Inside Track: Solidsteel

Posted on 13th February, 2023

Inside Track: Solidsteel

David Price talks to Gaetano Conti about his company's past, present and future…

Fun fact: Gaetano Conti is a big fan of British food – Cadbury's Creme Eggs and Yorkshire puddings, to be precise! It's not often that the 'cuisine' of the United Kingdom is praised by food-loving Italians, but the man who runs Solidsteel is quite a character. When he's not riding his Triumph Bonneville motorcycle around the picturesque roads of Italy's Pescara province, he's building the business that his father started in 1990 into one of the world's most impressive hi-fi furniture specialists.

Gaetano and Moreno Conti

Gaetano and Moreno Conti

Solidsteel was founded by Gaetano's father, Moreno, nearly thirty-five years ago and has had an eventful story ever since. “The company began,” Gaetano tells me, “when my father developed the first samples of his hi-fi racks – and the brand name and company started officially in 1990. He was an audiophile and had great expertise in metalworking. He had been working in the automotive sector, doing specific precision parts, and was helping my grandfather doing welding and had skills in galvanisation and chromatic finishes on pieces. He made for himself and some close friends some hi-fi racks – something that in Italy at that moment didn't really exist commercially. He heard about an English brand called Target Audio by reading UK hi-fi magazines to better understand about hi-fi, and became interested in cones and spikes…”

Solidsteel's founder took inspiration from this popular British maker of equipment racks and stands in the nineteen eighties and nineties – but the Italian company is far from a simple imitator. Gaetano continues: “He thought that his designs needed to be different – because my father was an innovator and a creator. So he designed a system based on his experience and concluded that in the early nineties, there would be opportunities for hi-fi supports able to damp vibrations. He always thought that he could do better than what was on sale. He met Guido Baccarelli from Audiogamma, an important Italian hi-fi importer and distributor for many brands, including Bowers & Wilkins. At that time, his designs involved welding and cutting stainless steel blocks – there was no modularity – but even then, spikes were a key technical aspect of the design.”

Quality is another crucial criterion. Gaetano remembers: “My father was fastidious about quality control; he would give me a little slap if I let anything ship that wasn't absolutely right! He told me, “I prefer to send only thirty per cent of the order if the client knows that everything is perfect than send more that isn't.” In 2004 my father started developing the Hyperspike range – through this, we introduced modularity and increased the quality level of all the individual materials. For example, we moved from melamine shelves to lacquered shelves, which were three or four times the price, as were full stainless steel frame parts. These showed him the way to the new S-series range. All this led my father to develop new products which fully substituted the old generation of Solidsteel products…”

Solidsteel S3-3 rack

Then tragedy struck. Around ten years ago, by which time Gaetano had left the family business, he suddenly heard that his father had died of a heart attack. “I was working as a trainee lawyer and only helping my family with some English translations. When he passed away, I didn't know anything about the new projects, but the team said that Solidsteel's new S3 and S5 racks were finally ready to be sold. It was like opening a box and seeing what my father did from 2011 to 2013; he left us more than a legacy; he left a wealth of technological knowledge. You could call it an inheritance. I felt that I had to honour it.”

Gaetano duly took over the reins of the company. “We didn't need to change anything,” he told me. “He left the blueprints which were the product of his life's work – thirty years of hard work. It was difficult for me to take over running the business at first because the project wasn't designed by me, but I began to design my own products as we made and sold my father's designs. After three or four years, I came to understand that I could do something important for the company by giving inspiration to let people express themselves. I don't tell my team how to do their jobs; I give input and let them get on with things. I gently steer them but ultimately trust my employees. It's simply too demanding for someone in charge of the whole company to put their hands on everything – I recognise that I have people here that are able to do better than me in many things. But, at the same time, I work to express our whole brand identity. This is our philosophy. Quality first, always.”

SPREADING THE WORD

If you're a conventional furniture maker, you don't need to explain to people why they need to buy your wares – but with hi-fi, it's different. Gaetano explains: “Customers in the nineteen seventies, eighties and nineties never had the culture of 'co-locating' their hi-fi in their rooms properly – I remember there were turntables everywhere, on shelves, on the floor, on coffee tables, etc.! It was only with the arrival of home theatre I think that people really began to think about better co-locating their equipment in their listening rooms. That's when things started to change to a new direction. In my opinion, part of our job as Solidsteel is persuading people about the importance of correct positioning and set-up of hi-fi components.”

He says he has to “create a space for beautiful hi-fi furniture that lets people correctly co-locate their equipment in their homes.” It significantly improves the sound quality of the system, he says, because the products are able to damp vibrations effectively. “We describe this in terms of driving – whatever car you drive, if the road is full of holes, the driving experience is not good. You could say that our role is to provide this safe, smooth road. We do this by the quality of the design and the materials to allow users to get the best from their equipment. It's a balance between style and sound, an equilibrium; it has to satisfy audiophiles and newcomers to hi-fi alike. And let's not forget the wife approval factor!”

In doing this, Gaetano has looked to the British hi-fi scene, which he thinks is more healthy than many. “Coming back to my father's thoughts, he was fascinated by the UK audiophile culture – many prestigious brands came/come from Great Britain. I remember he was a bit sad to never have the opportunity to directly export to there. More recently, the 2018 Bristol Sound and Vision show, Mark Levinson decided to give us the chance to show our products. I was interested to discover that everyone is competing in Britain, but not in a bad way. There is a good spirit of friendly competition. They welcome people, not scare them. Thanks to our finally entering the UK market, and our partnership with Mian Audio distribution, have now grown a lot worldwide. On the whole, our biggest markets are the USA, and if we consider Europe as a whole thing, also there, and Hong Kong/China.”

Solidsteel at The Bristol Hi-Fi Show

Gaetano says the challenge is to be seen more. “We are doing great in the UK now, with around one hundred dealers. Our challenge is to be seen more. The problem for us and all other hi-fi furniture specialists is that most hi-fi fans think about the equipment first, and then only about furniture when they have space problems to house it! In my opinion, this is where dealers are very important – they have the opportunity to help people…”

THE RIGHT STUFF

“Solidsteel's factory is located in Pescara, and close to there are two little towns – Montesilvano, where we have the mechanical workshop, and Città Sant'Angelo, which is where the new headquarters and warehouse are locating. We manufacture many parts in-house and also purchase things only from Italian third-party suppliers – many of which provide high-level automotive parts to companies like Ferrari and Lamborghini.”

Gaetano says that he chooses to spend a lot of money purchasing these high-level product parts. “It makes us feel very safe because when we send our products to places like Australia, they don't have an issue as the quality is extremely high. People can't necessarily see these parts, but the quality is there all the same. The company is not being run by our accountants – 'Made in Italy' is very important to us. My father would come back from the grave if we followed the model of some manufacturers, who just design things and get them manufactured cheaply elsewhere in the world – he would respawn, like a horror movie!”

Perhaps it's because Gaetano has inherited a cherished family business that he feels he cannot dishonour the 'intellectual inheritance' of his father. “I took over in 2013, and my goal was to maintain his legacy after he died, and I have very deliberately chosen to use his existing suppliers and partners either in-house or elsewhere in Italy. Quality control is vital to us, always.”

Gaetano inside Solidsteel's factory

Him taking over the business was never a foregone conclusion; quite the reverse, in fact. “I never imagined myself to be running Solidsteel”, he tells me, “before my father died, I had chosen my path to be a lawyer. He always told me, “don't do Solidsteel, you can do better than Solidsteel, leave Solidsteel to me, and do your things, do what you like!” Well, I can honestly tell you that there is no better thing to do for me than Solidsteel. Parents always desire something better for their children, and my father knew that there was something that Solidsteel was not completely expressing or doing. But he loved the company, he lived for it, so as soon as he died, without thinking I immediately wanted to take over his legacy. Many people helped me, suppliers, team members, professionals, everybody gave me trust, my brother and my mother always supported me in this challenge.”

Gaetano says that it was a happy coincidence that he began to run Solidsteel in 2013. Italy had been hit hard by the Eurozone crisis from 2008 and 2012, but he joined just as the country was coming out of recession and things started getting better. Still, this experience of economic hardship made him careful. “We avoided working with banks, and even now we sustain all our financial projects by ourselves – this helped us a lot. What keeps us strong is the possibility of export. It has been a difficult time with the war in Ukraine, crazy high energy prices, but we have compensated for this loss of margins with better sales in Europe. Things have really taken off for us recently; we manufactured and sold almost 8,000 racks and speaker stands in 2021 and more in 2022, whereas in 2014 it was around 1,000. And I believe that the best is yet to come!”

Now, Solidsteel is growing both its sales and its reputation worldwide, as a manufacturer of top-tier bespoke hi-fi furniture. You could almost call it a boutique brand, where quality, functionality and style are paramount; it is very far from being a box-shifting purveyor of high-volume, low-quality products. “I think everybody in the company is playing their part very well,” says Gaetano. “We recently got a new headquarters and are investing in machinery for crafting ever better products. We're also looking to make OEM speaker stands for other manufacturers, although I can't reveal who. Suffice it to say we have some meat on the barbecue! Third companies have been asking us to craft speaker stands for them, but until recently, we didn't have this capacity – so we worked for it, and it's part of our new business plan now. Since we have specialist knowledge in this field, I believe it will be a huge step forward in our business…”

He continues: “My family had been working for many years and supplying Bowers & Wilkins for stands for some of their surround speakers. Now there's a concrete possibility of developing new business models. We're also developing in-house an AV room for home cinema and custom installation, and we'll be holding events that will be open to the public. We are trying to create a local experience centre, where local end users and companies can use us as a reference point. In the coming years, we'll be developing new strategies for welcoming people and companies inside our projects.”

INTO THE FUTURE

Solidsteel has come a long way from Gaetano's father's early endeavours, and this is down to the skill of the employees and his own ability to 'curate' and grow what is still very much a cherished family business. In my opinion, the challenge facing him is the same as that for the wider hi-fi industry – to make the case to the buying public, not just for his own company's products, but also for high-fidelity music reproduction as a whole. We need to show just how satisfying a well-chosen, properly set up and presented hi-fi system can be. Gaetano's cheery personality and sharp mind makes him particularly well-suited to this task.

Visit Solidsteel for more information

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    David Price's avatar

    David Price

    David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.

    Posted in:Hi-Fi Industry
    Tags: solidsteel  mian audio 

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