He had de­signs on a new ca­reer

Los Angeles Times - - WORK LIFE - By Ron­ald D. White ron­ald.white@latimes.com Twit­ter: RonWLATimes

The gig: Michael Amini, 58, was an un­happy elec­tri­cal engi­neer who went from de­sign­ing cir­cuits to de­sign­ing fur­ni­ture. His Pico Rivera com­pany, Amini In­no­va­tion Corp., also known as Aico, sells prod­ucts through more than 3,000 re­tail­ers in more than 80 coun­tries in North Amer­ica, Europe, the Mid­dle East and Asia. The firm em­ploys about 200 peo­ple. The brand: Amini said he en­vi­sions his tra­di­tion­al­style fur­ni­ture as a lifestyle brand “that some­one doesn’t just sit on. It’s fur­ni­ture you want to show off to your friends.” Lately, the Amini brand has in­cluded rugs and wall art. A din­ing room set av­er­ages $5,000 to $9,000 but can run as high as $20,000. A re­luc­tant engi­neer: Amini’s fa­ther, John, ran a suc­cess­ful busi­ness in Tehran that made kid­ney dial­y­sis ma­chines. By mu­tual agree­ment, they de­cided Amini should get an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree from Cal State Long Beach and per­haps some­day work for his fa­ther’s com­pany. But 14 months into his first job de­sign­ing cir­cuits at a Brea com­pany, “I was so bored. I needed to use my tal­ent in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way,” Amini said. “I thought I’d bet­ter de­sign things that peo­ple can see and ap­pre­ci­ate.” De­sign­ing a fu­ture: “I tried the fash­ion in­dus­try, de­sign­ing ap­parel, leather jack­ets and shoes. That didn’t go any­where. I tried the auto in­dus­try and that didn’t go very well.” In 1988, Amini be­gan selling fur­ni­ture for a now-de­funct Los An­ge­les com­pany. “As much as I didn’t like it at the time, I did it to earn a liv­ing,” Amini said. “I was not only an ag­gres­sive sales­man. I de­signed a cou­ple of bed­room sets for them that be­came their best­sellers.” Rejection as mo­ti­va­tor: Amini fig­ured his work had earned him the right to at­tend one of the big­gest fur­ni­ture shows at the time, in Tai­wan, where he could learn more about what de­signs would be best­sellers. The com­pany told him that he couldn’t go. When Amini went on the trip any­way, he was fired. “I’m re­ally ap­pre­cia­tive for that,” Amini said, “be­cause that led me to start my own com­pany.”

One-man show: Amini reg­is­tered the name Aico in Novem­ber 1988. He sold fur­ni­ture for man­u­fac­tur­ers but his real in­ter­est was his own line, which he started with $7,000 and a small ware­house where he would re­pair and im­prove dam­aged or used items and re­sell them un­der the Aico name.

Within a few months, he had im­ported his first full cargo con­tainer filled with fur­ni­ture he had de­signed, us­ing his con­tacts with a man­u­fac­turer in Tai­wan. Cus­tomers were con­fused. “They would ask, ‘Who are you? You’re the sales­man? You’re the de­liv­ery driver? You’re the builder?’ ” In fact, he was all three. That mix­ture of tenac­ity and cre­ativ­ity drove his suc­cess, he said.

Dis­cern­ing eye: Amini thinks that he, like cer­tain pho­tog­ra­phers and artists, has an abil­ity to see things dif­fer­ently and to use what he sees as the ba­sis for new de­signs for his or­nate fur­ni­ture. “I am one of the few men I know who loves shop­ping as much as my wife does,” Amini joked. Dur­ing a re­cent va­ca­tion in Mu­nich, Ger­many, for ex­am­ple, he took time to visit decades­old jew­elry shops whose prod­ucts are largely un­known in­ter­na­tion­ally. “I saw a cer­tain curve on a piece of jew­elry and thought, ‘I could de­sign a whole room off of that, for the top of a china buf­fet, or to make a ta­ble leg.’ ” Hands-on leader: Amini said he still de­signs all of the fur­ni­ture, know­ing how it will look be­fore it’s even ren­dered in a draw­ing or on a com­puter. For his man­age­ment team, Amini said he is care­ful “to find like­minded peo­ple who feel as pas­sion­ate about the work” as he does. Fa­ther’s ad­vice: “Spend your com­pany’s money like it is your own,” Amini re­called his fa­ther say­ing, “mean­ing do not waste it.” His fa­ther also warned him to stay out of debt. Amini lis­tened. “We try to never take out loans. Ev­ery­thing we make in prof­its, we try to pour back into the com­pany.” Not flat­tered: Over the years, Amini’s com­pany has been ag­gres­sive in fil­ing law­suits against com­peti­tors that he con­tends have im­i­tated its de­sign patents, copy­rights and trade­marks. “We feel com­pelled to pro­tect our rights un­der the law,” Amini said, adding that it was vi­tally im­por­tant to safe­guard his com­pany’s cre­ative as­sets. “In­fring­ing on our in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, copy­rights and de­sign patents is a se­ri­ous le­gal vi­o­la­tion that we will al­ways vig­or­ously de­fend.” Giv­ing back: Amini is pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Home Fur­nish­ings Hall of Fame Foun­da­tion, which each year hon­ors peo­ple who have con­trib­uted to the U.S. fur­ni­ture in­dus­try’s growth. In 2009, City of Hope named its new trans­fu­sion medicine cen­ter af­ter Amini in recog­ni­tion of his $6-mil­lion con­tri­bu­tion to the $20mil­lion build­ing ef­fort. Per­sonal: Amini said he has lit­tle leisure time. “I still work 20 hours a day and feel like I need to work 24 more.” When he can break away, Amini and his wife of 18 years, Lily, travel with teenage sons Kian and Iman. A re­cent va­ca­tion took the fam­ily to Dubai, and a sa­fari in South Africa is next. As usual, Amini said, he will be keep­ing an eye out for things he might use to de­sign new fur­ni­ture.

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

MICHAEL AMINI’S fur­ni­ture com­pany, Amini In­no­va­tion, sells prod­ucts through more than 3,000 re­tail­ers in more than 80 coun­tries.

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