A Lifetime of Lessons
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.
“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.
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.”