Next generation showroom for longtime family business

Leigh Suffian

Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Leigh Suffian grew up as a member of the third generation in the family business Atlas Supply Co., a bath and kitchen fixtures wholesale company at 3820 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive that’s 75 years old. After a long apprenticeship learning the business of selling to contractors, builders, plumbers and others who have built homes and commercial structures in the St. Louis area, Suffian wanted to put Atlas’ products in a very different setting.

Last October, she opened Immerse by Atlas, a tastefully designed showroom at 836 Hanley Industrial Court in Brentwood. There she and her staff of five can show architects, designers, contractors and the general public the latest in kitchen and bathroom fixtures. If you feel like paying $6,000 for a toilet by Toto, the Japanese maker, she has it. Also, bidets, flat screen TVs in bathroom mirrors, elegant showers and bathtubs that do everything but scrub your back.

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Suffian is 43, single, unaffiliated and lives in Kirkwood. She earned a bachelor’s in sociology from Tulane University in 1990 and a MBA from the University of Colorado in 1993. Her parents are Mike (the president of Atlas) and Nan Suffian, who belong to United Hebrew Congregation.

What’s your role at the company?

We are in another state of transition, so we haven’t given formal titles yet. I think the key is that everyone has their eye on the ball, everyone has the same goal, which is to make this shift to the next generation as seamless and smooth as possible.

What’s the shift?

My brother, Joel Suffian, my cousin, Brent Suffian and I have all been with Atlas Supply over 18 years. We know we want to survive a third generation. My father and his brother, Robert, are slowing down and beginning to retire. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but we all want to make this thing work.

Families tear themselves apart all the time over their business interests. Do you have any thoughts about how to prevent that?

From day one, I called my dad Mike at work. I made that clear-cut separation. It just happened. It was intuitive. That worked. And I felt that you’re never going to agree on everything. If it’s something that’s important to me, I’ll speak up about it. If it’s very important to my father or my brother-I mean, there’s five of us-if it’s important to someone else and only a little important to me, I’m probably not going to say anything. If there’s something someone else is super-passionate about, I let them step forward on that issue.

Aren’t you in a very masculine world?

What you see here in this showroom is very different than what I did for the last 18 years. I was in a tiny little office. It was completely male dominated. This screams design, and this screams beauty. I don’t want to say elegance because a lot of things in here look expensive, but they aren’t.

Where I’ve spent my career, a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, there’s nothing glamorous about it. Plumbers are my lifeblood. I know and respect many of them. Over and over through the years, I’ll take a call and someone will say, “Honey, can I talk to a salesman?” I’ll laugh to myself and say, “Sure, and how can I help you?” This business is pretty slow to evolve.

So this is your place?

It is. This is my baby. With so much information available to all of us through the Internet, people are coming in, looking around. They may not have a contractor. We can help hook them up with one.

What in this showroom is you?

This is all me. Not just me but the staff. We created this from the ground up. In almost all of the showrooms in town, the vendors dictate because of certain brands that are very prevalent in town. We are almost the only one that doesn’t have restrictions by vendors.

Some of the vendors tell them where the walls have to go and what goes on those walls. Kohler is a big vendor. They have very specific ideas about how a showroom should look. We didn’t have to do that. We had the freedom to design this from scratch. We hired an architect, Alan Nehring. We had some ideas. He took it to the next level.

You have no signs, no price tags.

That was deliberate. We wanted it to be a lot of white and chrome. We didn’t want people to be distracted by brand names. We wanted people to fall in love with style, not price points.

Are your customers mostly upper-middle class?

So many people are staying in their homes and remodeling as they need, whether their mother-in-law or their mother is moving in with them or kids are going away to school. Kitchens and baths are hot. We didn’t open this up to be retail because we don’t want to compete with our customers, which are the places that sell kitchens and bathroom fixtures.

What do you have then?

For kitchens, we have sinks and accessories and garbage disposals. Our customers bring their customers here.

Do you carry products from China, and have those caused any quality problems?

Quality control means different things in different parts of the world. When water’s flowing through it, it can be really important. I don’t want to sell something that doesn’t work. In this business, all I have is my reputation. I have to be very confident in my products. Toto and American-Standard are the two toilets we carry. Toto has two factories in Atlanta. Toto is a global company, so their products could come from anywhere. But we don’t typically see a lot of quality-control issues coming from those companies.

How has the poor economy affected your work?

It’s been tough. Atlas, our parent company, is primarily commercial. A lot of hospitals and schools and commercial development, what we were seeing three years ago, five years ago, the lofts downtown, all the work at Wash U – it’s been in very steep decline.

Are you seeing any improvements yet?

We didn’t have a terrible year, but I don’t think we’ve seen tremendous signs that business is resuming.