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Yonge Interviews: Abraham Catano, CEO of Stella's Corset

Abraham Catano of Stella's Corsets.

The term "entrepreneur" has become synonymous with startups and technology, but for 28-year-old Abraham Catano it's been a more traditional affair. 
Catano and his mother, Luz Stella Torres, moved back to Canada in 2001 after living in Columbia for many years. The family owns a factory there that manufactures garments, the most popular being slimming and orthopedic items such as corsets, body shapers and "butt lifter jeans."

When they moved here, Torres started selling the corsets door-to-door, eventually launching her company Stella's Corset. Catano joined forces with his mother after graduating from Humber College's business administration program. He started with deliveries and marketing, and soon began licensing products to authorized retailers across the GTA. He quickly became the company's CEO and opened two retail locations, a flagship location on Wilson Avenue and a second store in Brampton. 
His journey into entrepreneurship hasn't been seamless. Although he was born in Canada, Catano knew little English when he returned at age 16 and had to learn the language from scratch. His experience leading a company that specializes predominantly in women's garments forced him to step outside of his comfort zone, but he says it made him a better businessman and a passionate speaker eager to share his lessons through motivational speaking. 
Yonge Street spoke with Catano about becoming a CEO and how he was able to turn a devastating fire that destroyed the company's inventory into an opportunity to rebrand. 
To start us off, can you tell me how you became a Canadian-Columbian entrepreneur? 
I was caught between two cultures in my life. I always go back and forth to Columbia because we import from Columbia. The government of Columbia is trying to improve the economy. They know I'm an international buyer, so they pay for my flights. My family in Columbia owns the factory, but we also deal with other manufacturers and other companies. 
My mom and I moved here to Toronto and I wasn't involved in the company when she started it on her own. She was always wearing a corset and people were always complimenting her on her figure and how amazing she looked, how a person that age could have that kind of body. Then one day someone said 'I want to look like you' and she decided to show her secret, to reveal that little piece of information, and after that she contacted our family back home. She ordered six pieces and now every time we import we do 20,000 corsets or more. 
Initially, we didn't have retail space. She was going door-to-door selling the corsets. 
How did you become involved?
I went to Humber to study business administration, but I didn't know which path I wanted to take. I was laid off by the company I was working for, so I said you know what, I'll help out here while I get another job. Then I stayed with the company. I started doing deliveries and inventory. [My mother would] send me to the airport to pick up the imports. I started really low in the company and now she's not 100 per cent involved anymore. She's back home relaxing while I take care of all the things here.
Can you tell me about when you opened the first location?
The first location was opened in 2006 and we opened that location with very little money so we were struggling to get it going, but we managed. Then three years after that the whole store caught on fire. We lost tons of money and tons of inventory. Thankfully we had insurance and we were able to get back on our feet. We were shut down for a month with no sales or customers, but after that we had an opportunity to renovate and make the store a high-end retail store. Now we have two high-end retail stores, one in Brampton one in Toronto. We also have retailers across the GTA and Canada; as well we're distributing the brand in Africa. 
What's your perspective on running a business?
Rather than being competitive, I look to the customer. I don't think being competitive is the way to advance in life. It's more about doing your own thing and being creative. We try to be very niche and unique in terms of what we offer to stay focused on what we do. Companies call and ask if I want to sell this or that, but I try to stay focused and stick to one thing.
There's a medical focus on some of your products--can you tell me a little more about this?
We have a medical license through Health Canada, so when people get into a car accident they come here looking for a solution to their back problems. They can get one of the orthopedic corsets that offer back support, or the garment or the body shaper, and then they'll take the receipt to the health care provider and they can get compensated up to $200 for any orthopedic or medical device that they need for their rehab. 
Who designs your products? Do you ever change or alter products based on customer needs? 
The supplier designs it. We always listen to feedback from our customers and then based on what they tell us I call the company in South America and say can we do the corset this way, some people want more back support, some people want them longer, shorter, so many things. We try to accommodate the customer and try to see what they're looking for. Because of that feedback we now have almost 100 products in our inventory. 
You mention in your online bios being inspired by your mother. What influence has she had on your life?
She was always pushing me to pay on time, track sales. She was the person that started the company, she knows how to talk and sell and she's excellent at selling, but I wasn't a sales person. I didn't have the skill before, but when I got involved in the business it required me to talk and I got better at selling. Initially I wasn't the person doing the selling, I was more focused on creating the business online, I was behind the scenes, but now I'm out there creating the relationships and doing the marketing myself. 
Thank you Abraham. To finish this off, why don't you tell us what's next for you?
Next is extending the brand name internationally. I have a trip to Dubai in September. They want to see if I can do business over there. 
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sheena Lyonnais is
Yonge Street's managing editor. If you know of an outstanding young Torontonian making an impact on the city, email Sheena to nominate them for the ongoing Yonge Interviews series.
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