- Words by Tess van Straaten Photography by Lia Crowe
Manuel Bernaschek’s path to representing one of Europe’s top luxury clothing brands and selling some of the most coveted pianos in the world isn’t what you might expect.
“I worked at a bank for seven years, while I was in school and college, and then went into an accounting job, which, to be honest, was a little bit boring!” says Manuel, the rep for Stefano Ricci in Canada and the owner of Showcase Pianos. “I didn’t realize how much I liked interacting with people versus staring at a screen all day.”
The Coquitlam native started working in music stores instead, where his ability to speak Mandarin was put to good use selling pianos. It was here that he first heard about hand-built Fazioli pianos.
“All the research I did showed that anyone who touched a Fazioli piano said that it was a whole world of difference from any other piano,” the 47-year-old explains. “If price was no object, what would it take to make the best piano in the world? That’s what Mr. Fazioli’s goal was and they’re used by top pianists.”
Manuel asked his manager if they could bring Fazioli pianos to Vancouver, but was told it wouldn’t be possible because the store was a Steinway piano dealer.
“My wife, Judy, and I talked about it and we decided we could bring the brand to Vancouver,” Manuel says. “We opened up a shop in 2007 and a second location the next year, and the rest is history.”
In that first year of the business, the founder of Fazioli invited the couple to Italy to see their factory in Sacile, northeast of Venice. It was there, while visiting Rome, that Manuel discovered the luxury lifestyle brand Stefano Ricci, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
“I’ve always been big into ties—as a salesperson I always wanted to have a tie that was a conversation piece—and I saw the most incredible ties in Italy. I was in love! My wife said, ‘Why would you get a tie that expensive?’ But for me, it was a work of art and I knew I had to bring the brand to Vancouver.”
They opened their high-end Stefano Ricci clothing store exactly 10 years later, in 2017.
“There’s actually a bit of crossover between the two because we’re meeting all sorts of fantastic families that are buying pianos and they’re the type of people who aren’t swayed by popular opinion,” Manuel says. “They research and want the best, so that’s how they find Stefano Ricci and Fazioli. They’re not the kind of people who want to be like everybody else.”
Navigating the businesses through the first years of the pandemic wasn’t without its challenges—especially for the clothing store, which saw sales slump.
“Sales were basically dead because people didn’t need new suits and accessories during that time,” Manuel explains. “But we came back with our ‘made to measure’ events and that’s really become a hot thing for Vancouver. We fly out a master tailor from Europe, one of the best master tailors in the world, and have live music and champagne and food.”
The first year of the pandemic five people ordered suits at the event. That number skyrocketed to 30 after things started to open up again.
“These are quite costly suits but they’re the best,” Manuel says. “They start at $13,000 for a made-to-measure suit and they go up to $50,000—and we had people in the entire range. But no one does the amount of measurements Stefano Ricci does, or the customization, or the incredible fabrics. We basically start where the other brands leave off in terms of the quality of the fabric.”
Piano popularity actually surged during the pandemic—something Manuel credits to people being stuck at home. Instead of travelling, they invested in pianos.
“Even while the store was closed at the start of the pandemic, I put my number on the website and asked people to reach out to me if they wanted to see a piano and, sure enough, every couple of days, we had people coming in to look at a piano. I would just meet them there and then close up again.”
Manuel admits he’s made mistakes along the way, which have all been learning experiences, but the biggest misstep was one he managed to avert before the doors even opened.
“I wanted to partner with a friend, who’s also a piano player, so we’d have shared responsibility and I wouldn’t have to be in the store seven days a week,” he recounts. “I offered him 25 per cent of the business—even though he wasn’t putting any money in—but he said a 50/50 partnership would be better, and turned me down when I wouldn’t agree to that. Now I look back on it and think I almost gave away part of my business! It feels great knowing I dodged that bullet.”
But the biggest lesson as an entrepreneur has been to not give up.
“We really have to work hard for everything, and for me to even survive to this point, it’s taken a series of almost endless miracles.”
One of those miracles was connecting with the owners of Westbank, while they were building the Shangri-La in Vancouver, and convincing them to buy a Fazioli for the hotel.
“It took about 60 emails and phone calls to get a contact for the hotel’s general manager and I finally found out where their off-site office was during the construction, and I went there with goodies,” Manuel says. “I could tell he was annoyed because he was trying to get rid of me the entire time and he said it wasn’t even his decision. As he started to close the door on me, I found out who I needed to talk to at Westbank and we made a deal. To this day, we’re very good friends with them and they’ve bought at least 26 pianos now for various properties. So, the moral of the story is, don’t give up!”