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Gaye Bugel Featured

9:42am EDT July 22, 2002
Gaye Bugel was losing her grip. Her husband knew it, her doctor knew it. The strain of being Supermom, coupled with her son’s tragic accident and agonizing recovery, was just too much.

Work was what she needed — concerns outside the home, they told her. Thus was born Bugel Kids, one of the region’s leading off-price centers for top-of-the-line children’s clothing.

“In the early 1980s, I’d have made Martha Stewart look like a slouch,” says Bugel. “I had a wonderful home, a tremendous husband and three great children. I was a champion homemaker — a housewife goddess.

“Then my oldest boy was very seriously injured,” she says. “He needed multiple complicated operations and very intensive therapy. So I threw myself into that, and also got involved in home instruction for him.

“But my loved ones and my doctor saw that it was taking its toll. Things had changed and I wasn’t myself anymore.”

A career prescription

“My doctor talked me through it,” Bugel recalls of her entrepreneurial initiation. “I said, ‘What kind of job can I possibly do? I was a key punch operator after high school.’

“‘Well, what are you good at?’ he asked.

‘I’m very good at shopping,’ she responded.

“‘So, be a shopper for a living,’ was his advice.”

It wasn’t the most specific prescription, but Bugel took it to heart and opened a second-hand children’s clothing store. Boom — just like that – she bootstrapped it with personal money, personal energy and the shopping savvy she’d honed as a consumer.

“That was 1984. I had a little shop, and I was pretty good at finding merchandise, preparing it, displaying it and selling it,” she says. “But I knew pretty soon that I was in the right field, but the wrong niche. That was a shop, and I wanted a business.

“So I shifted my focus and became a factory-direct outlet.”

The direct approach

“Look, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I wasn’t stupid,” she says. “I knew that factories sometimes overproduce and that they’re looking for places to unload surplus. So I just drove up to the factories — what did I know?

“I bypassed the salespeople, walked in and told them what I was looking for. They were happy to deal with me — strictly first-rate goods, no seconds or irregulars. So I went back to my shop in Coraopolis, waited for the truck, and bingo — I was in business.”

Bugel, an admitted hyperactive overachiever, tells her business history in less time than it takes Joe DeNardo to do the evening weather forecast. But it wasn’t all that simple.

At one time Bugel Kids had four stores — the original Corapolis location, plus stores in Beaver, Butler and Wexford. Over time, the locations and sizes of the stores changed as the business grew and matured. Along the way, Bugel says, she had stores throughout the northern and western tiers of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Many were in major malls, where she found national chain competitors and mall management offices were none too happy with her upstart approach.

“You can imagine — I’m there in a new thousand-square-foot [store space] and some giant chain wants to come in and be a major tenant and sell the same merchandise at full price — who’s going to win that battle?” she asks.

There were many disappointments and obstacles strewn in her path, she adds, sometimes in the form of last-minute doubling and tripling of lease rates by mall managers eager to court big tenants.

What’s next?

“All I can say is — Whew!” Bugel jokes.

Now 55, this Munhall native and graduate of Steel Valley High School who “didn’t have time for college” enjoys her home in the Wexford area with her husband, who owns a successful electroplating company.

“I think it’s just the way I want it now,” she says, describing the current Bugel Kids single location in the Pines Plaza along Route 19 in Ross Township.

It’s close to home, has the park-right-in-front style of site that’s appropriate for an outlet, offers extended hours, and has 13 employees, a 6,500-square-foot floor space and an equal-sized stock space.

Bugel herself, with her guerrilla shopper skills, remains the prime ingredient in this small business formula. Her ability to find the best deals on the best merchandise is what makes it work.

And her son — who inadvertently set all this in motion — is now 34, recovered from his injuries, and doing well in Lake Tahoe.

How to reach: Gaye Bugel, Bugel Kids, (412) 364-6401

William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.