The man with the golden touch
Guest Editor Petter Stordalen about Vimal Kovac:
‘Even though he manages the hugely successful and high-profile Stureplansgruppen in Stockholm, Vimal is someone who tends to avoid the limelight, letting his business speak for itself instead. Vimal is a person who inspires me and someone I learn a lot from’
Stureplan, on the edge of Stockholm’s Östermalm district, has always been the place where the beautiful people of Stockholm flock. But 25 years ago, when most would have agreed it lacked a beating heart, a visionary, who appreciated the staid eateries and clubs that had long ruled the scene, also saw that something was missing.
Kovac never really had a master plan but he had something else – drive, ambition and vision – and it’s those three elements that have made him the king of Stockholm’s glittering Stureplan scene.
“I was studying engineering at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology, but to be honest, the course looked better on paper than it did in real life. I really wasn’t that motivated,” Kovac explains.
“One day I looked at this lunch restaurant across the street from school and saw some potential. I thought it could be more than just a lunch restaurant so I talked to the owner and next thing you know I had started a club during the weekends.”
That wasn’t the first time Kovac had arranged parties. Adopted as a baby from Sri Lanka, Kovac had a typically Swedish childhood in the Stockholm suburb of Sollentuna. He looked to be on a so-called “normal” path in life, but even in his mid-teens he was throwing over-the-top parties for his friends.
“When I was 16, I arranged a party at a restaurant,” Kovac says. “It was a big space and around 500 people showed up. As the night went on, people got really drunk and crazy and I thought the owner was going be angry because of how they were behaving. But he wasn’t – after the party he told me I should go into the bar and restaurant business, because I really knew how to give people a good time.”
After that came the weekend club at the restaurant near his school and then Kovac got the chance to run a small club just outside Stockholm. Making that a success too led to a job offer at a struggling restaurant at Stureplan, in the heart of Stockholm. Kovac knew an opportunity when he saw it – he quit school after just one semester and threw himself into his new career.
“After six months I knew two things – one, I wasn’t ready to be a restaurateur, and two, something had to be done about the Stockholm club scene.”
Kovac borrowed €4,000, hopped on a bus to IKEA, and his first real nightclub, Stockholm’s now-legendary Spy Bar, was born. It wasn’t all plain sailing though – during the first few months, when the actual bar was called “Billy” after the modified IKEA bookshelves Kovac used to create it, things hardly went to plan.
“My new career as a nightclub entrepreneur almost ended in the first week,” Kovac laughs. “We had this crazy idea that we shouldn’t play loud music. Our guests disagreed and before the month was out we had cranked up the volume. Suddenly guests were pouring through the door.”
‘The real secret is surrounding yourself with the right people to do the jobs you can’t do yourself and treat them well’
The success of Spy Bar meant Kovac was working around the clock – the club stayed open until 5am and as soon as the last guests had stumbled out the door Kovac and his team went to work dismantling the “Billy” bar and redecorating the entire space to turn it into a daytime conference venue, in order to maximize revenue.
“That was back in the days when you could smoke in clubs, so you can imagine what that was like,” Kovac laughs. “We shared one computer between three people and I was at the club literally day and night. After a few months I ended up in the hospital, completely exhausted, with the doctor telling me I needed to pace myself. Three days later I snuck out the hospital’s back door and got back to work.”
“I had a business to run and nothing was going to stop me, not even my own health.”
Instead of sitting back and enjoying the success of Spy Bar, Kovac kept working. He wasn’t interested in emulating nightclub impresarios like Studio 54’s Steve Rubell, who was known for partying with his guests and became synonymous with the legendary mid-70s New York hangout. Kovac was much more comfortable being the puppet master behind the scenes.
Staying out of the limelight suited him perfectly, but the big expansion of his future empire really began when he got together with Lennart Karlsson, the legendary Swedish restaurant entrepreneur.
“Lennart taught me a lot about scaling up the business, as well as about diplomacy,” Kovac says. “I think it’s hard to grow a business if you’re too focused on being a part of the scene. I had to make sure things were running well – if I was out partying every night it wasn’t going to come together. And I was so young that if I was seen as the guy who hung out and partied with guests, I would have lost respect and wouldn’t have had the authority I needed with my staff.”
A couple of years after they met, Kovac was offered a generous deal to acquire Karlsson’s life work, the Baldakinen Group, which at the time was three times the size of Stureplansgruppen. It was a deal that took Kovac to another level. Now, he was seeing opportunities all around him, all the time, and his love of concepts led to him building his growing empire of high-end restaurants, bars and hotels all targeted at a specific demographic – those who want to be seen. And it was his unique ability to bring the right people together that helped build his success.
“There are no secret ingredients to running a bar or a restaurant,” Kovac explains. “You need servers, door people, bartenders, chefs and all the rest. The real secret is surrounding yourself with the right people to do the jobs you can’t do yourself and treat them well. I’m not a chef or a bartender – but I know how to find the best ones.”
“Even more importantly, back when I started I knew that people who were trying to build what is now called their ‘personal brand’ needed somewhere to go where they could be photographed and written about. I provided that.”
‘My philosophy is this – if we believe in what we’re doing, we’ll make it a success’
This was long before the advent of social media but it was right when the Internet was slowly gaining traction, something Kovac took advantage of.
“Before social media, people needed a way to get their image out there, to be seen beyond the club, so together with journalist Alex Schulman, we decided to launch stureplan.se. The website posted photos, interviews and articles that helped people raise their profile and it ended up becoming the third most popular website in Sweden. Then, social media came along and within a couple of years of Instagram launching, our website was dead,” Kovac laughs.
The website is just one example of Kovac’s ability to keep his ear to the ground – and to also know when to move on. While he’s been behind some of Stockholm’s most well-known bars and restaurants, it would be better to call him an entrepreneur rather than a restaurateur, because in addition to the clubs and eateries, he has had his fingers in many other pies, too. He has opened, among other things, an interior design shop and a retail clothing store, while another project, Sweden’s biggest music festival, Summerburst, has exceeded even his wildest expectations – which is why he calls it his favorite success.
“Two guys – Anders Boström and Karl OP, who I had never met before – came to me with this idea to create a few small music festivals around Sweden – maybe 5,000–10,000 guests,” Kovac remembers. “We did it from zero. We had no concert facilities and we didn’t know much about the business, but they saw an opportunity and I trusted my gut.”
Losing SKr11 million the first year might have made someone with a weaker stomach bail out, but Kovac saw – as always – the bigger picture.
“Yes, I did have some sleepless nights over that one,” he laughs. “But in the second year we made SKr20 million. My philosophy is this – if we believe in what we’re doing, we’ll make it a success. It might not happen in the first year, the second, or even the third year, but it will happen. Summerburst is a great example of this.”
Believing in his concepts while trusting his gut is at the root of how Kovac does business. He says one of his best qualities is that when he meets someone he gets a feeling about them and knows very quickly whether he wants to do business with them or not.
“I really like to find entrepreneurs,” Kovac says. “Often they don’t have the finance or the administration, but they do have a great idea, so we can give them the parts they need, take the financial risk, and then make it happen.”
‘If I was starting out today I don’t think I’d get into it. The restaurant and club industry is too hard to break into these days’
“When Karl and Anders came to me with the idea for Summerburst I knew right away I wanted to work with them, and in the end we did great business, had a great exit, everyone made money and everyone was happy. I was even at one of the guys’ wedding recently.”
Summerburst co-founder Karl OP says Kovac was not just the spark he and his partner needed to ignite their business back in 2011, but also the heart and soul.
“Vimal took a chance on two crazy guys with big ideas,” he explains. “He has the rare ability to see potential and possibility where others cannot. He can take a venue or an idea and patiently let it grow to its full potential. That foresight makes his capabilities unique in the hospitality industry.”
Kovac, Boström and Karl OP worked together closely for five years, building the unique festival and concert company, before selling it to Live Nation.
“To say Vimal is passionate about his work is an understatement. He moves fast, is always one step ahead and has a solution for every problem,” Karl OP says. “He transfers his confidence to his partners, and while he has an incredible eye for detail, he’s also very strategic.”
First club: Northside, 1991
Employees: Started with one, now over 1,000
First restaurant: Laroy, 1997 (converted to a nightclub after six months)
First hotel: Berns, 2011
Annual turnover: SKr1.2 billion.
Cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg, Visby, Åre
Restaurants: 21 (one with a Michelin star)
Hotels: Two (with two more on the way)
Conference: CCC – one of Sweden’s largest conference and convention facilities
“On top of being a brilliant business partner, he’s also just a really great person who cares deeply about the people around him.”
Per Gunne, Vice CEO and COO at Stureplansgruppen, has known Kovac for more than 15 years and has worked together with him for six. “Exciting” is the first word he uses to sum up working with Kovac.
“We’ve worked together on everything from hotel concepts and restaurants to procurement and marketing issues,” Gunne says. “His ability to see opportunities and turn them into reality is outstanding. And if problems arise, Vimal addresses the situation right away. Even more importantly, he knows how to build on success – he never rests on his laurels.”
So after more than two decades of building one of the more unique companies in Sweden, does Kovac have any unfulfilled dreams?
“I’ve always liked to create things, so I don’t see myself stopping,” Kovac says. “Ten years ago, 80% of our portfolio was clubs. Today, that’s around 15%, with our focus now on hotels, such as the boutique Bank Hotel we’re opening this year. And every time I launch a new concept I look over the ones that have been going for a while and see what needs fixing or brushing up, so there’s always something to do.”
Stockholm has changed a lot since Kovac was starting out, with the restaurant and bar scene more international and competition tougher than ever.
“I got into the hospitality business because I love it, and I got successful with a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. But if I was starting out today I don’t think I’d get into it. The restaurant and club industry is too hard to break into these days, so starting from nothing like I did 25 years ago probably wouldn’t work.”
“Old-fashioned hard work isn’t going to cut it anymore,” Kovac says. “You need to specialize – competition in the future will be between educated people and AI, so yeah, I shouldn’t have dropped out of school after one semester. I should have gotten my degree, built something great like all these tech people do, and made an early exit.”
While it may seem like all work and no play for Kovac, he does find time for fun. He likes to travel and he really – really! – likes flying and airplanes.
“I don’t fly planes myself, of course, but I like to read about planes and fly on different ones,” he explains. “For me, a holiday is more about the flight than the destination. When I travel, I book as many layovers as possible, so I can fly on as many models as I can. On a trip to Thailand, I could have flown direct from Stockholm but I booked the one with three stops, so I could fly on three different plane models – it took 35 hours instead of 12, which my fiancé didn’t really appreciate,” he laughs.
Building his business, taking chances, following his gut – these are all things that drive Vimal Kovac and that have helped make him a success. But there’s one more – very special – ingredient in the mix.
“One thing I love is Stockholm. I mean, I really love this city,” he says. “Every time I’m away, I return and just think, ‘Ah! I’m back!’ I love to take holidays, but I love coming home to Stockholm even more.”
Published: April 6, 2018