Leaner times often inspire a generous spirit, so this month P&C is giving readers a two-for-one industry profile special: Hector Romero and Christopher Obeji, Principal and Partner of Wallteriors, respectively. Through friends and over martinis, these two met eight years ago, and they soon focused attention on Wallteriors, their company that fabricates handcrafted wall treatments for commercial, hospitality, and residential applications. Though the business has technically been operating for over 24 years, it’s only been under their collaborative care that the California-based company has received the fertile soil to heartily bloom, pollinating designers’ minds at tradeshows with innovative applications and beautifully adorning a wide variety of projects all over the world with their gorgeously green product.
What interior design focused positions have each of you had and how have they each shaped you”
Hector Romero: For about 12 years I had the wonderful experience to run a large company that manufactured high-end designer home furnishings. We also had a strong interior design service, and the company also dabbled in property development projects from the ground up. My wall covering company was already established and was doing well. I was offered the position as president and worked a deal to keep my company separate. My magic is the gift to make things happen, and because I have a flair and a natural understanding for design, the offer and the compensation package seemed perfect, especially with the opportunities to get Wallteriors from being regional to national. Our company made everything: very high-end upholstery, case goods, cast stone fireplace mantles, patio furniture, as well as my Wallteriors line of wall covering. Not only did I learn about the construction of true quality furniture, interior design and the financials [of running a business], but I also learned about the value of great customer service and the importance of timely delivery. You can only make that mistake once! I also realized that strong relationships with your employees translates into a great product.
Chris Obeji: Before I met Hector and joined him at Wallteriors I had a welding studio in San Francisco where I designed and made iron lighting and other functional art. Something that was never taught to me in art school was that in order to succeed one needs to be skilled in business as well as creativity. Although for me, this is where Hector comes in really handy as I’m more creative than business minded. (What’s really annoying is that Hector does both really well!)
How do you divvy up the day-to-day tasks of keeping on top of and growing your business”
HR: I handle customer service and a lot of the more business related details. I oversee our accounting, work closely with our great team of artists (who actually paint the wall covering), and I’m also in charge of working with our representing showrooms. I come up with most of the designs of our wall covering too. It’s not odd for me to get all painted up especially when I m feeling creative.
CO: And I do our marketing, oversee the creation of our catalogs, samples and sales tools to clients, as well as organize our trade show appearances. I also created our new blog and designed our new lighting line, studiobg, which is based upon the work I used to create in San Francisco: huge iron light fixtures that are then papered (like a Japanese lantern) with Wallteriors wall covering. They really are beautiful. We are always bouncing ideas off to each other. When we got going with Wallteriors we really knew that this was going to work and, fortunately, we both can concentrate on areas in the business that we like and not step on each others toes. Also, we are both able and willing to roll up our sleeves in any area. But, when we are at home, our dog Reggie is the boss.
You were recently a part of Hospitality Design 2008 Expo & Conference in Las Vegas. How was that experience”
HR: We love our trade shows. It is such a great experience to talk with our clients in person and share our newest products with them. We spend so much time in our offices and studios – which aren’t open to the public – so it’s really fun to get the wonderful feedback. Designers get so very excited with our line. They constantly come up, hug me, and tell us how our wall covering totally brought their project to a new level. Wallteriors can really be an art installation in a project for a fraction of the cost of fine art. It is only limited to the creativity of the designer.
CO: Yeah, most people – even still some designers, amazingly – cringe at the concept of wall covering, but our products are so truly different, from the creation to the installation. There’s a million different looks you can achieve with Wallteriors. It’s not the scary daises or plaid wallpaper that most of us grew up with, though growing up in the 70’s my house was floor-to-ceiling Marimekko wallpaper. In retrospect, it was pretty hip. And a lot of today’s designers still think all white walls are so modern and tasteful. We don’t intend our products to be entire environments – just do a couple of feature walls. It looks really amazing on ceilings too.
You sell directly, through showrooms and online. Briefly explain who should use which option.
HR: We have showrooms around the country and overseas, which are open to designers, and some are even open to the general public. Our website has a map of the United States with listings to assist people interested in our products and locating nearby showrooms or designers in their area who are registered with us and work with our products. There is also an approved Wallteriors retail website where anyone may purchase our products.
In all of your years in business, what has been your most rewarding installation so far and why”
HR: I don’t know about a particular installation necessarily as we rarely find out where our products end up. However, we have had friends come back from vacations and excitedly tell us that they saw our wall covering in a hotel or restaurant they were visiting. That’s pretty neat, but the most wonderful thing I think was recently when we began to get more and more inquiries from design professionals about the sustainability and “greenness” of our products. I did a lot of research about our materials. You see, when I was starting this company 24 years ago my three kids were really young, and they were running around all over the place. I didn’t want them exposed to any toxic materials, so from the start I used water-based paints and did everything by hand so everything was safe. Anyhow, after checking into our locally made raw materials and paints we discovered that all of our materials meet or even exceed LEED standards. I never, ever gave a thought back then to “green,” but no one did. Now it’s pretty great that we can confidently assure all our clients that we are – and always have been – an eco-friendly company.
CO: Yeah, so many companies are now jumping on the bandwagon and offering a totally separate line of their products – usually at a much higher cost – that are “green,” but we’ve always been there. We are also recycling nuts too. I think that comes from us being California natives.
What have been the company’s toughest challenges as they relate to fulfillment, operations and marketing, and how is Wallteriors working to address them”
HR: Well, for the first few years we had some opportunities to take on some really big projects, and we held back. My primary concern has always been to maintain our very high quality of our products as everything is hand painted. You can’t mass-produce our wall covering. Now we are taking some big steps. We are very proud that we, an American company, are exporting our products overseas. This is truly great at a time when so much stuff (much of it very poorly made) is coming here in containers. We are concentrating now on growth, but controlled and measured growth so we can still be available to our showrooms and designers when they need us.
What’s the best advice that you could give a student emerging from school”
HR: You have to do something you really love. Then you’re not going to mind putting in all the extra hours. Also, own your own business.
CO: Our friends call us up at 8 or 9pm to say hi thinking we are at home, and we’re still at the office. Owning your own business means sometimes ignoring traditional working hours. We are really working on expanding our line and the company itself, so right now were just putting our heads down and working. Good music helps.
Now for the lighter side…
Will you be taking any vacations this summer”
HR: Refer to our above comment about long, long hours. No, seriously though, we will probably just take a couple of three-day weekends. We did take my son to Italy recently. That was so much fun to see him taking it all in. We live in a fairly small town (Palm Springs, California) so when we travel we like to go to big cities and get energized.
What’s your favorite cocktail to make for guests when entertaining”
CO: I actually love a Manhattan. I’m a pretty good bartender, so our friends have me make them my very cold martinis. I can make a great Mojito too, but more than one makes the next day way too long.
HR: Yeah, Chris makes the drinks. I have only tasted them once…
What television show do you love but have a hard time admitting you watch”
HR: I’m a closet Dancing With The Stars fan.
CO: I love Antiques Roadshow. I’m kind of a geek that way. I love furniture, and I collect 50’s Italian pottery.