July 19, 1999

No ordinary rug dealers

Rug dealer Atiyeh International Ltd. has become a million-dollar business despite staying clear of the industry's bustling centers.
Robert Goldfield, Business Journal Staff Writer

Rural Newberg is far from the traditional rug import centers of New York City and New Jersey, but Tom and Leslie Atiyeh haven't found the distance much of a handicap.

As owners, officers and sole employees of Atiyeh International Ltd., the married couple have built a successful business distributing fine Oriental rugs from their Newberg "campus," a 2.5-acre spread that includes their home and a warehouse.

Buoyed by the benefits of modern telecommunications and air freight, the Atiyehs have prospered far from the madding crowd, which by Tom's definition includes Portland as well as the rug import meccas in Manhattan and Secaucus, N.J.

"We are very high-end so we don't need to move a lot of inventory," he said, adding that they ship on average only six rugs a month. "If we were more low-end we'd need more employees and a physical location where people could come."

But life isn't all that simple for the Atiyehs, whose business activities span the globe. They contract for production in China, where they have to deal with some of the same worker health and safety issues that have bedeviled large corporations such as Nike Inc. The Atiyehs also distribute product throughout North America, plus London and Singapore.

And they recently opened a showroom in the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, a center for wholesaling of floor coverings and other interior accessories. But the Atiyehs don't fret about operating a location in the South's steamy business capital. They only feel it necessary to man the showroom twice a year--during two major trade shows that fill the Merchandise Mart with rug retailers.

Portlanders often associate the Atiyeh name with fine Oriental rugs. But the Atiyeh that comes to their minds is Atiyeh Bros., the 99-year-old retail and rug cleaning operation that currently owns stores in downtown Portland and on the west side. Tom is related, but his business is separate. It imports rugs made to his specifications and distributes them not only to Atiyeh Bros. but to some 80 other small retailers in North America.

Both Atiyeh businesses trace their roots to 1900, when Aziz Atiyeh opened an Oriental rug store in Portland. Brother George joined the business three years later, and the store became known as A. Atiyeh & Bros., selling rugs made in Kerman, Iran. The business evolved into two companies, a retailer in Portland and a wholesale operation in New York.

George begat Victor, Edward and Richard, who between them ran the retail business for many years. Tom is the son of Vic, who served as governor of Oregon from 1979 to 1987. Tom drifted to the wholesale side of the business, obtaining from his New York uncles in 1985 their archive of rug patterns and their list of dealer customers.

The uncles had retired a year earlier, frustrated by the difficulties of dealing with Iran after the revolution there. Tom, however, moved production to China's Fujian Province. He met Leslie, a fluent speaker of Mandarin, when both were participating in Oregon's trade mission to Fujian.

The Chinese-made rugs are re-issues of the original Kerman patterns, not reproductions, Tom emphasized. He has supplied the Chinese weavers with the original patterns, so that they don't have to settle for less-than-perfect attempts to copy the intricate designs.

"It's a better product now, more consistent," Tom said. Customers who order rugs after viewing samples can count on receiving carpets containing the precise colors they expected.

The Atlanta showroom should create valuable new exposure for Atiyeh International, which pulls in annual revenue of between $750,000 and $1 million, Leslie said. They expect the showroom to boost North American sales by 25 percent in each of its first two years of operation, she said. Their goal is to distribute rugs to larger home furnishings stores and gift shops, and eventually to major home furnishings and department store chains.