For the second year in a row, Ernst & Young has named Jason Mulvene, founder and owner of Blue Ocean Traders, as a regional finalist for their prestigious “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. Blue Ocean Traders is a wholesaler of international antiques and unique furnishings and accessories, selling to retailers or to interior designers on behalf of clients.
Mulvene said the company’s aesthetic is “vintage-y,” so everything they sell is either genuinely old, or made to look old. There are 100-year-old clay pots from Turkey, newly manufactured retro ’50s chairs, antique Belgian aviaries, and a whole bookshelf full of used riding boots.
Used riding boots? Sure. Think of those times you’ve gone into a Ralph Lauren Store or seen a big city department store window display featuring artful little stagings of merchandise with riding boots or a jaunty stack of books or a well-worn bird bath — they have to come from somewhere. And sometimes they come from Blue Ocean.
Of course, that’s not their bread and butter. Blue Ocean — which also designs its own furniture — sells to more than 2,000 retailers, including big names like Anthropologie, Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. Mulvene said less than 1 percent of his stock stays in Louisville; there’s a tractor truck full of goods going out of the warehouse every day and a truck full of goods coming in.
Thirty employees work for Blue Ocean, and the warehouse and showroom are on South Seventh Street in the Park Hill neighborhood. The company also has showrooms in Atlanta, Las Vegas and High Point, N.C.
Other than wholesale, sometimes you can bid on Blue Ocean Trader merchandise at the monthly auction at the Floyd Street Stock Exchange, 817 S. Floyd St. It’s held on the first Thursday of the month at 5 p.m.
This year, a member of the law firm Frost Brown Todd nominated Mulvene for the Ernst & Young award. The next step of the competition is a video interview, followed by the regional awards ceremony in Cincinnati.
Ernst & Young is a multinational professional services firm headquartered in London and one of the “Big Four” audit firms. Their World Entrepreneur of The Year program is held in over 60 countries
Blue Ocean Traders currently is renovating 3,000 square feet of space in their 100,000 square foot facility to serve as a new showroom.
Mulvene said the business has grown steadily since he founded it in 2000. “It has more than doubled every five years,” he said. The only years that saw no growth were during the 2008-09 recession, but the boom in business that came in 2010 “more than made up for that.”
The recession scared him. He said that from 2002-06, he felt like he ran the company on “energy and no thought,” without a very high level of expectation. He was single; he had money in his pocket. It took the scare of the recession to really change things, to start paying attention to the business on an organizational level. There were a lot of ways the company was wasting time and money in the early years.
He started his business back when he lived in Michigan and worked for Black and Decker. A friend from Holland who was a furniture picker would send him a shipping container full of antiques, and Mulvene would sell them at auctions here in the states. Then they’d split the profits.
Mulvane had gone to school in Kentucky and he wanted to return, so he continued with the auctions for a while when he moved back to Lexington. He moved the business to Louisville in 2006.
Blue Ocean is three and a half years into a five-year business plan. The plan is for steady growth for the next two years — 15-20 percent growth in sales and increased margins. The next step for them is a move toward direct sales of entire containers and creating a drop ship operation — meaning the product would go straight to the stores and not hit the warehouse. They’d also look into private labeling, creating or buying specific items for a single business. Drop shipping means the business would have essentially no limit to its growth.
Blue Ocean Traders buys from Asia, Europe, Africa and South America. Buying trip days can last up to 14 hours as Mulvene visits flea markets, his usual contacts and other dealers.
Even though he’s not a native, Mulvene told IL that Louisville “is a nice place to come home to.” The business will stay in Louisville for both personal and business reasons, and he said the city is logistically great, especially for incoming and outgoing containers.
Mulvene has been an entrepreneur since he was a child. His parents owned an auto parts manufacturing business that polished chrome for automakers in Michigan. Occasionally the family would go to flea markets and antique stores to buy old tarnished copper fire extinguishers and other tarnished antiques and shine them up during slow periods at the business using the professional machines. They ended up looking fabulous, so the family would sell them for a pretty penny at flea markets.
Just recently, Mulvene became a father himself for the first time, so this year his travel schedule has been a bit relaxed — down from his 150-200 days a year. But pretty soon, he and his wife, who owns Dress & Dwell in New Albany, will go on a buying trip to Europe for a month, including visits to London, Paris, Hungary and Holland.