As far back as Steve Kovel SOM ’78 can remember, he said he has wanted to be a businessman.
“I just had a need for — income, I guess,” he said, sitting in his office above the store he has owned for 10 years.
Kovel, owner of Hull’s Art Supply and Framing shops, was awarded the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce’s 2009 Small Business Achievement Award at a packed luncheon in the Omni Hotel Thursday.
Despite the recession, Kovel said his store has not seen its sales volume decrease and has remained profitable. And Kovel’s business manager of 10 years, Shawn Szirbik, attributed its continued profitability to the store’s popularity with area university students, who make up more than half of its customer base.
Kovel said he first entered the art supply industry soon after graduating from the Yale School of Management. Though he interviewed with the likes of Goldman Sachs, he said he ultimately accepted a position as the vice president of the Koenig Art Emporium, a New Haven arts supply company.
Shrugging his shoulders as he talked about the experience, he said that during the more than 10 years he worked for the company, it grew from a nine-store chain to a 140-store empire that, at its peak, was valued at $100 million.
But during the expansion, Kovel said the economy contracted, the company went bankrupt, and Kovel lost his job.
Rather than brood over the fate of the company, Kovel seized the opportunity it presented. He explained that since the Emporium was being forced to sell its shops, some of which had been healthy and successful at the time of the closures, at very low prices, he bought a number of them. Since then he has sold off or closed down those shops in order to turn his attention to a new project: Hull’s Hobbies, a troubled hobby store at 1 Whitney Ave., which he purchased in 1999.
“People don’t really have hobbies anymore, you know?” Kovel said. “Even by the early ’90s, hobbies weren’t really selling well.”
That was indeed the case when Kovel purchased the fabled New Haven hobby destination, which was founded in 1967 by local hobby-enthusiast Harry Hull. Just as the shop was about to close and rumors abounded about its impending sale, Kovel said he saw another opportunity. While originally the focus of the shop had catered to those who pursued model constructions as a pastime, Kovel said he believed the shop would be financially viable if it instead served New Haven’s professional service architects, engineers and graphic designers. At the same time as he purchased the Hull’s store on Whitney, Kovel said he bought a storefront on Chapel Street. He then relocated the operations of the Whitney Hull’s to the Chapel street location, where it remains today. He subsequently converted the Whitney location into an art gallery.
The Hull’s Art Supply and Framing shop at 1144 Chapel St., which Kovel owns, is not related to the Hull’s Hobbies and Hardware shop at 1205 Chapel St.
Kovel’s business has been a success ever since, Szirbik said. In fact, during the recent recession, he has increased Hull’s staff by one full-time and one part-time employee, which brings the total staff of the Hull’s gallery and the art supply store to 13.
Still, all 11 student customers of Hull’s interviewed said they found Hull’s prices to be unreasonable.
“Hull’s has a monopoly on the material,” Brian Spring ARC ’11 said. “Their prices are just out of control.”
Though the store offers students a 10 percent discount off their purchases, students interviewed said the program did not provide much relief to students on limited budgets working on academic projects.
When asked about his prices, Kovel said the store’s prices reflect the high quality of the materials that “New Haven’s serious artists” require. He stressed that the store gives students 10 percent off their purchases.
Standing in the lobby of the Omni minutes before the start of the Thursday luncheon, Kovel appeared to mingle naturally amid the crowd of business owners and community leaders.
“I’ve come to realize that I never would have succeeded in a corporate environment,” he said, folding his hands over his desk. “But I’m happy that I’m as happy as I am.”