Caposselas’ Exquisite Surfaces, Bridgeport, Conn.

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   BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Jim and Lois Capossela know the secret to a successful business.    Their story goes back more than 20 years, to a point when Jim Capossela’s then-fiancée suggested he might do well in the tile business.
   It’s not that Lois Capossela pulled something from her hat. Not only was she working for a tile company at the time, but she felt his skills and personality would be a good match for the trade.
   She was right, although it took plenty of years of side-by-side work just to get the couple launched on the first of what’s become two successful businesses. After 10 years of doing business as Capossela Tile Co., the couple saw how much kitchen and bathroom slab work they were subbing out and added Caposselas’ Exquisite Surfaces.
   Today, they may still be in their first real shop, but the company has developed a reputation for doing not only luxurious work, but also giving clients a superb experience.
   
 TRUE PARTNERS
   What’s helped the Caposselas celebrate their success is probably the way the two of them work together – although Lois Capossela has long since quit going out on installations.
   Things weren’t always rosy, though. Their story began at a time when Jim Capossela was looking for a new direction in life. He grew up working for his dad in an automotive business. Then, unexpectedly, the senior Capossela died.
   “This was a family business, but my father ran the whole thing,” his son explains. “Two years into a new venture, he passed away and left me running the show. Business was already starting to go down, to the point where we couldn’t put any more money into it.”
   Ultimately, Capossela sold the business, but as the situation moved toward that conclusion, he found himself at loose ends.
   Lois Capossela had had her own career change earlier. After starting her working life in retail, she took a job with an art company, working her way up to being a vice president and developing a knowledge and understanding of design.
   “It gave me a good background, but I reached a point in my life where I needed to cut back on what I was doing,” she explains. “I had started to get burned out, so I went to work for a tile company.”
   As manager of the showroom, she did some design work, and consulted with many of the tile installers in developing ideas. Along the way, she also learned to install tile.
   “I met Jim while I was working there, and he was really at a loss as to what to do,” she says. “I said, ‘I know some people who would be willing to take you out with them and teach you what to do. Then, we can get together and start a business.’”
   As time went on, Lois Capossela started getting them jobs. And, if the tile didn’t go in correctly the first time, they’d tear it out and start again.
   “I’m the type of person who feels if you aren’t going to do it right, why bother to do it at all?” she says. “If I wouldn’t feel comfortable with this in my home, I wouldn’t ask anybody else to feel comfortable with it in their home.”
   The first years of the business the pair operated out of their garage, and Lois Capossela kept working for the tile company. The couple married about the same time she took the big step of quitting her job; she began driving around to jobsites, working the base of people she’d developed there, keeping the projects coming through the door.
   “We did all the business we could possibly get, and after three to five years, Jim became the best tile layer in the business,” Lois Capossela says. “I believe the way he came up led him to be as great as he is, but it was a lot of hard work on both our parts.”
   Another big step up for the company came when what started as Capossela Tile Co. moved out of the garage and into the 6,000 ft² space in a mixed-use area of Bridgeport that it still occupies.
   The company took on its present look almost 10 years ago, when the couple decided to add a slab operation.
   “We were getting jobs like sills and small vanities and I had to find people to do those for us,” Jim Capossela explains. “Another tile guy I worked with said that we ought to see about getting into the slab business. He did some research, and then Lois and I looked into it and decided to do it.
   “We were going to partner with the other guy, but it didn’t work out that way, and we ended up doing it ourselves.”
   
 MIXED MARKETS
   Lois Capossela says part of the decision to add the slabs came simply because the couple wasn’t happy with the quality of the countertops that were being made for them by other fabricators.
   “It’s not easy to install something that’s been made by someone else, and we didn’t like the quality of the finished work,” she says. “A lot of what was being done was new at the time, and a lot of the edges weren’t totally finished underneath.”
   Although the business has matured since the early days of working side-by-side on installations, Lois Capossela says she’s never lost her concern for quality, or her eye for design.
   “I can look at a room or a job and be able to know exactly how it’s supposed to be; it comes very easily to me,” she says. “Jim has the know-how, and that’s what has made our business so tremendous: the way we work together.”
   The name Caposselas’ Exquisite Surfaces is one of Lois Capossela’s contributions to the effort.
   “We wanted a more-upscale name,” her husband says, adding that the slab operation is technically a subsidiary of what’s become Capossela Tile & Design LLC.
   “The first rule of thumb here is we want everything to be perfect,” says Lois Capossela, who today focuses on marketing and design for the company. “That’s why we call it Exquisite Surfaces.”
   However, the tile side of the business – both ceramic and natural stone – and the slab operation have steadily evolved over the years. For one thing, Jim Capossela says now probably 80 percent of his business is in slabs, although the company’s ability to do both types of work makes them quite popular with contractors.
   “They like the idea of being able to get all their tile work and their slab work from one company,” he says. “It’s a real advantage to them, and that’s why we like doing it.”
   The days of doing smaller tile jobs are pretty much past, Capossela adds. When he works with contractors it might be for a job involving the renovation of the kitchen and several bathrooms in a large remodel.
   “We’re really at a point where we – if we’re doing a countertop – don’t want people to ask if we can do a backsplash in tile for them,” Capossela elaborates. “We’re geared more toward doing the home with seven bathrooms, where they’re all being remodeled and we do all the work.”
   Those smaller jobs for homeowners have changed in another way, too.
   “Our customer base right now is more of the wholesale type,” he says. “We work with builders, remodelers, kitchen-and-bath centers and architects. Probably about 75 percent of what we do is that, with another 20 percent of our sales direct to homeowners. The other five percent is light commercial work.”
   Jim Capossela admits the company is actively working right now to change that business mix. Caposselas’ has recently beefed up its advertising and direct mailings to try to get back to those direct homeowner/customers who were the original backbone of the firm.
   “I’d like to do more of that because it’s more profitable,” he says. “We can charge more for our services than we can going through the wholesale trade. Obviously, we spend more time in the showroom with them, but the extra profit more than makes up for that.”
   Although he doesn’t admit it, one of the things that may be hinder Caposselas’ appeal to individual homeowners is its location. Lois Capossela redesigned the building’s interior when the couple bought the property, but Jim Capossela describe the company’s location as “a little tight,” with space that isn’t really ideal for either the showroom or the shop.
   “We have approximately 1,000 ft² of showroom and office, and the other 5,000 ft² is the shop,” he explains. “Probably our biggest drawback is that we don’t have a yard.”
   While that’s mitigated by four wholesale stone suppliers within 20 minutes of the shop, it doesn’t help that the location isn’t in a high-traffic area or that there’s no room to expand.
   To give the company a higher profile with homeowners the Caposselas are planning to add a satellite showroom this year about 40 miles east of Bridgeport.
   “We try to keep our business within a 40- or 50-mile radius of the shop, so we’re already traveling out that way, and it wouldn’t be a problem time-wise,” says Jim Capossela. “There are wholesalers out in that area, so people who want to choose a slab don’t have a long drive, and while it seems like a lot of people are moving that way, it’s not very populated with slab shops. We see the potential for a lot of good business out that way.”
   Ultimately, Jim Capossela says the couple would like to open a second satellite showroom in a higher traffic area locally, and then move the shop into a more-industrial location.
   “We’d love to have a 10,000-15,000 ft² building that could accommodate anything we wanted to do,” he says. “There are plenty of those buildings around; it’s just a matter of financing and time.”
   
 GOOD FEELINGS
   Given the current market, a lot of shops have more time than financing available to them, and Jim Capossela is honest that things haven’t been all they could be in recent months.
   “Our business was down a little in 2008,” he says. “The slab business was up three percent, but we were down because the volume of tile was lower. Still, that three percent is encouraging. It shows the quality of our hard work; we’re getting jobs and taking care of people.”
   Given that the company is committed to providing exceptional service and superior craftsmanship on each job – which the Caposselas believe should be a work of art – it’s probably not surprising.
   However, it isn’t always easy. Jim Capossela says finding the right people to make up the company’s current staff of eight employees who run the selection of Park Industries equipment the shop uses for production is always a challenge.
   “We’ve approached it in different ways,” he explains. “We’ve hired some people with no experience and trained them. We’ve hired some with previous experience and we found it wasn’t what we wanted.
   “The last few people we’ve hired have had experience, and then we’ve worked with them to get things done the way we want.”
   His overall goal, he adds, is that regardless of where a customer comes from, he or she has a good experience. It’s a process that feeds itself, Capossela believes.
   “Since our retail customers come to us mostly on a referral basis, they come to us with a good feeling,” he says. “Once they’re here and we show them what we can do, we make an effort to be very easy to work with. That puts them more at ease. And, as we move through the process, we want them to come away with a good feeling about us.”
   The same attitude pays off with the company’s wholesale customers, as well.
   “They see we’ll stand behind them and not leave them in the lurch if something goes wrong,” Jim Capossela says. “They appreciate that, we get on their good side, and they make us their number-one call because of that. In cases where there are issues, we’ll say, ‘We’ll take care of that.’
   “Not only are they happy then, but the next thing you know, we’re getting all kinds of other work from them.”
   There are other areas where the Caposselas try to be above-average. Calls are almost always fielded by a person, rather than going to voice mail, and it’s company policy to return messages the same day.
   Some of it is simply an emphasis on cleanliness, a lesson Jim Capossela says he took away from his father years ago.
   “When you come into our showroom and our shop, we’re very clean,” he says. “Our trucks are all painted the same, and everyone wears the same uniform. We try to show a very professional look and attitude. It makes a big difference.”
   Capossela knows things can improve, though. Along with opening that satellite showroom, one of his goals this year is to improve communications within the shop.
   “It’s things like the customer saying, ‘Well, I thought you were going to do this,’ or we get ready to go out on an install and we don’t have the right sink,” he says. “We can have fewer errors in the shop, and that will make us look even better in the customers’ eyes.”
   For a business owner in a market that’s felt fallout from the collapse of some key Wall Street players, he remains optimistic.
   “Maybe growth this year will just be neutral, but I think overall people want us and our products,” Capossela says. “Granite is more accessible to people – about the only thing cheaper is Formica®, and nobody wants that – so we’re pretty competitive. And, that’s not just us, but granite as an industry. That’s going to be working in everybody’s favor.”
   After 20 years in the tile industry, and ten with Caposselas’ Exquisite Surfaces, Jim Capossela certainly isn’t planning on making another career change.
   “When the upturn comes, we’ll be here, absolutely,” he concludes. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. We have a good reputation for doing quality work, and I’m proud of that.”
   
   This article first appeared in the February 2009 print edition of Stone Business. ©2009 Western Business Media Inc.