By Hillary Rose
Jamil and Elie Nassif are slick, stylish and right at home amid the hip décor of the 8,000-square-foot showroom of Zuffa Home, the furniture company they founded.
Jamil (BSocSc ’13), a uOttawa graduate with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a minor in business administration, and Elie, a fourth-year economics student, built their business while still in school. But this is hardly surprising, considering that their parents are both successful entrepreneurs in the Ottawa and Gatineau areas.
“Entrepreneurship is in our blood,” admits Jamil. “We have been exposed to it our entire lives.”
Before founding Zuffa Home, Jamil and Elie worked as baristas in a Second Cup owned by their father. This experience gave them a glimpse of how to run a business. Even so, the transition from barista to business owner doesn’t happen very often: timing played a large role in their decision to take the leap.
“My degree exposed me to global trade and the exporting and importing of products. At that time, my father had an empty warehouse in Gatineau, and we had family in Italy who owned a leather factory—everything just seemed to click,” says Jamil.
Although the timing was right, the decision to go into the furniture business wasn’t made on a whim. The brothers studied the demographics of who bought modern-style furniture and researched the demand for this product in the Ottawa area. In 2012, while Jamil was in his fourth year, he and Elie, with a little financial support from their father, took the plunge and started a wholesale business out of an Ottawa warehouse.
“In the beginning, we were selling Italian furniture. Through our family connections in Italy, we were able to buy directly from the manufacturer and coordinate the import of the furniture ourselves. Customers shopped for our products online and we shipped directly to them from the warehouse,” explains Jamil.
Six months later, they decided to take a trip to China to scope out that country’s many furniture manufacturers. Upon their arrival in Shanghai, they needed to take a fast bullet train to the outskirts where furniture warehouses are located. However, with no knowledge of the Mandarin language, they boarded the wrong train. A journey that should have taken one hour took five hours instead.
“It was like we were in a movie. We were stuffed in like sardines, passengers were pushing and shoving, and everyone around us was smoking. It made for an extremely uncomfortable experience. Not at all what we expected,” says Elie.
For the Nassif brothers, the trip to explore different opportunities and new products was the next step for their business.
“Seeing the warehouses was an eye-opening experience,” says Elie. “The scale of production was nothing we had ever seen before.”
Upon their return, they decided to open up a Zuffa Home showroom on Montreal Road in Ottawa to offer customers a place to browse through the modern furniture. Given that 60-to-70% of purchases are made online, the brothers have entered the growing market of online furniture retailers. And with four distribution warehouses across Canada, they are able to reach people all over North America.
However, the Nassif brothers are not stopping there.
“We plan on opening two additional stores in 2015. The first is set to open in Montreal in the spring, the other in Toronto next winter. We have also hired a sales team. We sell our products to interior designers, as well as to hotels to furnish hotel lobbies and rooms,” says Jamil. In fact, the Nassif brothers were recently contacted by a Brazilian hotel chain wishing to furnish their lobbies.
When the pair is not busy running the business from their headquarters in Ottawa, they are travelling across North America and abroad to meet with wholesalers.
“Furniture is an old-fashioned industry,” chuckles Jamil. “No one picks up the phone or sends an email; they want to meet in person. Business is done over tea or coffee, and deals are done with a handshake.”
The brothers are clearly motivated. Their passion and drive is evident in the way they speak about what they have accomplished very early in their lives.
“I am motivated by the challenge of growing our business. Zuffa is our baby, and we want it to grow properly,” says Jamil.
“Customer satisfaction is a huge motivator. There is no better feeling than when a client is ecstatic about their purchase,” adds Elie.
The Nassif brothers agree that their studies in economics have helped them greatly in building their business. They say it prepared them to make smart, educated decisions and to do the research before jumping in with both feet.
“University was great for teaching us the theory behind the actual practice, knowledge that has served us well. However, in the end, it’s not what you have, it’s how you use it that truly counts,” says Elie.
Jamil (left) and Elie Nassif give new meaning to the term “home boys”. They have big plans for their business. Photo: Hillary Rose