The Son Also Rises

Jesús Capó is making his presence felt at El Dorado Furniture. Just like his father.

How Manuel Capó escaped from Cuba to America is a story that needs no embellishing. A sunken sailboat dragged from the ocean floor, painfully refurbished over three years using other salvaged items. Finally, one inky-black night in 1966, Capó and his two teenaged sons set sail. Not north to Florida — for they surely would have been captured at sea — but west, fleeing the Castro regime to Mexico. They carried with them water, chunks of dried pork and hope. They left behind Capó’s wife Aida, who waited and worried with three younger boys.

After two days on the water, Capó and his sons landed in Cozumel. By ferry, bus and foot, they made their way to America, settling in Miami, where they sought political asylum.

That was the easy part. In a few months, the Capó family would be reunited through President Lyndon Johnson’s enactment of the Freedom Flights, which brought nearly 300,000 Cuban refugees to the United States. Capó needed a job to feed and house his family. Back in Cuba, Manuel Capó had been an accomplished furniture retailer. Perhaps he could replicate that success in his new country…

Jesus Capo
El Dorado Furniture’s Jesús Capó

Jesús Capó was six months old when his father and brothers set sail but never gets tired of the story. Maybe that’s because his father’s story is his story, too — his family’s story, really. “It’s a great reminder of how far all of us have come,” Jesús says. “From a beaten-up boat to where we are now. What a great story.”

This is another story. This is the story of an American Dream handed off like a football from father to son.

When Manuel Capó, the owner of El Dorado Furniture and the patriarch of one of the furniture industry’s most prominent families, died in 2009, there was never any concern within the Capó family that the business might suffer.

Outside the walls of the company’s massive corporate headquarters in Miami Gardens was a different matter. After all, El Dorado Furniture is not exactly the textbook model for running a family business. The company’s board of directors is made up entirely of Manuel Capó’s six sons. Business executives will argue that outside board members look after what’s best for the business and not a particular family member or faction.

Looking back, Jesús Capó, the company’s chief information officer and the incoming president of the Home Furnishings Association for 2019, says he appreciated the concern — but not to the point that he or his brothers were willing to bring in someone from the outside. He says a lot of outsiders wouldn’t understand the Capó way of doing business.

“Look, we run a business, a pretty big furniture business,” says Jesús. “But first we are a family. At the end of the day that’s not all that matters, but it’s what’s most important.”

Besides, Jesús asserts he and his brothers, who range in age from the late-40s to the early 70s, each has developed a different area of expertise in the family business, bringing a collective perspective to the boardroom.

Those singular perspectives play out weekly and sometimes loudly behind closed doors on the second floor of El Dorado’s headquarters when the six brothers — Luis, Carlos, Julio, Pedro, Jesús and Roberto — gather like any other board of directors. “It can get pretty passionate behind those doors,” Jesús says. “There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of pounding on the table, because at times we all may have different views on running the business. But no matter how heated, it never gets physical because we want our company to grow.”

And after the brothers walk out of that room?

“There’s a lot of hugging, a lot of kissing and then we go to lunch,” says Jesús.

It would be hard to dismiss that family philosophy. Ever since Manuel Capó opened the first El Dorado in Miami’s Little Havana in 1967, the company has known nothing but success. Today, El Dorado — the business is named after the boat that delivered Manuel Capó his freedom — is a 14-store Florida chain of mid-priced to high-end showrooms scattered largely throughout south Florida, but that footprint is slowly growing. Later this year, the company is expanding its footprint with its first store in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, with two additional store openings to follow in 2020.

Quietly helping lead that expansion is Jesús Capó, who seems more at ease sharing the spotlight with his brothers than basking alone. As he tells it, all the brothers were given two choices growing up. “We could either join the family business, or,” says Jesús, “if we wanted to do something else, we could join the family business.”

That dry wit is what Jesús is known for most around El Dorado. Employees say he balances it with equal doses of humility and empathy. Carlos Capó says his brother weaves those traits into every work day dealing with employees, manufacturers and vendors. Those qualities, says Carlos, pale next to Jesús’ biggest strength: Jesús Capó is very good at doing absolutely nothing.

Well, at least nothing at first.

“He’s what you call a natural,” says brother Carlos, who, along with Luis, accompanied their father on the Mexico-to-Miami journey. “I mean, Jesús knows the numbers, he’s very smart, but he’s also a good listener. Do you know what I mean? He listens and watches and doesn’t say or do a thing until he gets the whole picture on something. That’s when he speaks up. My father was very street smart. Jesús has a little bit of that, but he’s very retail smart, too. He takes in everything around him and listens to a lot of people before making a decision. He’s a natural leader.”

Carlos’ first glimpse of those natural leadership skills came in 1983 when the family was attending a computer software conference for furniture stores in California. At the time, Jesús was 17 and into computers and programming.

Furniture store owners and their IT employees were asked to introduce themselves at the start of the conference. “When they reached our table, my little brother stands up and introduces himself to all these people,” Carlos recalls. “Nobody was expecting him to stand up and represent the family but that’s what he did. I was thinking to myself, this guy is 17 years old in a room full of adults and look at the confidence he has in himself.”

“You had to believe in yourself with so many brothers around,” says Jesús, only half joking.

Whatever patience and understanding Jesús possesses comes from his mother. Aida Capó, who died last spring at 91, insisted her children — all boys — learn to work out their problems on their own. Jesús recalls one day while growing up when he and two of his brothers got into a heated argument. Just before words turned into blows, Aida stepped in and grabbed two belts. Relax. No Capó brothers were hurt in the retelling of this story.

Aida Capó tied the brothers together with the belts so they faced each other. “I’m not untying you until you work things out,” she said.

Not exactly an episode of “The Brady Bunch,” but here’s the thing, says Jesús. “Within 10 minutes the three of us went from all this anger to laughing with one another. I don’t even remember what we were fighting about. Just that we were laughing so hard.

“My mother used to hold out her hand and tell us, ‘Do you see this? There are five fingers and each one is different than the other, but they’re all attached to this hand. That hand is our family.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

He’s never forgotten his father, either. “The most humble man I’ve ever known,” Jesús says. “No matter how successful he was, he was so humble.”

Jesús says Manuel Capó was not a fan of charities but was the most charitable man he ever knew.

Manuel Capó would frequently walk through rundown parts of downtown Miami in the 1970s and 1980s that were best navigated by car — with doors locked and windows rolled up. “He would go to people in their neighborhoods and ask them what kind of help they needed. Then he’d give it to them. Sometimes that was money, sometimes that was furniture, sometimes he just helped with his time. We told him how dangerous that was, but he would never listen to us.”

Jesús also recalls his father’s honesty. Many years ago, a vendor grossly undercharged El Dorado Furniture for a service. An El Dorado employee discovered the oversight long after the service had been completed.

His father never hesitated. “Call them and tell them,” Manuel told the employee, according to Jesús. “Let them know we’re sending a check this week.”

These are stories Jesús and his family tell over and over about their father. And like his father’s voyage to America, they never get old in the telling. Just as important, the themes of humbleness and honesty laced through those stories are traits passed down to Jesús and his brothers.
“He taught us a lot,” says Jesús. “But he never taught us by telling us how to act, he showed us.”

Those lessons Jesús absorbed from his father guide him today. “People want to deal with people they trust and believe in. I try to do that every day because if the family practices that kind of integrity, our bigger family, our employees, will, too. That’s what we want to be known for with our community. We want to be trusted — who doesn’t want to be trusted?”

Several of Manuel Capó’s grandchildren are working at El Dorado. Those qualities of humility and trust are what Jesús Capó believes will carry El Dorado beyond the third generation to the next, and the next after that.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Jesús Capó is at his desk reading reviews sent in by customers. There’s one from an elderly couple who needed to downsize after selling their home and moving into a condominium. There’s another from a designer who worked patiently with a family over months to design their new home to perfection. On and on, one glowing review after another.

“When I read these, I know we’re doing something right,” Jesús says. “I know we’re going to be around for a long time. Not just this generation, but the next one, too.”

Here it’s not entirely clear, so the question is asked: Is Jesús talking about the family or the business?

“Yes,” Jesús says.

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