Berbere Imports Year Founded:

1980

Core Business:

Importing Middle Eastern and Asian furniture and decorative items

Revenue in 1996:

$600,000

Revenue in 2000:

$1 million

Employees in 1996:

2

Employees in 2001:

5 full time and 5 part time

Goal:

To increase business with set designers and expand to West Coast market by attending more gift shows

Driving Force:

Service to clients and an unusual product

Suad Cano's Berbere Imports, which caters to those looking for exotic touches in home furnishings, has blossomed over 20 years

During any given year, Suad Cano is rummaging through the rug markets of Turkey, the furniture factories of India or the souks of Morocco to stock her ever-expanding Los Angeles import store.

Since opening Berbere Imports in a small storefront in 1980, her collection of antique wooden doors, old Greek and Italian ceramic olive oil pots, colorful kilims, Afghani carpets, Chinese cabinets, Nepali chests and Moroccan lanterns has relocated three times. It now occupies a 30,000-square-foot warehouse that doubles as a showroom for interior designers and a store for walk-in customers.

Cano, who came to the United States from Baghdad in the late 1960s, launched Berbere Imports when her summer buying trips took on a life of their own.

"This started as a hobby," said Cano, sitting in a room stacked high with brightly colored rugs from India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan and Bulgaria. "I was a social worker for the city of Los Angeles. But during the summers I would travel and collect things. I started with Morocco, then Tunisia and the rest of Northern Africa. Then it was Afghanistan, India, Turkey and Egypt."

Off and on for two years, Cano, who speaks Arabic, stockpiled antiques and crafts while she and her husband, Gonzalo Cano, a community conciliator for the U.S. Justice Department, maintained their salaried jobs.

Their collection grew to the point that they felt they could their leave jobs and open a small store. The first incarnation, in Hollywood, grew into a 1,000-square-foot location on Beverly Boulevard closer to the Pacific Design Center and the interior design trade.

In 1985, they moved again, this time opening a 3,000-square-foot showroom on South Robertson Boulevard in an area once filled with interior design showrooms. That location will remain open through the end of the year, but business is done principally at the warehouse at 3049 S. La Cienega Blvd., which is large enough to handle the contents of the two cargo containers of goods that arrive monthly.

Chance to grow

Focusing the business on the larger La Cienega location was an opportunity born of loss. "I always wanted to expand, but my husband wouldn't let me," said Cano.

Gonzalo Cano, who grew up in a low-income household in East Los Angeles, was reluctant about borrowing money. When he died five years ago, Cano took a giant leap forward.

Selling a 5,000-square-foot warehouse they had filled floor-to-ceiling with merchandise, and another commercial property in Del Mar, she arranged for a Small Business Administration loan. In early 2000 she closed on the $1.7 million purchase of the La Cienega warehouse.

"One of the things that worked well for us in getting the SBA loan was that we kept our records in excellent shape," Cano said.

She also brought in her nephew, Zaid Al-Hakim, to handle the administrative duties.

The warehouse, which used to house baseball batting cages, is frequented by wholesalers who receive a 50 percent discount on merchandise and by interior designers who receive a 30 percent discount. Walk-in traffic pays full price on items that range from $25 to several thousand dollars.

There are 95-year-old Chinese noodle cabinets made of dark elm wood that double as entertainment cabinets and sell for $3,200. There are 7-foot-high Indian armoires made from old carved wooden doors that go for $4,400. Indian marble sinks made especially made for Berbere retail for $650 to $950. There are hundreds of antique trading vessels from Spain as well as olive jars from Morocco, Spain and Greece.

Talk of the trade

"Just the sheer quantity sets them apart," said Mark Cutler, an interior designer in West Hollywood. "They always have tons of new stuff. Almost every other week there is a new container of things to look at, and that is a big thing for us."

Uno Thimansson, the long-time operator of the Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles, has been buying kilims and other Middle Eastern items from Berbere Imports for years. "They are very service minded, which you need in this environment," said Thimansson.

Cano makes four or five quick trips a year to places such as India, Indonesia, China, Turkey, Greece, Northern Africa, and Europe. Each trip lasts 10 days to two weeks. "I get in, crash, get sick for two or three days, shop and get back," she said.

She has a list of manufacturers, buyers, antique dealers and merchants she visits that know what she needs. If she can't find what she wants, she hires a manufacturer to produce the item.

Again, a personal interest has blossomed into lucrative relationships. When she was remodeling her house near the boardwalk in Venice, she was looking for a heavy marble sink. What she found in Los Angeles cost $1,500. Too much. So on a trip to Jaipur, India, she met with a business associate who arranged for someone to make marble sinks for her to import. She retails those for $650 to $950. Also in India she is producing a line of textiles that include wall hangings and upholstery.

Despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Cano is not curtailing her buying expeditions. The only country she won't be visiting soon is Pakistan.

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