In 1962 Arto Alajian arrived in the U.S., having fled Egypt and his shoe-manufacturing business. He became a milkman in Los Angeles, and then a ceramic tile installer, and then, in 1966, a tile maker.

Fast forward to 2024, and ARTO, the company, is a global supplier of handcrafted ceramic, porcelain, and concrete products. Armen Alajian, the founder’s son, now co-owns the business.

He and I recently spoke, addressing the challenges and rewards of generational, family-owned companies. The audio of our entire conversation is below. The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: What do you do?

Armen Alajian: I’m the co-owner of a company called ARTO. We make rustic and elegant handmade ceramic and concrete tiles. We manufacture in California and sell online and in showrooms in Los Angeles, nationwide, and globally.

My dad, Arto Alajian, started the business. He and my mom had a factory in Egypt. They made leather shoes there, but the government took their business. So in 1962 they came to the U.S. My dad was a milkman in the morning and went to school at night to be an airplane mechanic.

He eventually met a woman who made ceramics. She did mission restoration work. On his milk route, my dad would take her ceramic bricks to restaurants and moms in El Segundo and Santa Monica and return on weekends to install them. That’s how he started, in 1966. His first product was a clay brick.

My brother Varoujan and I started installing at a young age. My parents divorced when I was 10, and I was estranged from my father. He fired me five times, and I quit five times. We argued about the business.

Later on, we made peace, and we grew. My dad called me and said, let’s figure it out. And we did. He respected me, and I respected him. Before he passed, we were partners and friends.

My brother is an owner. I’m learning how to be a CEO. I’ve always been a partner. My brother is a full-on partner and owner, and we discuss strategy.

He has one kid. I have eight. We’re thinking about the next generation. Being in charge of your destiny is the trick, controlling your income and liberty. He wants that for his kid; I want it for my kids.

We can only offer our children an opportunity. We can’t force them. Generational businesses are nothing more than being a family.

Bandholz: Are your kids interested in the business?

Alajian: Yes. I let my kids work in the business when they were younger. I’m a salesman. When we traveled the country in a van and saw customers, we homeschooled. The kids would walk in, shake the person’s hand, and say, “Hello, my name is Adam,” or, “My name is Sarah.” So, they’ve all been around business. They love business. But I forced them all to leave and work for other people, too.

They have since returned. They all want a role in the company. I insist they come in early and leave late — the old-fashioned style of working. And then find your place. I want the kids, at the end of the day, to be owners. They don’t have to be operators.

Bandholz: I intend to give my kids ownership if the business interests them.

Alajian: A business becomes generational when operators are separated from owners. My kids who become operators will be treated like executives and compensated well if they perform. But owners have a separate mentality, whether working the business or not. That’s the way to extend it to the third or fourth generation.

But the key is to give kids the option to be operators, owners, or both. Don’t force one or the other.

My goal used to be achieving generational wealth. But no more. My wealth isn’t money. True wealth is that my kids’ kids know and love each other. Money is a tool to help you keep a family together. Wealth isn’t actual cash. It is experience and the ability to survive the next generation because liberty comes from having capital in your pocket.

Bandholz: Where can folks buy your tiles and bricks?

Alajian: In 300 stores around the U.S. or at Our Instagram is @artobrick. I’m on LinkedIn.

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