Steve Cibor loaded his Ford Explorer with a few samples of Tibetan rugs and drove for days along the East Coast in 1994, trying to persuade retailers to sell the expensive hand-woven pieces.
"Nobody bought it — but they gave me ideas," Cibor said. "In the rug industry, people know what will sell."
Tamarian Carpets, the Baltimore-based rug importer and design company Cibor founded, has come a long way in the 20 years since then. The company is now a top rug exporter from Nepal, where the ancient craft of rug making is one of the country's biggest industries.
The company's wool rugs, hand-knotted in Nepal, retail for thousands of dollars at a network of 200 carpet retailers, including Alex Cooper Gallery of Rugs in Towson. It employs 17 people at its Falls Road headquarters and operates a warehouse in High Point, N.C.
Tamarian supplies the equipment and raw materials to factories and offices in Nepal, where operations run by a Tibetan business partner only make the Tamarian brand. Tamarian and its partner are building a 250-worker weaving factory that will include living accommodations for workers.
In an impoverished country where Cibor has contributed to community projects, he also has tried to advocate for an end to the often-hidden problem of child labor in the rug industry. But his efforts have attracted criticism.
The company found itself caught up in controversy a couple of years ago after a San Francisco-based interior designer came across a Tamarian rug she liked while working with a client. The designer, Shannon Del Vecchio, had one problem with the product — the certification used by Tamarian to ensure no children made its rugs.
On her interior design blog, Del Vecchio said she was troubled by the lack of information about Tibetan Rugs Labour Certification Private Limited, a 4-year old company that Cibor helped create and Tamarian contracted to inspect its factories to ensure compliance with child labor laws. She questioned why Tamarian didn't use Goodweave, an independent nonprofit that inspects rug-making factories in India, Afghanistan and Nepal. The nonprofit certifies manufacturers that allow surprise inspections and pay a fee that supports inspection and education programs.
Nina Smith, executive director of Goodweave, which certifies nearly 40 percent of rugs exported from Nepal, said child labor remains a problem there in the rug industry, especially as large factories have decentralized over the past decade and given way to more subcontractors. Meanwhile, weavers have been migrating from the country in search of service jobs, leading to labor shortages.
"There's been increase in child labor and in trafficking child labor in part because of these dynamics," Smith said.
Cibor helped start an alternative loom inspection company, headed by a Tibetan, in 2009 because he wanted to combat child labor. With Tibetan Rugs Labour Certification Private Limited as a subcontractor, Cibor said, he gets monthly reports from the factories. Inspections are done through ID cards and a scanning system that Cibor said can track the origin and weaver of every rug produced, a method he sees as a deterrent to the use of child labor.
While the problem persists to some extent in the country, he said, the inspections "have found no child labor. I've never seen any child labor in our factories."
In an interview, Del Vecchio said she has left her critical blog post in place because she doesn't think her concerns were addressed. She said she has no knowledge of Tamarian's labor practices.
"I was addressing concerns that they purport to have third-party certification, when in reality it's a certification that was started by the owner of Tamarian," she said. "My feeling is it's a conflict of interest for an organization to be both the manufacturer and the certifying body."
Cibor said he decided against using Goodweave because he objected to paying fees that go not just to inspections but to support Goodweave projects outside of Nepal.
"They do good stuff, but we built a hospital and … give back to communities in ways we feel we should give back," he said.
One way has been as a financial backer, along with other U.S. Tibetan rug importers, of the nonprofit Nepal Cleft & Burn Center, which is opening the country's first teaching hospital for reconstructive surgery this month in Katmandu.
In January, the Nepalese government recognized Tamarian for its export contributions, bestowing upon Cibor its "Commercially Important Person" designation as the largest exporter of woolen rugs from Nepal by value.
Cibor, who runs the business with partner and artist Ryan Higgins, attributes the company's two decades of growth partly to a strategy of selling only to upscale dealers — not online — and never trying to compete with those retailers with a showroom of its own.
Tamarian would not disclose its annual sales. The company imports about 40,000 pounds of carpets each month from Nepal, shipped by air to the Baltimore warehouse, by sea in containers to North Carolina or directly to places such as Canada or London.
Last year, the United States imported $23.9 million worth of handmade rugs from Nepal, out of $254.6 million in rugs imported from around the world, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Foreign Trade Division. Imports from Nepal were down from $25.8 million in 2012.
One of Tamarian's first retail clients was Galleria Carpets in Washington. Kevin Fusting, president and owner, remembered Cibor showed up at his retail business one day long ago with some samples.
"I was thoroughly unimpressed, but he is hardworking, and every time he kept coming back, [the samples] got better and better," said Fusting, a customer for nearly two decades. The brand now "dominates my floor. I've watched them grow into a remarkable company in terms of producing things that were predictable to setting the benchmark that others follow."
Clients, he said, often come in with an image they want reproduced in a specific texture and color.
"One of Tamarian's strengths is the ability to offer customers something totally custom and having an inventory of their own designs they've invested in," he said.
Tamarian has more than 2,000 copyrighted designs for its rugs, many created by Baltimore artists, and offers customized patterns and colors. For a typical dining room-sized rug, retail prices range from $5,000 to $19,000.
Cibor got into rug importing after a backpacking trek through Southeast Asia took him to Nepal. He'd previously served in the Navy and ran a cleaning business in Virginia Beach. During the trip, he met a Tibetan refugee who made rugs in Nepal, and he saw a chance to start a business that would be new and different.
"I loved Nepal," said Cibor, who now visits once or twice a year to check on production. "I wanted to find something that would keep me going back."