Nella Cutlery: A Successful Family-Owned Business Navigates Succession Issues

Fuller Landau Team • November 26, 2018

In 1950, Antonio Nella made a life-changing decision, moving from his home town in Carisolo, Italy to Canada in search of a better life for his young family. He worked odd jobs in Toronto until he could afford to send for his family to join him. Fortunately, his brother-in-law had emigrated to Buffalo a few years earlier and was able to help Antonio get started in business by giving him a truck which had a knife sharpener in the back. So began the early foundation of what would grow to become Nella Cutlery, a premier sales and service company for all types of cutlery and food machinery, with locations throughout Canada.

Initially, Nella’s customers paid to rent knives, exchanging them each week or month with freshly sharpened knives. The business gradually expanded over time with the acquisition of additional trucks, a fixed location, and eventually the manufacture of a custom line of knives and diversification of its product offering. Today, Nella rents and sells knives, deli slicers, cheese graters, pasta machines and more to grocery stores, restaurants, schools, cafeterias, and hospitals. The company sells to both wholesalers and consumers, repairs equipment, and supplies parts, as needed.

Nella Cutlery is an excellent example of a third-generation family business that successfully navigated a challenging succession issue. Three of Antonio’s five children (Augusto, Emilio, and George) were involved in the business from an early age. When their children in turn expressed an interest in joining the business, the family realized that decisions needed to be made in order to avoid potential conflicts resulting from “too many chefs in the kitchen.” And so, the Hamilton, Toronto and Mississauga sales territories were divided among the three brothers.

We met with Rena Nella, Augusto’s daughter (and Antonio’s granddaughter), who has been running the Hamilton operation with her brother Stefano, for about 15 years since their father retired. A clear understanding of their roles, talents, and skills was an important element of properly structuring the business and limiting potential conflict. Rena manages the bookkeeping, accounting, and finance function of the business, while Stefano oversees the sales, showroom, and operations side of the business. Their two younger brothers operate Nella Cutlery locations in Vancouver and Seattle, with other Nella relatives running knife sharpening businesses across the United States.

“The business has grown over the years through a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck,” says Rena. “We have constantly been on the lookout for new ways to service our existing customer base, while exploring new markets to tap into.” Case in point: “With the growing interest and evolution of food shows on television in the past decade or so, the retail side of Nella Cutlery has really taken off, as people have become more interested in cooking at home. The online sales side of our business has experienced a great uptick in growth.”

Rena indicated that it is critical to have good lines of communication for family members working in the business. Despite vastly different personalities and unique skillsets, Rena and her brother Stefano have found a rhythm to running the family business side-by-side to manage the growth. “It works because we respect each other and the decisions we make. We give each other the space and autonomy we each need, in order to do what’s right for the business.”

The succession issue will likely present itself again in the near future. Rena explains that their respective children are still too young to be involved in the business, but they will encourage them to come aboard when they’re older “if they show an interest.”  Rena added, “it’s important to give the next generation time to pursue their own aspirations.”

For now, Rena and Stefano continue to focus on growing the family legacy of Nella Cutlery.

To learn more about Nella Cutlery Hamilton, visit www.nellahamilton.ca.