Owner of ARTO in generational enterprises

In 1962, Arto Alajian came to the United States after escaping Egypt and his shoe company. He became a milkman in Los Angeles, then a ceramic tile installer, then a tiler. It was 1966.

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

He and I recently spoke, discussing the challenges and benefits facing generational family businesses. Below is a recording of our entire conversation. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Eric Bandholz: What are you doing?

Armen Alajian: I am the co-owner of ARTO. We make rustic and elegant, handmade ceramic and concrete tiles. We manufacture in California and sell online and in showrooms in Los Angeles, across the country and around the world.

My dad, Arto Alajian, started the company. He and my mother had a factory in Egypt. They manufactured leather shoes there, but the government took away their business. And so in 1962 they came to the United States. My dad was a milkman in the mornings and went to school in the evenings to work as an aircraft mechanic.

Eventually he met a woman who made ceramics. She was involved in the renovation of the mission. On the way to get milk, her dad would take her ceramic bricks to restaurants and moms in El Segundo and Santa Monica, and he would come back on weekends to assemble them. This is how he started in 1966. His first product was clay brick.

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

Later we made peace and developed. My dad called me and said, let’s think about it. And we did it. He respected me and I respected him. Before he left, we were partners and friends.

My brother is the owner. I’m learning how to be a CEO. I have always been a partner. My brother is full partner and owner and we discuss strategy.

He has one child. I have eight. We’re thinking about the next generation. Being responsible for your fate is an art, controlling your income and freedom. She wants this for her child; I want this for my children.

We can only give our children a chance. We can’t force them. Generational companies are nothing more than being a family.

Bandholz: Are your children interested in business?

Alajian: Yes. I let my children work in the business when they were younger. I am a seller. While we traveled around the country in a van and met clients, we were homeschooled. Children would come in, shake the person’s hand and say, “Hello, my name is Adam” or “My name is Sarah.” So everyone was busy with business. They love business. But I made them all leave and work for other people too.

They have since returned. Everyone wants to have a role in the company. I insist that they come in early and leave late – it’s an old-fashioned way of working. And then find your place. Ultimately, I want children to be owners. They don’t have to be operators.

Bandholz: I intend to pass ownership on to my children if the business interests them.

Alajian: Business becomes generational when operators are separated from owners. My children who become operators will be treated like managers and well paid if they do their job well. But owners have a different mentality, whether they work for the company or not. This way it can be extended to the third or fourth generation.

The key, however, is to empower children to be operators, owners, or both. Don’t force either one or the other.

My goal was to achieve generational wealth. But no more. My wealth is not money. The real wealth is that my children’s children know and love each other. Money is a tool that helps keep a family together. Wealth is not real cash. It is experience and the ability to survive the next generation, because freedom comes from having capital in your pocket.

Bandholz: Where can I buy your tiles and bricks?

Alajian: In 300 stores nationwide or at Our Instagram is @artobrick. I’m on LinkedIn.