Margie Goldsmith’s HNWI article this month spotlights Californian designer and Citation X owner Michael Amini
Michael Amini, known as the ‘King of Bling’, is Founder, President, CEO and Chief Designer of AICO (Amini Innovation Corporation) – a leading Los Angeles, California-based luxury home furnishing company he created in 1988 and which now serves over 3,000 worldwide retail partners. The company offers original, high-quality furnishings inspired by high fashion, Old World architecture and travel.
Born in Iran in 1956, Amini left the country at 17, and travelled to England. He returned to Iran to join the army, and the day he finished his service, Amini left to discover the world. He travelled to Greece, Paris, and London, and in 1979, left for Southern California to pursue a degree in electrical engineering from California State University. Upon graduation, he stayed in California and worked first as an engineer and then as an importer of designer shoes which he resold to select retailers. His next endeavour cutting his teeth as a salesman was as an importer of German luxury cars, which he resold to US consumers.
In 1988, he took a job as salesman for a furniture company. Three months later, he began to design his own furniture and started AICO. The company combines Old World craftsmanship with modern production techniques offering unique features such as stylish bedazzled furniture with Swarovski crystals, self-closing doors and drawers, and luxury leather upholstery. One of his design divisions, Michael Amini and Jane Seymour, A Design Collaboration, is a partnership with award-winning British-American actress and artist, Jane Seymour.
Amini received the Furniture Supplier of the Year Award from Furniture Today, the industry’s premier publication; was honoured by the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association with its Pillar of the Industry award and by the Anti-Defamation League Awarded with its American Heritage award in 2008; and serves as the first non-American born president of the American Home Furnishing Hall of Fame. He was awarded The Spirit of Life, Lifetime Achievement Award, and an honorary doctorate degree from City of Hope’s Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences, where he established the state-of-the-art Michael Amini Transfusion Medicine Center to benefit cancer patients and blood-related research programmes. He lives in Newport Beach, California with his wife Lily and two sons.
Q: What did your father want you to do for a living?
A: He wanted me to be an electrical engineer because he needed engineers to service the US-imported dialysis machines he imported. I was supposed to return to Iran, but after the revolution we decided it was better for me stay in America.
Q: You became an engineer after graduation, but the next year you were importing designer shoes. How did that happen?
A: An old friend had relationships with some Italian shoe manufacturers and suggested we partner up and import shoes: he’d buy them in Italy and I’d sell them in America.
Q: And how did that go?
A: It was fine in the beginning, but after the first shipment sold, I ended up with big sizes and small sizes that nobody wanted, and I had to discount them to get them out of my hands – basically, I worked for free.
Q: What was your next job?
A: I started designing leather jackets in Italy and importing them here to America.
Q: Did you have a flair for designing?
A: When I was nine, I watched a TV series called The Saint with Roger Moore and was amazed by the way he dressed. I developed an appetite for designing my own clothes. When I was 14, I’d buy fabric and have my father take me to a tailor and tell them how I wanted it created. At 14, I dressed more like an English Lord than a 14-year-old boy.
I travelled to Paris and London, window shopped like crazy, and figured I’d go into clothing. My aunt in Iran was a high-end tailor for celebrities and political figures and together with my shoe business partner’s mother, made the crowning gown for the Queen of Iran. I started a clothing venture with my friend, but soon found out that in America, you had to have a lot of influence and money to do business with department stores. So I voluntarily exited myself.
My father gave me and my siblings each US$10,000 and said, “Go find yourself something to do. If you find something to do that I feel has good potential, I’ll help you.” I went to Europe and blew that $10,000 having fun. But while I was there, I saw there were a lot of cars, called grey market cars, being shipped to the United States. I returned to the US and started getting car orders, went back to Germany, bought and shipped the cars to the US, and made a lot of money. Unfortunately, overnight, the government changed its rules: to import cars you had to own them for two years; so, that ended. I started selling cars at dealerships, become a closer, and learned a lot about selling.
Q: What was the most important thing you learned about selling?
A: Never let the customer walk out without selling him something. I learned how to deal with frustrated customers who don’t want to buy anything – I still use that technique today.
A: Listen and make sure you overcome their frustration with positive statements. With cars, they have ‘closers’. A car salesman promises the world, but when you sit down with the customer, you find you’re back to square one. The salesman leaves and you walk in and start the selling process from the beginning. That was my job. I learned a great deal about relationships and how to talk to customers when they are so frustrated they want to leave.
Q: What was your next job?
A: A local furniture manufacturer was looking for a salesman. The owner had no good sales people, no good infrastructure, and no designer. He’d been making the same furniture for 20 years. When he was about to say ‘no’ because I knew nothing about furniture, I said, ”I can sell anything. Hire me, and if I can’t sell, fire me.” He said he’d give me three months.
I had no idea what I was doing. I went inside furniture stores with the catalogue and showed, selling a little here and there, but also observing what was out there. There was nothing new and the prices were not good for the furniture I was selling. After a week, I sat down with the owner and told him I had a little talent for design and thought I could bring some inspiration. He gave me the chance. I sat down with his foreman, made a sample of a bedroom, photographed it, came up with a price, and I started showing it. The first week I sold 52 sets.
A few months later I single-handedly set up a showroom in an LA furniture show so people could see the product. While there, I looked for other companies to represent as well. Lily Trading Company belonged to a young lady named Lily who imported beautiful high-quality cocktail tables from Taiwan. She hired me. I was also hired by an upholstery company, so I had three lines to represent.
Q: Is Lily the woman who became your wife?
A: Yes. I soon became her sales manager. She invited me to a furniture show in Taiwan, but my boss refused to let me go. I went anyway and made many connections. When I returned, he fired me. I registered my own company, AICO, concentrating on cocktail tables and upholstery.
Q: What happened with AICO?
A: At the time, there was a 25-store furniture chain famous for returning goods to the manufacturers (a customer buys it, doesn’t like it or it has a slight defect). One manufacturer wanted to get rid of these returned goods and I offered to buy them. I figured I could repair them and sell them as AICO furniture. I bought everything they had in their warehouse, rented a small space with Lily, and fixed everything: I changed parts, repacked them, sold and delivered them. The customers said, “Where are these from?” I said, “You buy it from this company for $1,000 but my price is $450.” I used to sell what I fixed the night before. Then I bought my first container from Taiwan, and Lily and I shared a bigger warehouse.
Q: Were you married to her then?
A: The first year we just worked together, and then we started dating. At that time she was working in the office answering phones and taking orders for both companies, while I was outside selling. One day after seven years she said, “I want to close my company.” I offered to buy it. I did, and all of her inventory. We then worked together at AICO and grew over 100% every year for many years. We sold occasional tables, dining rooms and then started with bedrooms.
Q: Were you basing these designs on what you thought the public wanted to buy?
A: It was based on what I liked and felt was the right thing to make. I searched the world for inspiration and tried to design what was in my mind, what I think is sellable, and what I thought would beautify other people’s lives.
Q: Can you give an example of some place in the world that has influenced what you’ve created?
A: In France, I visited all the palaces. Versailles has truly impacted my creativity as well as Austria, London, Kensington Palace, St Petersburg and Moscow.
I’m in love with the art and creativity of the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries, and sometimes feel I should have been born then, that I’m a little too late. I love what’s been created – not only the furniture, but the wall art, the lighting, the chandeliers, and the flooring; I admire the creators, designers, and carvers. That’s what drove me to create a palace for every person to live like a king or queen, but in an affordable way.
We try to make it possible for everyone to live the way they deserve to live in a financially possible way. Our furniture, while not super-expensive, has a very, very high perceptive value. We’ve had furniture on the TV show The Price is Right for the last five years. When they ask people on the show how much one of our dining rooms is worth, they say $30,000, but it’s actually only $10,000. I’m very proud that we can create beautiful furniture for the right price and right value.
Q: How many employees do you have?
A: We have 200 employees here in Pico Rivera, and about 10,000 people making our furniture in different parts of Asia.
Q: How did you and Jane Seymour happen to work together?
A: Jane Seymour was a Bond girl, and remember, I was in love with Roger Moore in The Saint. She’s also an artist and her paintings sell for thousands of dollars. We met through one of her associates and really connected. I suggested we create a category as collaboration, and within four months, came up with three collections, including one of our bestsellers, ‘Hollywood Swank’. We’re working on two other collections. The groups with Jane feel like old Hollywood: mostly upholstered bedroom and dining room with a lot of crystals, bling, and glamour.
Q: Do you mind people calling you the King of Bling?
A: Actually, Jane calls me King of Bling because I brought crystals back to the furniture industry. I figured if ladies like to buy shoes and purses with crystals, why not furniture? That’s how Hollywood Swank was crystallised. Then we came up with more collections with sparkles, now a major category, and which, basically, I created.
Q: Where do you go when you travel for your work?
A: All over the world! I travelled 199 days in 2015 and I think this year will probably be even more. I go to Asia, to our factories in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. I’m going to Cambodia, Myanmar, India, and anywhere there’s a potential of manufacturing better furniture at better cost. China is becoming a little bit more difficult in terms of cost and regulations, and of course, the labour force has been challenging, but it is still the best place in terms of talent, skills and components.
Q: When you fly, how do you fly?
A: When I go international such as Asia, I fly commercially because China and Vietnam, and some other countries, are not very easy to get in and out of privately; there’s a lot of red tape. A year or so ago, in some countries, if you wanted to take off with a private aircraft, you’d have to file your flight plan a couple days in advance and they imposed huge expenses on private aircraft in terms of landing fees etc. Plus, my schedule changes by the hour, so flight plans would be a problem.
Q: Why did you buy your Citation 10?
A: I travel all around the US, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbea and South America, and it is the best, most efficient, and most comfortable way of travelling to destinations that are less than six hours away. We can go to four different meetings in four different states in one day. Without it that would be an impossible task.
Q: How often do you use your jet?
A: Every month, and sometimes three times a month. We have eight trade shows in the US, so I travel with my executives in the aircraft. On vacations, I use it to take my family to Hawaii, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, St Thomas and Florida. Sometimes I travel with customers and also with Jane Seymour for different events.
Q: How long have you had your Citation 10?
A: For 11 years.
Q: What made you choose it?
A: At that time I wanted the fastest of everything; I think I still do. I bought it because it was the fastest passenger jet in the sky. I like to buy fast cars; anything that’s fast. I guess it is because of my very fast lifestyle.
Q: If you were going to move or upgrade from your existing Citation, which model would you be most likely to move to?
A: I love Gulfstream 650 because of its size, range and speed but there are so many wonderful jets out there; I’ve looked at the Challenger 605 and I love the fact that it’s such a wide body, so open. Frankly, with my lifestyle right now and the fact of how much I use my plane; I think I don’t need to go any higher than Challenger 605, or probably Gulfstream 450. I love Falcon. I saw a brand new Falcon not too long ago that is gorgeous; it’s beautiful. But, I think in terms of range, cost and size, Challenger 605 would be the best fit for now. If I decide to fly to travel abroad with it, I will certainly consider Gulfstream 650.
Q: When you’re visiting a new destination, do you leave the decision of which FBO you’re going to arrive at to your flight ops team, or the pilot, or do you have your own preferences?
A: I leave that to my chief pilot who has been with me for the last 11 years. He’s very analytical, knows what I like and don’t like, and chooses whoever can give us the best service at that time, one which is better in terms of fuel cost and other things. I leave it up to him to pick – we haven’t gone wrong yet.
Q: Do you have preferences for onboard catering on longer flights, or do you leave that to your team to decide?
A: We don’t travel too long; normally our flights are a maximum of five, five-and-a-half, six hours. We don’t have the time to go through a feast because normally we have a lot of meetings. When I have so many executives travelling with me in an atmosphere in which nobody can get up and leave, and nobody can make or answer a phone call, I have a captive audience to discuss and get a lot done. Plus, we’re usually going somewhere where we‘ll be having a nice dinner with dealers, so we don’t need to go through a detailed eating session on the plane.
Either my wife makes something at home and packs it, or we cater from a nice place which my chief pilot chooses – sandwiches or something quick so we can get back on track to business.
Q: How much of a concierge service do you expect from your flight department as far as hotel accommodations, transportation, and other logistic issues are concerned?
A: I have a wonderful assistant who has been with me for 15 years and does all the hotel arrangements for us. My pilots pick their own hotels; normally so they can stay close to the airport. The chief pilot picks the cars because he does a great job of getting cars waiting by the time we land, or at times we are picked up from the FBO by our associates upon landing.
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