How Princeton Artist Brush Company became one of the largest brush suppliers in the U.S.
Debbie Kaufman wasn’t amused the day someone knocked on the door of her house and asked if she was moving in or out. At that point, she and her husband Howard had lived in their home for more than two decades. They weren’t new in town, nor did they have any intention of leaving.
But the passerby’s confusion was easy to understand. The house was packed to the rafters with boxes — boxes in the living room, in the dining room, in the garage and basement. Furniture had been pushed into corners, rugs had been rolled up to accommodate the ceaseless clutter. “I thought it was funny,” Howard says, remembering the visitor’s query. “She didn’t.”
The boxes were full of brushes: artist brushes. For years, the Kaufmans’ home in a nice neighborhood in Lawrence Township served as the base of operations for the Princeton Artist Brush Company, which Howard founded in 1992. Operating mostly under the radar except for one serious complaint from a neighbor, Kaufman grew his distribution business from a startup to the point where it had swallowed up his house room by room. Additions built to accommodate the growth didn’t alleviate the problem.
By March 2012, Debbie, a fourth grade teacher and 2015 Teacher of the Year at Triangle Elementary School in Hillsborough, was fed up. So Kaufman leased a 17,500-square-foot warehouse on Whitehead Road Extension in Ewing and moved everything except a small home office. “When we moved [it all] out, my wife had the biggest smile on her face,” he says.
Standing in the warehouse, Kaufman nods at the aisles of shelves each full of boxed brushes stacked in neat rows. There are some 2 million brushes in all — some that cost 50 cents apiece, others that retail for $500 a set. Nearby are conveyor belts and other equipment needed to pick and pack customer orders. Every workday at 6 p.m., UPS carts stacks of boxes out the door. “Forty percent of this was in my house, and the house smelled like boxes,” he says.
Kaufman sells nothing directly to consumers. His artist brushes are sold at retailers such as Michaels, A.C. Moore and Hobby Lobby, as well as tradition mom-and-pop art supply stores domestically and internationally. He also supplies brushes for use in the aerospace industry, as well as brushes and silicon tools for cake decoration, pottery making and cosmetics application.
Kaufman formed the Princeton Artist Brush Company on a day’s notice.
From 1973 until he started his own business, he had worked in different configurations of the same family of companies. He spent a few years working in the garment industry before being hired as a salesman for Chartpak to call on art material retailers and art directors. In 1976, he became product manager for slide rules in Chartpak’s Pickett division in California.
As slide rules vanished from the market, Kaufman turned his attention to the art segment. Eventually, he became marketing manager for both Chartpak and Pickett, which were owned, along with Grumbacher, by Times Mirror. Chartpak Plan Hold and Grumbacher were sold, then merged to form CPG International in 1985.
He rose to general manager of Grumbacher, and in 1989 he supervised its sale to Empire Berol, the manufacturer of Prismacolor pencils and writing instruments, which was owned by AEA Investors. When AEA sold the company in 1992 to Koh-i-noor, a manufacturer of writing instruments and engineering supplies, Kaufman was invited to stay on.
But he had come to believe that the fit wasn’t right. Quality customer service is a priority for Kaufman, but not a value he felt the new owners shared. And when he asked Koh-i-noor’s management how they planned to assimilate the two sales organizations, they responded that they weren’t going to take any of his people.
Kaufman urged Koh-i-noor to query the retailers about who were the best salespeople in both companies and create an all-star sales team. Their response? “We don’t ask the dealers how to run our business.”
Kaufman decided to leave the company. He could resign and receive a full year of pay and benefits, and the sale from AEA to Koh-i-noor had not included any noncompete clauses. So former Grumbacher employees were free to take jobs with competitors — or start their own competing businesses.
On his last day at Grumbacher, Kaufman’s one responsibility was to fire all the salespeople, including Robert Hatch, nicknamed “Mr. Brush” because he “knew more about brushes than anyone else,” Kaufman says. Hatch was 60, and had been with Grumbacher for almost 25 years. When Kaufman fired him, Hatch confessed that he didn’t know what he would do. Kaufman told him to call him at home the next day.
Kaufman, after all, knew all of Grumbacher’s customers. He knew all the suppliers of artist brushes, domestic and international; and he knew the brushmaking business. Grumbacher had a 300-employee factory in Brunswick, Maine. So when Hatch called the next day, Kaufman told him he was starting his own brush-distribution business, and he wanted Hatch to represent the new company.
In fact, he was in touch with all the reps fired by the new owners, telling them all, “You’re hired. You’re independent reps, free to get other product lines in the industry. But at least you’ve got a good base.”
He also contacted Naohide Takamoto, a supplier to Grumbacher and the fifth generation of Japan’s Takamoto brushmaking family in Hiroshima. Kaufman had a good relationship with Takamoto. He and Hatch took a trip to Japan and Korea to talk to Takamoto and put together a new product line.
They asked Takamoto if he could make a brush for Princeton Artist Brush Company that was similar to what he had been supplying to Grumbacher. Instead, Kaufman says, Takamoto showed them the next generation of synthetics, which he said would perform like natural hair but be less expensive and more durable. The brushes’ cutting-edge hairs, Kaufman says, gave him a competitive advantage.
The process of making artists’ brushes has not changed over the last century. Skilled workers take bundles of either synthetic or natural hair and place them in a cylindrical metal cup to shape them. They combs them to take out uneven or brittle hairs, tie them and put them in metal holders called ferrules. Assembling the brush heads, both in Grumbacher’s Maine factory and in Takamoto’s Hiroshima factory, is often performed by mothers and daughters, working at home, side by side.
Synthetic hair is made from an acrylic resin. What makes a good synthetic brush, Kaufman says, is how close it comes to replicating natural hair. Synthetic hair must match natural hair in terms of holding the right amount of color and releasing it smoothly and evenly onto canvas or paper. Natural hair, Kaufman explains, has split ends, whereas synthetic hair is a straight fiber.
For a long time, synthetic brushes, lacking those split ends, didn’t hold much color. But Takamoto’s company had figured out to abrade the synthetic hairs. “Now we are able to make synthetic hair that is almost indistinguishable from natural hair,” he says. “It is animal friendly, more durable, and for the most part less expensive, so it is a winning combo.”
At first, the brushes were made in Japan, But around 15 years ago, with the dollar declining against the Japanese yen, Japanese brushes had become too expensive to produce, Kaufman says. So he and Takamoto jointly formed Takamoto Kaufman Associates, with an office in Hong Kong and two factories in China— one in Dongguan, a large industrial city, the other in Yan Ping, a rural village. Their brushes are also made in a factory in India, but Kaufman and Takamoto have no ownership stake there.
Today, Princeton Artist Brush Company carries brushes that vary by size and shape, natural versus synthetic materials, levels of quality, and price. They also vary by their intended function, some softer, some harder. The company distributes brushes worldwide, to Australia and New Zealand, Europe, South America, Kuwait, Israel and China.
A month and a half later, Purdy called back because Grumbacher had lost a recent order. They had been told it would take 12 weeks to get the product delivered. Kaufman promised the exact same product, still for half a cent less, in four weeks. When the order arrived, he put the product on a plane, sent it to Hatch’s house in Seattle, and Hatch drove it to Purdy in Portland. “We could have sent the brushes by UPS, but our business is based on personal service. A face, a smile and a handshake go a long way,” he says.
Princeton Artist Brush company has had Purdy’s business ever since. He adds that as far as he knows, Grumbacher never called Purdy to see why they had cancelled the missing order.
Even today, his customers can each him easily and directly, without having to wade through recorded message trees. “The joke is: Howard always answers the phone; if he’s not answering the phone, maybe he’s dead,” he says.
The way the business worked for the first 19 years was that a man with a simple Ford van would bring the brushes from airport and seaport to the Kaufman family home, where they’d be stored. Kaufman would fill the orders from inventory, and every night at 6 p.m. a UPS truck would back up to his garage door where he would load the day’s orders. “We became in the top 10 percent of UPS just in the state of New Jersey in terms of shipments, shipping to art supply stores all over North America, and now all over the world,” Kaufman says.
For a long time he handled the warehouse himself. In 2001, he brought in a part-time employee to help him out. But not wanting to have an employee alone in his house, he says that whenever he had to travel, “the business from a shipping standpoint virtually stopped.”
When a good friend asked how long he was going to “continue this nonsense” of carrying boxes up and down the stairs to the basement, he finally decided to move to the Ewing warehouse. Today he has four part-time employees, including his former UPS deliverer, who retired after 25 years and went to work for Kaufman, and his daughter Ashley, 29, who lives in Princeton and works full time for him. With a master’s degree in accounting from New York University, she handles order entry, scheduling, and, in general, he says, is “his right-hand person.”
His elder daughter, Lauren, responsible for the educational side of the business, works part-time. She is the liaison with teachers and educators who are highly influential in what types of brushes their students purchase. She contacts educators, finds out what kinds of brushes they use, and sends them free samples, asking them to “test” the brushes. “You’re making friends with people critically important to disseminating your interests,” Kaufman says.
Kaufman grew up in Manhattan, the son of German immigrants who had escaped the Holocaust. His father got out of Dachau in the late 1930s with the help of a Louisiana relative who sent him papers, and arrived in New York with five dollars, alone and not knowing English. He got a job as a presser in a New York factory.
Before he came to the United States, he had asked Kaufman’s mother, a good friend, to marry him. She did not have papers yet when he left. She went into hiding until Kaufman’s father could send her papers. Meanwhile, the Germans took her mother and sisters, and except for one sister who walked ashore in Israel/Palestine from a refugee boat, she lost her parents, her other siblings, as well as nieces and nephews in the Holocaust.
When she finally arrived in the United States nine months later, he brought her with him to the factory; she told the owner she could learn to sew and got a job sewing on buttons. After Kaufman and his sister were born, his mother left the factory and became a salesperson at the Franklin Simon department store.
“My parents instilled a lot of values—hard work, honesty, being a good son and a good parent, trustworthiness; you work hard, you save,” Kaufman says. “The family was the hub, the key, what was really important, especially when you lost a lot of people.”
“Hard work is something ingrained. I am a workaholic,” he admits. “I work seven days a week. My last vacation was 12 years ago.”
In 1968 Kaufman graduated with an accounting degree from Queens College, City University of New York, then tuition free. That year the Vietnam Was was still ongoing, and he faced a decision. On one hand, he could wait to be drafted and do the requisite two years. He knew that the National Guard was not an option because “I didn’t know anybody—that’s not who I was.”
“I was a patriotic kind of guy because this country saved my parents. I believed in what this country stood for,” he says. So he decided to take the test to become an Air Force pilot. He passed, took the physical, and was accepted for a five-year tour of duty. Because he wasn’t starting until August, he worked for a short time as an accountant for Shell Oil, who told him they would have a job for him when he left the military.
After officer training and flight school, he was assigned first to Syracuse, New York and then Vietnam. Luckily his orders got changed at the last minute to Misawa, Japan. “That was God saying you were the luckiest guy in the world,” he says.
Kaufman again had his orders changed from Da Nang, Vietnam, to Thailand, where he spent a year flying C130’s over northern Laos and South Vietnam.
He learned a lot from his wartime experience. Having lived at home during college, it gave him to become independent and to stretch his horizons beyond New York City. But what was especially life altering, he says, was fighting in a war. “In a combat situation, you are really learning about life, not the easy way,” he says. “I think it was a very maturing experience that gave me a broad perspective on life and made me realize today how fortunate I am.”
Toward the end of the five years, he asked his father to send him his accounting books, with the idea of refreshing himself. But it was not to be. “I couldn’t get back into it,” he says. “I had forgotten too much, and it wasn’t me—my life had changed.”
Kaufman says that Princeton Artist Brush Company is now the number-one supplier of fine art brushes in the United States. “We do five times what they did in the old company (Grumbacher),” he says. He attributes his success to product innovation and building one-on-one relationships with his customers.
“I could have retired, but I love my job,” he says. “I love dealing with people, and I love the success of having built a business.”
Princeton Artist Brush Company may have “no budget and no policies,” but they do have a guiding philosophy. “It’s all about no corporate structure other than ‘do what the customer wants,’” he says. “If you make them happy, especially in the world of the Internet, they are going to tell other people.”
Kaufman has considered and rejected notions of expanding his business into other areas. “I want to be the best in a niche and be all things to everybody in that niche,” he says.
In 2013 received the lifetime achievement award from NAMTA, the International Art Materials Association. For most, it is a post-retirement honor. “They usually check your pulse,” Kaufman jokes. “But I hope to keep going as long as I possibly can.”