A Chat With February’s Profile, Mike Stopka, President/Owner of Design Toscano
Catalog Success: How did you break into the catalog business?
Mike Stopka: It’s kind of a romantic story. Now we’re going back almost 20 years. Professionally I was a consultant and I traveled all over the United States in the 80’s, when I was in my 20’s and early 30’s — working in financial institutions, doing feasibility studies. Very strong on the spread-sheet skills. With that said, with all that travel I had free tickets, so we used to go to Europe every year. This is when the dollar was strong. It was like cheaper than going to vacation in Wisconsin for an Illinois person. We got the free tickets, we took the family out since my son was a infant and then the rest of the kids. And we’d go out to Europe every year. We really enjoyed the European experience — going through castles, museums and other monuments. The whole European experience. I told my wife [Marilyn Stopka, co-owner of Design Toscano], ‘There’s a market to market European exotic products to the American public.’ You just stashed that away.
Well it came to 1990 and I had a friend in the Chicago-area who was in the statuary business from Italy. And they had all these statues that they brought over, over 100 years ago. Be it Venus de Milo, pure garden and home statuary, etc. I asked Fabio, the owner, ‘Can I take your wholesale catalog and re-cover it and market your products?’ That was just at the point I’d finished graduate school so I was looking for, for a better term, a hobby. What I did was take their catalog, literally in the kitchen, rip off the cover, put a new cover on it, put a price sheet in and we’d advertise in the back of magazines. So in 1990 we advertised, like a lot of catalogers, I think Helen Ballard started the same way and Steve Leveen did the same thing, in the back of these publications. A multistep process. Now remember getting the first label back, because you had catalog sections and mailing it out. At this point, in it for four years, I still was doing my, for lack of a better term, my day-job, my real job, and in the evening we’d do the business logistics. We hired a local art gallery to be the phone center. Everything was drop-shipped from the statuary company. So for three years we used their media, with some flyers we developed, and grew the business through space advertising. Then we got up to about $4 million in sales and I told my wife, ‘It’s probably time for me to quit my other job and really run Toscano as a full-time enterprise.’