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A Lifetime of Lessons

Curio and Frank Nataloni

Curio and Frank Nataloni

One great thing about opening a business, Curio Nataloni said, is that no one can lay you off.

Oh, sometimes businesses fail, but entrepreneurship means everything is in the owner’s hands, which can be scary, but has mostly been rewarding — for more than 50 years.

After returning from service in Vietnam in the early 1970s, “I was working on construction, and I kept getting laid off,” Nataloni told BusinessWest just a few days after his company, Kitchens by Curio, celebrated a half-century in business. So he took a cabinetry job for a homeowner in Longmeadow, and after some solid word of mouth in the neighborhood — resulting in other kitchen projects — even after his former employer summoned him back, he decided he’d rather venture out on his own.

“I did most of the bathrooms and kitchens that have ever been remodeled on that street; it was all referrals,” he said. “Did I make a lot of money? No. But I never got laid off again. That’s the bottom line. And that’s what my goal was.”

From there, he opened a showroom in Ludlow, which was open from 1 to 9 p.m. each day. “The next morning, if I sold anything, I would go out and install it — vanities and stuff like that. And that’s how I got started. Then I got another helper, and I kept on being consistent.”

Consistent enough to weather an economic downturn in the mid-’70s that saw 14 businesses in the kitchen sector shut their doors in a single year.

“I did the best I could,” Nataloni said. “I didn’t waste any money. A lot of people that would get some money, they’d go buy a new car. I didn’t buy a new car; I just reinvested in the business. Because that’s what it’s all about. Having a business is just like having a fire. You always have to put another log on.”

After 10 years in business, in 1984, Nataloni moved to his current location on Boston Road in Springfield. Around the same time, his brother, Frank Nataloni, who had worked with Curio part-time during summers, came on board full-time, and the two of them have steered Kitchens by Curio to consistent sales and growth for the next four decades, joined in recent years by Curio’s son, Michael Nataloni, who intends to continue to lead and grow the company whenever his father and uncle decide to take a step back.

Early on, Frank said, “cabinets were our core product. Prior to the big boxes, we would do a fair amount of retail sales, but most of it was install sales and renovation; that was the core part of the business and still is. Then, as the big boxes became more prevalent, our contractor business sort of started to disappear, so we just focused on doing our renovation work.”

Frank became one of the few designers in the area who is not only a certified kitchen designer (CKD), but also a certified bath designer (CBD). He also taught interior design classes at Bay Path University (then Bay Path College). Among the duo’s accolades, they are five-time national award winners in the CKD competition, two-time CKD award winners (Maytag and Wilson Art), and recipients of House Beautiful’s Kitchen of the Year honor.

Kitchens by Curio

Kitchens by Curio moved from Ludlow to its home on Boston Road in Springfield about 40 years ago.

“My grandmother taught me a lot of good practices that I still use to this day,” Curio said. “Our concept is very simple: it’s better to make a little bit every day than make a killing once every three months. That means you’ve got to be fair to the customer on price, and you’ve always got to deliver quality.”

Fifty years of success suggests that philosophy has been a sound one.


All in the Family

Like his uncle, Michael Nataloni worked on and off at the family business during his youth, and decided to make a permanent switch after working in college athletics for a decade and deciding that wasn’t for him.

“It wasn’t as fun as it had been,” he told BusinessWest. “So I was looking around at different things. I’ve always been kind of hands-on, and I’ve been doing stuff like this my whole life, so it was a good fit. I came back and I said, ‘wow, this is a great time. I’m going to get out of college athletics at the end of the year, and I’m going to get into this at the beginning of the year.’”

That year was 2020, and as soon as he arrived at Kitchens by Curio full-time, the world shut down.

But it didn’t stay closed in the home-improvement business, which took off in a big way once people started spending more time at home for work, school, and, well, everything.

“The timing was good,” Frank said. “Our business grew quite a bit after the pandemic. And there was no new construction, but there was a lot of renovation. And that always has been our strong suit, so it really played into our strengths.”

As for Michael, “he really doing every facet of the business. Right now, when we get to the end of a project, he’s like our ace reliever; he comes in and finishes any fine details. And he’s great with clients. I mean, we’re trying to find someone who doesn’t like him,” Frank continued. “He has a good attitude, and he wants to do a good job. And he’s always coming up to me saying, ‘well, what about if we do this?’ He’s trying to figure out different ways to do the work.”

Michael agreed that he takes a forward-thinking approach to his burgeoning career.

“Our concept is very simple: it’s better to make a little bit every day than make a killing once every three months. That means you’ve got to be fair to the customer on price, and you’ve always got to deliver quality.”

“One phrase that I’ve never liked is when anybody tells me, ‘well, this is the way we do it; this is the way it’s always been done.’ Well, that’s fantastic. But the world has changed. We’re not still flipping through magazines; we’re on the internet. And you have to follow that progression.”

The business uses a website called Houzz to help identify what customers are looking for, and even customers who walk in for the first time tend to have done plenty of their own online research — or watched a lot of HGTV — so they arrive with more specific ideas than customers in decades past.

Michael Nataloni

Michael Nataloni brings new perspectives and an openness to change to his developing second-generation leadership role.

Meanwhile, the brothers secured a contract to be the only kitchen and bath designer in New England with access to ProKitchen Oculus VR software, with the ability to change cabinet door styles and finishes, flooring, countertops, wall colors, and more in virtual-reality glasses.

“We can put people in the Oculus glasses, and they can walk through their kitchen,” Frank said. “It’s amazing. So we’ve invested in technology.”

Michael appreciates such developments. “You’ve got to be ahead of things. You can’t always be focused on the rearview mirror. So I try to envision down the road and ask, ‘OK, how can we move stuff around, display new things, include certain things that can move us forward and help with sales?’”


Change and Consistency

But Michael emphasizes more than forward thinking; he was also quick to acknowledge that trust is a key element in a successful home-improvement business.

“That’s one thing that I always stress with customers, even at the first meeting. I say, ‘this is a relationship. If you don’t trust me, the job’s never going to work.’”

Once that relationship is built, he added, most customers have no problem going out and leaving the crew at the house.

“Once you reach that point, you know it’s going to be a good fit and everyone’s going to be happy, and that’s the name of the game,” Michael went on. “If you do a good job for a customer, that customer’s going to tell 10 people. If you do a bad job, that customer is going to tell everybody.”

Curio also stressed that trust element. “The only thing we can do is give people a plan, a contract, and a sample of what the kitchen’s going to look like. So in reality, it comes back to people trusting you, and when they place that trust in you, you can’t shortchange them. So regardless of what we do, whether we make money or we lose money, the job has to be done right, period. That’s it.”

Clearly, these are values that have remained consistent over 50 years, even as styles have shifted dramatically in flooring materials, cabinet and appliance colors, and dozens of other elements.

“A lot has changed over the years,” Frank said. “When my brother founded the company in ’74, he was building cabinets in our parents’ basement part-time. The technology has significantly evolved, particularly with appliances. Styles have changed dozens of times over the years, and some of them are starting to come back again. But the two things that never changed were our dedication to quality and customer service.”


A Class Act

Janis Santos

Janis Santos has spent nearly a half-century as an administrator, but she never lost her enthusiasm for being in the classroom and reading to children.

During the early, and darkest, days of the pandemic, Janis Santos recalls, she considered it vitally important to remain positive and find ways to permit her positive attitude to trickle down to every employee and every facet of the Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start operation.

And so, in her daily communications with staff, she would include quotes designed to inspire and uplift others at a time of unprecedented challenge. She borrowed quotes from many, but leaned heavily on Fred Rogers (better known to most as Mister Rogers) — whom she described as a hero for the way he forcefully drove home the message about how very young children learn through play — and also the poet Maya Angelou.

From the latter, there was one passage she remembers using more than a few times: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

But as powerful and effectual as those words were, it was probably some from Santos herself that helped propel her staff through those tumultuous times. 

When asked to recall and paraphrase, she said, “everyone needed to hear that we’ve been through things before, maybe not as bad as this … but we do this for children. Why are we here? What is our purpose? We’re committed and dedicated to America’s most vulnerable children. We have a big challenge to face — we need to keep the children safe and their families safe — so let’s do it together.”

Those comments are quite poignant because they sum up not only what Santos was saying at the height of the pandemic, but what she’s been saying — and doing — during a remarkable, nearly half-century-long career in Head Start that will come to a close — officially, but not in reality — on Dec. 31.

Indeed, from the time she opened a Head Start facility in the basement of the Boys & Girls Club in Ludlow in 1973, she has been dedicated to the country’s, and this region’s, most vulnerable children. But just as important, she’s been dedicated to those who work with and on behalf of those children, working tirelessly to stress the importance of early-childhood education and lobby for appropriate wages for those at the front of the classrooms.

“I will stay connected to Head Start; I’ve devoted my life to advocating for America’s most vulnerable children, and I will continue to do that.”

And, in what could only be considered irony, the pandemic that tested her mettle as no other challenge during her long career has helped reinforce that message and bring it home in ways that seem destined to bring real change to the landscape.

“During COVID, when there was a lack of childcare and no place for parents to leave their children when they went to work, it became a point of focus,” she explained. “The public finally saw that this is important; they saw how important these facilities are to parents, employers, and the economy.”

But while COVID-19 enlightened many on this topic, it also brought attention to another aspect of this profession that has been a career-long priority for Santos — the need to raise the salary levels for preschool educators.

Indeed, at a time when employers in every sector of the economy are struggling to retain workers being tempted by higher wages and better benefits elsewhere, the problem is especially acute in early-childhood education.

“This year, I’ve lost 15 Head Start teachers to public schools,” she noted, adding that, while it has always been a challenge to recruit people to this profession and retain them, at this critical juncture, it is even more so.

As noted, Santos will be retiring at the end of the year, but not leaving the scene when it comes to advocating for early-childhood education and those who provide it.

“I will stay connected to Head Start; I’ve devoted my life to advocating for America’s most vulnerable children, and I will continue to do that,” she said, adding that, while continuing those lobbying efforts, she plans to write a history of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start.

It’s a rich history, obviously, and Santos, named a Woman of Impact by BusinessWest in 2018, had a hand in most of it. For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Santos about her career, the changes that have come to early-childhood education, and the changes she believes still need to come.


School of Thought

By now, most people in the region know at least some of what we’ll call the Janis Santos story. Most versions begin when she was a mother of three enrolled in night classes at Holyoke Community College, with the dream of being a preschool teacher.

It was there, and then, that a young man in her class who was from Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start encouraged her to start a facility in Ludlow. She did, eventually opening the Parkside Learning Center in that aforementioned basement of the Boys & Girls Club, in 1973. But as she would eventually learn, nothing about getting that facility off the ground — from securing the space to securing the funding — was going to be easy.

Janis Santos, seen here with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy

Janis Santos, seen here with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, has spent a lifetime preaching the importance of early-childhood education.

She recalls that Head Start was struggling financially as an organization and was not able to actually pay her a salary.

“They offered me $18 a week in Commonwealth Corp. money, and I took it,” she recalled. “I had no benefits, no nothing, and I took that for about three years until my site started to generate some income.”

But what she also learned, rather quickly and much to her dismay, was that there wasn’t much respect within the community, and within the broad realm of education, for what she was doing with her life and her career.

“The perception was that we were babysitters out there, and I felt that people just don’t understand that these are critical learning years for children,” she said. “And the other piece is that children in that age group learn through play; some of my friends would visit and say, ‘why don’t you become a real teacher and go teach kindergarten?’”

Instead of listening to that advice, she spent a lifetime convincing others that she was a real teacher and that early education was vital to young people, their families, and society in general.

“The perception was that we were babysitters out there, and I felt that people just don’t understand that these are critical learning years for children, Some of my friends would visit and say, ‘why don’t you become a real teacher and go teach kindergarten?’”

“I was determined to change those perceptions,” she said. “I wanted people, and educators, and the community to know the importance of those years.”

She would become the director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start in 1979 and also go on to serve on the National Head Start Board of Directors for 14 years, which gave her the opportunity to not only advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable children, but make the case for early-childhood education.

Over the years, she would meet three American presidents and lobby countless elected officials on the importance of pre-K and the need to improve the wages of those in that profession. She has pictures of herself with then-U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, several governors, and many other elected leaders.

But as important as her time with those elected leaders has been — and it has been vitally important to moving the needle on early-childhood education — Santos said the most valuable time she spent was with children in the classroom and with teachers and other staff members as a mentor.

She has taken on that role with countless individuals over the years, including the woman chosen in a national search to be her successor at HCS Head Start, Nicole Blais.

To say these two go way back is an understatement. Indeed, Santos was Blais’s preschool teacher in Ludlow in the ’70s.

Santos said she has been working with Blais during the transition, and has some pointed advice for her based on nearly 45 years of being in that job — and also advice provided by those who mentored her.

“One of them told me, ‘you have to take a bold, respectful approach,’ and I’ve never forgotten that,” she told BusinessWest.

She has some other advice for as well — to follow her lead when it comes to taking risks, something one needs to do to succeed as a leader.

“I’m a risk taker,” she told BusinessWest, referring to everything from that first gambit in Ludlow, the one that paid her $18 a week, to her partnership with MGM Springfield on a new facility in Springfield, to her involvement in the new Educare program that opened in 2019. “You can’t sit back; you have to go out there and take risks, and that’s what I tell those that I mentor. I tell them, ‘if you don’t take risks, you will not succeed.’”


Learning Experiences

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children, play is serious learning.”

That’s one of those quotes from Mister Rogers that Santos used to help encourage and inspire staff during the darkest times of the pandemic.

It’s more than that, though. It’s one of the pillars on which early-childhood education is built and one of the critical points Santos has spent a career trying to drive home to a wide range of constituencies.

With a little help from COVID, there is a now a better understanding of the importance of early-childhood education and perhaps better odds for universal pre-K to become policy in this country.

In the meantime, most have stopped referring to early-childhood educators as babysitters. And at a time when Santos is being honored by a number of groups for her many accomplishments, that is probably the biggest.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]