Interview with Phillip Nappi, Co-Founder of Peter Nappi, United States

Some say that entrepreneurship is a trait that people are born with; a spirit that we inherit from our family and either cultivate or suppress. Phillip Nappi’s story tells of how he discovered that he unknowingly shared his grandfather’s deeply rooted passion for shoemaking, and the manner with which he built his own business in the trade, confirms this statement to a great extent.

Developing an understanding for numbers during his accounting studies in college, Phillip Nappi embarked on a sales career during which he exceeded expectations and was awarded company equity. A few years later his entrepreneurial spirit finally got the better of him and Nappi went into business for himself. In 1999, he purchased a small business in the construction services industry. After nine years of expanding, Nappi was able to attain double-digit year-over-year revenue growth and boosted EBITDA to a 30% margin. In 2008, Nappi sold the business to a Fortune 200 company for over 200 times the original purchase price.

After these experiences, Phillip Nappi took the plunge and decided to follow his original passion by founding the brand Peter Nappi, a luxury shoemaker. With his wife Dana Nappi, Phillip manages the Peter Nappi shop and studio. The journey to realising his dream has allowed Phillip Nappi and his family to tap into the past whilst forging into future. In the following interview with Tharawat magazine, Nappi reveals the path he took to creating the business he loves and his discovery of an entrepreneurial heritage he never knew existed.

Of Shoes and Family – The Entrepreneurial Heritage of Peter Nappi
Image courtesy of Peter Nappi

How did your passion for shoemaking start?

It all boils down to a passion for boots I had shared unknowingly with my grandfather, the founder of the original Peter Nappi brand. I’ve always dreamed of having a shoe store with old, great leather sofas, a cappuccino machine and incredible music playing in the background. I was inspired to turn my dream into a mission after the sale of my first venture, Tennessee Waste. This afforded us both the capital and flexibility needed to be very intentional in every decision. To take our time and build a solid foundation that will support us as we grow.

My wife is not only my partner in life, but also my business partner. As my strengths are in the financial and visionary roles, her strengths are based in the operations and marketing arenas. There couldn’t be two more critical skill sets when starting a business. Also necessary is a partnership based on mutual respect and a common commitment to put the company’s best interests first. These are the traits we share, and the traits we’re seeking as we look for partners to help take Peter Nappi to the next level. We have exciting plans for the next few years and as we discuss bringing in additional capital, we’re confident this solid foundation will speak for itself.

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When did you realise that the shoemaking trade was your grandfather’s passion as well?

I never had the opportunity of knowing my grandfather, Peter Nappi. Having lost my parents at a young age, I knew little of my ancestry. But being of Italian descent, I knew Italy was the place to cultivate my passion and newly seeded vocation. So I packed up my family and moved to Florence, Italy to become fully emerged in the tradition and superb craftsmanship of shoemaking.

While in Italy, I found out my grandfather was actually a shoemaker from Vietri di Potenza, Italy who brought his boot company to America in 1904. It was as if all of this was predestined; uncovered piece by piece to seem like it was my own idea, when really it was a part of who I was all along. This is my heritage, I am just happy to be able to carry it on. As we say here: “Peter Nappi: born in 1887, established in 2009”.

Of Shoes and Family – The Entrepreneurial Heritage of Peter Nappi
Image courtesy of Peter Nappi

Do you believe that entrepreneurship is something that can run in a family’s blood?

I do feel my heritage, my bloodline, fuels my passion to go out on my own. You need to be creative and skilled in equal measure, and those traits are, to a degree, inherited. But I think it goes beyond that. Building a company takes dedication, sacrifice and tons of hard work. I tell my wife almost weekly that if this were easy, everyone would do it. Those characteristics are not necessarily inherited, but you can learn them from watching your father, and your father’s father, and mother and brothers and sisters. It’s definitely something that runs in your family, but it’s taught, not simply given. Unfortunately the American culture has gotten somewhat reliant upon industry and government, and has become less willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. That’s what it takes to make a business work.

How did you decide on building a brand around your grandfather’s name?

When we found out my grandfather – whom I had always believed to be in the restaurant business – was in fact a shoe craftsman who brought his own boot company to America in 1904, we were determined to find out more. I spent time with my uncle, the last living relative who knew my grandfather. He told me stories of how Peter and his brother had a shoe shop in Columbus, Ohio. But after settling down and having five children, Peter branched off into the restaurant business which, at the time, was much more profitable than shoemaking. My uncle remembered countless times coming into the kitchen and my grandpa saying how he wished he were still making shoes. He also remembered when a company approached my grandfather asking if they could can his sauce to sell in stores. This was in Ohio, in the 1920’s – the same time Chef Boyardee came around.

Peter sacrificed his passion to provide for his family. We wanted to honour that. We made it our mission to bring to every client products that celebrate Peter, his long established traditions, passion for life, and a love for beautiful craftsmanship.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 19, 2013