Ranked the number one football club in New Jersey for boys under 12, George Altirs’ Cedar Stars Academy is “almost his full time job now” he jokes. Established in 2011, the club currently trains up to 125 children between the ages of three and 12, including Altirs’ own boys. It was not the ball that carried Altirs up the ranks of success though. It was hair — or capelli in Italian.
Altirs is the founder and chief executive of Capelli New York, a privately held company which designs, manufactures and markets private-label and branded products in the accessories, apparel and footwear industry for women, teens and kids.
We meet in the company’s headquarters in Midtown, during the busy market week when buyers visit to view the upcoming winter collection and Altirs asks me where my hair clip is from. “Claire’s,” I answer, and then he asks me where my scarf is from. “Accessorize,” I reply, and then he concludes, “so both are from Capelli”. With a wholesale distribution network expanding beyond the United States to Europe and Asia, the company’s clients include Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, as well as large department stores such as New York’s Macy’s, Paris’ Galeries Lafayette and Britain’s Marks and Spencer, in addition to 31 retail stores in the US.
The story behind Capelli begins in the town of Mijlaya in the Zgharta district of Lebanon, where the Altirs family is from. After attending College Mont La Salle and earning an engineering degree from Ecole Polytechnique Supérieure d’Informatique Liban (EPSIL) in Kaslik, Altirs moved to New York in 1988. Shortly after arriving in the big apple, he and his brother opened a hair accessories company. “I saw an opportunity and thought we could do better than what people [were] doing, so we started,” he says. With a factory in Brooklyn, Capelli sold to wholesalers and retailers in the US. The product offerings expanded to include everything from hats and scarves to hosiery, footwear, apparel — and of course sportswear for the Cedar Stars Academy.
Capelli even has three franchise stores in Lebanon: one in Ehden, one in Zgharta and one in City Mall on the Dora highway. “It is nice for people in Lebanon to know what we do,” he says. Besides Lebanon, the Middle East remains untapped, though, as Altirs’ focus is on faster-growing emerging markets, mainly China. “We are well established in China; it is big enough for us so we see no need to go somewhere else,” he adds. With revenues of $200 million last year, production is undertaken in three factories in China, where 1,700 of Capelli’s 3,000 employees are based. With a total floor space of 140 thousand square meters, the factories have an annual total capacity for 42 million pieces and 16 million pairs of shoes — that’s four pairs of shoes per person in Lebanon.
Entirely owned by the two brothers, Altirs never considered a complete or even partial sale of the company, whether to a private equity group or on the public market. “I have a vision, I don’t want to sell,” he says, adding that he has the necessary capital to finance future growth.
As for his main challenge, it’s “a constant race; everything is transparent now and retailers are buying from the Chinese, the Indians, etcetera. When Wal-Mart bids, we have competition from everyone in the world.”
In 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, retail sales in the US dropped by more than 6 percent, the largest drop on record since 1992, and some retailers did not make it. “The pie became smaller, it’s a lot more competitive,” says Altirs, but with products on offer anywhere from $1 to $30, Capelli’s sales are somewhat “recession proof”. That’s not to say that it made it unscathed; volumes dropped 30 percent during the recession, compelling the company to lay off 30 percent of its workforce. Retail sales in the US have picked up since, growing 5 percent in 2012 after 8 percent growth in 2011, and the National Retail Federation is expecting further growth this year, albeit at a subdued 3.4 percent. “Now we are ok. We are doing well,” says Altirs.
As we wrap up our meeting, he gives a word of advice for Lebanese back home looking to kick off their careers: “Be patient; being rich quick also means it goes quick. Establish your reputation first, let people trust you.” He then goes back to the busy showroom to join his workforce in doing what he does best — enticing more customers to Capelli’s budget-friendly and trendy items — while looking forward to taking his boys on a football trip once market week comes to an end.