How this second generation Kitchener firm became an Ontario institution
It’s easy to start small when it comes to professional painting. That’s often the way propainters begin. A brush, a roller, a can of paint, a diligent attitude and a willing clientele are all you need. What’s more difficult is growing that humble starting point so it becomes a large, stable painting organization with a long track record of happy customers as well as a reliable source of work for painters and income for their families. Growing from small to large isn’t the only way to be successful as a pro painter, but when a painting organization does grow successfully, it’s worth looking at because it happens so rarely.
Kenneth Hodgins Sr. started Expert Painting Inc in 1971 as a one-man show based out of a small farm house on Balzer Road in Kitchener, Ontario. It’s since grown into a pillar of the southwestern Ontario industrial, commercial and institutional painting scene. Chris and Casey Hodgins are sons of the founder and they own and manage the business these days. Casey and Chris took over day-to-day operations from their dad in 2010, and their client list includes some of the biggest landmarks in southwestern Ontario: Maple Leaf Foods, Grand River Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital, University of Waterloo, Dare Foods, the famous Cove Island lighthouse, too many school boards to list, plus manufacturing plans and municipal facilities across the region.
“My dad grew the business in the early days from one basic philosophy – hard work”, explains Chris. “When he first got into the industry he knew very little about painting. By working hard and learning everything possible he was able to grow and land more projects. Hiring in the early years was either by ads in the local news paper, through local paint stores or from family and friends.”
Ken’s no longer involved directly in management – he spends winters in Florida – but he often stops in to the office when he’s in Canada. “Dad’s only ever a phone call away”, explains Casey, “and happy to offer advice from his many years of expe-rience.”
“Like most start ups, my dad began as a lone painter with a passion for the industry and a vision to grow”, says Chris. “I’ve been involved in the company ever since I can remember. Starting out in summers prepping for the more experienced painters and learning the trade from them, I always knew I wanted to be involved in the painting industry. Learning the trade from the inside has been great.”
Part of the reason Expert Painting has succeeded is stability, both for customers and painters. “We’ve always used employees instead of subs or independent contractors in our business”, says Casey. “I believe our customers hire us for a reason, and it’s not to have subs do the work. We currently have 20 to 25 employees during the busy summer season.”
Expert Painting is the longest standing firm in what’s called the “tri-cities” area of southern Ontario: Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo. The company has moved three times in its history, always to accommodate growth.
Growing larger as a company takes time, patience and skill, but it also makes greater efficiencies possible. A bigger team with bigger facilities means more specialization can happen. Office staff handles paperwork and invoicing that would normally fall to the owner of a small painting business. Large companies can also save time by making the flow of paint and painting supplies more efficient. But of course, no startup can begin this way. Chris and Casey’s mom, Heather, managed paperwork in the early days. Invoicing and estimates were sent by mail or delivered by hand. Fax machines were used when they became available. Now it’s all email.
“Our current office and ware-house allows all of our full time office staff to work in a comfortable environment,” says Chris, “while the bay at the back of the building allows for easy and quick access to our painting supplies. We don’t typically buy paint in bulk for future projects as many paints are unique and require different applications, but do buy basic drywall primer in bulk and store it in the shop. We also have several hundred gallons of paint stored in our shop as well as a paint shaker. The majority of this is left over from projects. Sometimes situations come up where we can mix and tint this paint to use as primer and help cut back on waste. Other then this we let our local paint suppliers take care of tinting.”
The Hodgins put a lot of emphasis on building and maintaining business relationships as a source for new contracts, and that’s some-thing painting companies of any size can do.
“We always tried to earn respect in the community”, says Casey. “We’ve maintained an A+ rating at the Better Business Bureau for over 30 years, we’re members of local business associations and we contribute to local sports communities.”
We always tried to earn respect in the community,” says Casey. “We have maintained an A+ rating at the Better Business Bureau for over 30 years… My dad’s focus was always to deliver high quality service at reasonable prices. “
Phases of Growth
“My dad’s focus was always to deliver high quality service at reasonable prices, and this is one thing that’s been behind our success,” says Chris. “In the summer of 1988 we packed up and moved to a larger location in town and stayed there for 22 years. In 2010, we moved again to our present spot. This place is bigger and more conveniently located.”
“The painting industry has changed significantly over the last 40 years,” explains Chris. “Part of this is driven by different products that are available today. Safety standards have gotten more demanding as well.”
Working mainly in the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sectors, Expert Painting markets themselves differently than a residential painting business might.
“Being a member of the business organization Grand Valley Construction Association (GVCA) helps us make connections with ICI clients”, says Chris. “We also have a website, of course, and logos on vehicles. Our full size office and shop has our sign out front, too. We sponsor sports teams throughout the region and you can see our bright red and white Expert Painting hockey jerseys around the arenas on any given night. We still have a small section in the Yellow Pages, but being around so long we’ve developed some great working relationships.”
Great relationships don’t happen just by being around a long time, though. Expert Painting works at this in tangible ways. “We make it a point to give back to the community, including through local charities,” explains Casey.
It’s not unusual for solo painters or hired employees to set out on their own and try to build a painting business. There are lots of reasons to want to do this, not the least of which is the ability to spend winters in Florida at some stage in your career. But just because you want something doesn’t mean you know how to get it. Running a painting business is entirely different than painting, and one of the big differences is financial. “The construction industry typically pays 30 to 90 days after completion of a project”, explains Chris. “Then there are hold-backs that can delay full payment even longer. Not having enough cash to meet payroll can make things difficult for a young company. You need access to cash as a basis for any startup.”
How Expert Painting Inc Operates
Expert Painting handles about 150 projects each year, ranging from one-day jobs to projects that last several months. They’ve always focused on the institutional, commercial and industrial sec-tors, too. Over the past 5-10 years they’ve been more commercial and institutional as some of the larger factories in the area have closed. About 10 per cent of Expert’s work is residential. “In most cases we recommend another painting con-tractor that prefers this type of work”, explains Casey.
“Business management skills have become increasingly important to professional painting contractors”, says Chris. “We’re being asked to play a more active part in the day-to-day management of job sequencing. In years previous our role was limited to supplying general labour, but today we’re often part of the decision-making team on projects.”
Successful businesses usually have a simple focus behind every-thing they do, and that’s the case with Expert Painting. They take great pride in following four major rules:
1. Do whatever it takes to use the right products to suit the needs of the client.
2. Work hard to make sure everyone on the team of painters is a real pro.
3. Do whatever it takes to complete all projects on time.
4. Always complete projects on budget.
All employees are fully trained and updated regularly on all of the industry requirements for the profession. This includes Health and Safety, WHMIS, Fall Protection, Con-fined Space and Lift Tickets. “The industry is changing quickly, so there are other certifications we train and update for, too”, says Casey.
“We’re fortunate to have knowledgeable foreman capable of man-aging a crew and ordering materials ahead of time to minimize down-time. This is key for meeting tight project deadlines and keeping crews productive”, explains Chris.
Foremen always paint alongside the crew they manage, too. “This gives them a good sense of the products being used and paint quantities required for the week”, explains Chris. Foremen let me know when to place orders so paint is ready and down time reduced.” The average number of painters on our projects is two or three. Sometimes the company might have ten on one job when they need a quick turn-around.
“We aim to grow our company by building relationships with our existing customers and by being reliable”, says Casey. “Adapting to the latest technology is also a key ingredient in our success as well. There’s new software coming out all the time to help estimate, for instance. Technology exists to help track job costs, and even to help match and order custom paint colours on site.”
“There are always plans and ideas to grow the business”, explains Chris, “but we don’t want to grow to the point where we can no longer provide the same level of quality the company was built on. It’s especially hard to grow in a industry where people are losing interest in learning the trade. We’re finding it more and more difficult to find skilled painters or even people that want to learn the trade at all.”
Expert Painting is one of those rare success stories where a one-man show grows into a stable organization over several generations. The world of painting needs companies like these just like it needs solo painters, too. Whether or not you have aspirations to grow your own company, there are always lessons to be learned from people who’ve grown successfully over the long haul.
One of the best ways to grow a successful painting business is to learn from companies that have done just that. Here are Casey and Chris’s tips for painting entrepreneurs looking to grow:
Hire a foreman who doesn’t need hand holding.
The role of a foremen is to manage the troops so you can manage the company and your first foreman is crucial. If a person can’t handle all aspects of managing a crew and ordering materials while also painting, then you need a new foreman.
Grow only when you really have the resources to grow.
Growth is good, but it can also blow up in your face if you try it too soon. Don’t let your enthusiasm for growth get the better of you. If you don’t have additional skilled labour, efficient methods for ordering and distributing more materials, and time or staff to handle additional office tasks, then more business could kill an otherwise good company.
Get good at estimating.
Accurate estimating is crucial and it takes time and practice to master. You also need to keep a diligent eye on how you’re doing if you expect to get better. Record how long a job takes, carefully keep track of all expenses, then compare these numbers with revenues. This is always a pain, and sometimes painful if you’ve underbid. Just the same, you won’t get good at the essential job of estimating if you do it by the seat of your pants. “Some of the bigger estimating mistakes I made were in areas outside our expertise”, says Chris. “I’ve learned to stick to what I know. I never bid on even the smallest thing unless I have experience in that area.”