Neal St. Anthony
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A few months ago, Far and Sam Navab, the siblings behind 30-year-old Navab Brothers Rug Co., acquired a small, high-end rug-and-carpet business called Aubry-Angelo at International Market Square.

The sale was covered by the national trade press of the relatively small, tight-knit rug industry.

The Navabs bought the business, after the 2017 death of Aubry-Angelo founder Richard Rehl, a longtime acquaintance known for selecting avant-garde designs.

“We bought Richard’s rugs and we wanted Richard’s legacy, too,” Far Navab said in an interview. “Aubry represents an opportunity and a passion for us. It also got us into wall-to-wall carpeting.”

The acquisition also is another stitch in the four-decade entrepreneurial story of Far and Sam Navab.

Far, 61, and Sam, 64, were Iranian-American college students in the 1970s, sons of an Iranian writer.

Far, who graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, worked his way through college doing office work and eventually worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Sam worked his way to a degree in hospitality management at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, first by washing dishes.

“I moved to Minneapolis in 1981 in my 1967 Chevy, to Far’s house,” Sam Navab recalled. “I got a job as a busboy at the Nicollet Island Inn and eventually got an apartment and $100 off a month for doing [custodial work].”

By the early 1980s, Sam was night manager at a restaurant and Far worked at the MIA. Neither was getting rich.

The Navabs had a friend selling rugs at International Market Square. They liked the business, but lacked money to invest in inventory or a retail store. But they understood that many well-to-do people were looking for a reliable cleaning-and-repair service for their older rugs. In 1988, their father invested $27,000 and the brothers put up $3,000 in a 1,500-square-foot space at 50th and Bryant Avenue S.

They advertised in a community newspaper. Customers started showing up and coming back. These folks also were interested in buying and selling older, used rugs from India, China, Iran, and the former Soviet republics.

By 1991, the Navabs had moved across the street to a location with twice the space. The business was taking root. The brothers were taking out ads to buy and sell used rugs. They would drive around the Midwest to make a few hundred bucks on a transaction and maybe also make a clean-and-repair customer.

Jim Fetterly, a semiretired Minneapolis business litigator and longtime Navab Brothers customer, called them hardworking, insightful and honorable guys. When Fetterly donated an expensive rug in his house to his alma mater a few years ago, Navab Brothers cleaned it and shipped it to Wisconsin for a nominal fee, Fetterly said.

“We are not a big company,” Far Navab said. “But our success is rooted in this community.”

CEO Jerry Baack of Bridgewater Bank was a young commercial lender for another bank in 2001 when the Navabs approached him about building a small showroom on what was then a rundown stretch of Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park. It was in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the start of the dot-com crash.

‘Worked tirelessly’

Baack financed the $1.2 million cost of developing and building a showroom and storage facility. He later financed the acquisition of the century-old American Rug Laundry on E. Lake Street from the retiring owner. The Navabs also turned it into a used rug outlet.

“To say these two brothers are stand-up guys would be a huge understatement,” Baack said. “They have always worked tirelessly to expand their business while creating one of the best-known retail brands in the Twin Cities.

“They displayed their true business acumen during the Great Recession. While some fine rug retailers were closing due to competition from Home Depot and other stores like it, they continued to improve their business model and prosper.”

The Navabs are trying to adapt again.

U.S. rug sales rose about 3.5 percent to $2.5 billion in 2016, according to the industry.

However, the traditional business of importing rugs for high-end buyers is changing. Fewer customers are willing to pay $2,500 to $90,000 for a Persian rug that may be up to 100 years old.

Navab Brothers and Aubry-Angelo do custom design. There’s demand from younger customers for handmade rugs, whether imported or locally made.

The Navabs have built a vertically integrated rug business, from design to retail to launder-and-repair, that this year will total more than $5 million in sales and employ more than 20 people.

“One thing we’ve never done in the business is sat still,” said Far Navab.

The first of the second generation, Far’s daughter, also has signed on as chief marketer.

Peggah Navab, 29, a graduate of Minneapolis Southwest High School and Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and a veteran of the New York City marketing trade, also is studying law at the University of Minnesota.

“My dad and uncle have done pretty well with the business, which has grown almost every year,” Peggah Navab said. “They always ask, ‘How can we do better?’ ”

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.