and others nearby,” John’s son and current Roma Moulding CEO, Tony Gareri, recalls. “We were connecting all these spaces with ramps, which during the winter meant trudging through snow. It worked but it wasn’t great. My father had the vision that we had to be under one roof. He knew that in order for us to get to the next level, we had to be together and we had to be united.”
With a vision for the future, John packed the company up and moved to a 30,000-square-foot facility that still stands as Roma’s home. After a series of renovations to tailor the space to their unique needs, team members soon began to wonder, “How are we going to fill this?” While the move proved intimidating for some, John had the foresight to know his company would grow to occupy every inch. “To us, the move meant that we were for real, this is the next chapter in our company,” Tony says.
Tony Arrives on the Scene Around this time, Tony officially joined the Roma team. After years of spending summers at “Corner Sample Camp” or following his father to trade shows, Tony graduated from university. While he may have had plans to backpack around Europe or to “find himself,” John had other plans.
“I got my degree on a Thursday,” Tony says, “On Friday, my father turned to me and said, ‘So we’ll see you first thing Monday morning.’ It may have sounded like a question but was definitely more of a statement.”
The family branched out and continued to produce forward-thinking products that pushed the envelope. Further expansion into the United States and a series of awards propelled Roma to the top of the industry as they released industry-changing designs such as the Tabacchino collection in 2005. Tony admits to being a design junkie. Growing up in a family whose livelihood depended upon having good taste meant that he quickly developed a keen eye.
“Very early on as a child, I was taught about, and very interested in, design. I’ve read Azure and Architectural Digest for as long as I can remember,” Tony says with a laugh.
Under the tutelage of his father, Tony began to carefully study why Roma carried certain lines and what specific partners wanted to see in the company’s next launch. He also began to expand his own design inspirations and noticed the emerging trends within interior design. He saw good and bad design in everything from sofas to buildings, kitchens and of course, custom frames. Never one to chase a fad, Tony likes to identify trends and stay ahead of them.
“I prefer to create the frame as a masterpiece that can be used on art, rather than seeing the art and then making a frame that’ll fit it.”
Often, Tony and John will travel the globe searching for a texture, pattern or even feeling that inspires them to create their next great moulding. With the entire world at his fingertips, Tony chooses one city as his favorite destination.
“Paris is hands down the most inspiring place I’ve ever been,” he says, beaming. “The feeling you get when sitting at the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile is tremendous. This section of Paris was built to celebrate victory, and the attention to detail is enough to get any design enthusiast’s heart pumping. Its romance, its culture and its design all in the same beautiful place.”
With his inspiration coming from the French capital, it’s logical that Tony would look to one of France’s most renowned designers—Philippe Starck—to further his passion for all things avant-garde. From chandeliers to ghost chairs, Tony was drawn to the symmetry found in Starck’s work and used it as motivation to create something beautiful on his own. After playing around with different profiles and finishes, Tony approached an Italian supplier with his concept for the Lavo collection.
On to Italy “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Tony says. “We prototyped it in Italy and I asked the guy to take this traditional profile and spray it with black lacquer. He looked at me like I just grew a second head. The results didn’t amaze as he started spraying it but as the lacquer dried and cured, we knew we had something special in our hands.”
Lavo is of course, one of Roma Moulding’s most successful collections, but it didn’t immediately win everyone over, even if it did turn heads.
“We got back to Toronto and my father wanted me to show the Lavo mouldings to our partner specialists. They thought we were nuts and that it would never sell.”
However, Tony pushed on and released the collection on the belief that the market was yearning for something different. He was right, as half a decade later Roma still releases new editions to the Lavo collection. In Tony’s words, the next Lavo release “is really going to knock people’s socks off.”
Clearly, Tony’s renegade leadership style can be traced back to doing things differently. With the confidence that his ideas could change the industry, he pushed for more authority within the company and big changes continued to take place.
A Sudden Realization After working for Roma Moulding for over a decade, Tony began to burn out. With the world in the grips of an economy-ruining recession, Roma had started to grow into a sterile, numbers-focused company that cared more about its next sale than it did anything else. Tony felt like a dark cloud followed wherever he went. Team members would rather duck behind a corner than talk to him or a senior leader.
“Three years ago I began to check out,” Tony says. “When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like who I had become. I didn’t think my life would turn out this way. I wanted out.”
Now ready to walk away from the only business he knew, his family’s legacy, Tony called a meeting. With a lump in his throat, Tony approached John with a concept so extreme, so outside the box, many wouldn’t believe the words coming from his mouth: “I want to blur the lines between work and play. I want Roma to be a company that puts a premium on happiness.” Happiness? The man who was being groomed to run one of the biggest players in the custom frame industry wanted to be happy?
As you might imagine, over the next year Tony got a lot of flack. “Happiness is opening a new account with a large partner and big sale,” was a common refrain he’d hear. “If you want to be happy, go make something beautiful and sell it.” However, with his family’s support, the man who pushed Lavo onto the market refused to back down.
“I wanted to create a playground where the most talented people would enthusiastically come and produce the best work they ever have,” says Tony.
He implemented a progressive culture strategy that focuses on people, happiness and inspiration. Once again, his unorthodox idea worked. Today, Roma’s staff retention is very high, the errors produced by team members are at an all-time low and, most importantly, his team members are happy to be there.
“Now it’s about spreading that happiness to all of our partners,” says Tony. “We want to be a highlight of your day.”
While he admits that “there are still tweaks, ways we can get better and ways we can make more people happier,” Tony sees the company’s next frontier as spreading happiness to everyone they connect with.
The Next Chapter Does a company really need to care about how they make a customer feel? Why not focus on building something faster and cheaper than your competitors?
“Cheap is cheap. You can’t go cheaper than the cheapest. Same thing with speed. At some point, fast is as fast as it can be,” Tony says. “Beyond that, for us it’s about creating an emotional connection that makes our partners feel as great as we do every day.”
A conversation with the Gareri men will leave you inspired. Their ability to balance traditional profiles with modern finishes, to boldly go where others are afraid to and to wear their hearts on their sleeves is what really sets them apart.