Employee First

How treating workers like customers built one of western Canada’s largest painting businesses. An interview with Mark Dumerton of M&L Painting, Coquitlam, B.C.

By Steve Maxwell

When 16 year-old Mark Dumerton got a job at a gas station owned by Larrie Novak in 1981, there was no way Mark could have known this business connection would eventually lead to his ownership of one of the five largest painting companies in Western Canada. Together Mark and Larrie founded M&L Painting, and by 1982 Mark was the sole owner of a business with a very modest $80,000 in annual sales. Today Mark has more than 80 employees, with offices in Vancouver and Alberta. His team also works on Vancouver Island, in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan. M&L does every kind of painting there is, and Mark has plans to grow the company larger. In this exclusive Pro Painter Q&A interview, Mark shares his wisdom and experience on how sustained growth of a painting company can happen.

Going from working on your own to running a proper painting firm with teams of painters is not an easy process. What are the main factors for success?
You need to begin by understanding something about yourself. Are you a trades person or a business person? You may start out as a tradesperson, but you need to become focused on the business side of things and understand good business practices if you want to succeed. I was lucky to have a wife who worked with me and had a marketing diploma from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. As for me, I’m not a good tradesman so I knew right at the beginning that I needed to hire others to succeed. I did that right away when I took ownership of the business, but stayed on the tools until I had six painters working for me. At that time I decided to take 6 months and go and secure new work and see if it was viable for me to be off the tools. It became clear that I could secure work for more painters and was able to grow to 12 painters very quickly.

What are the biggest challenges you face in running M&L?
Having the right people working for me, maintaining cash flow, understanding how each client looks at different items as being important, reading clients and giving them what they need and understand. It’s also important to realize that there are some clients that just do not line up with our values and company culture. We need to say no to that work.

How has the business changed in the time you’ve been involved?
We’ve grown from six employees to more than 60 painters. We work across western Canada and we continue to evolve. This includes training and coaching of our executive, our management team and our general superintendents. As we live out our values and emphasize our core competencies, we believe our employees will take these values on, too. We have been working intentionally over the last 4 years to become an “employee first” company. We believe that if we treat our employees as well as we treat our customers, our employees will pass this on, treating our customers the way we want them treated. In a sense, our on-site employees become a kind of sales force. Back in 2014, I began to focus on being an employee first company. After a year I saw the positive change in our company culture as well as our profitability. At that time I hired an executive coach to work with my key people and help continue to implement the employee first approach.

Employee first is a recognized business management style pioneered by award-winning business leaders such as Kip Tindell. “We believe that if we take better care of our employees than anyone else – by paying them better and training them more – that they in turn will take better care of our customers than anyone else”, explains Tindell. “This keeps our customers coming back to see us over and over again.”

How do you monitor painter productivity to ensure you’re making a profit on a given job?
We always start with a budget. Each project manager goes over the details with the painters on site and we track hours and productivity daily through our cost analysis program. The project managers monitor costs for each job with the foreman. Setting expectations and monitoring them as the job unfolds is key. Everyone involved gets to share in the savings whenever we come in under budget.

M&L tackles a wider variety of paint jobs than any other single painting company I’ve seen – everything from residential to commercial including big box stores. Do you keep different crews on different kinds of jobs, or do you use the diversity of work to provide a diversity of experience for your people?
Both. We have enough history on each project manager and foreman to know what types of jobs they’re most successful at. It’s management’s job to put our employees in a position to be successful in order for us to be successful.

M&L places a strong public emphasis on sustainability. How does this play out in day-to-day operations?
Many ways. We use LEED-approved products whenever possible. All wash water for cleaning brushes and rollers is either used to thin paint or brought back to our warehouse to be purified in our onsite system before disposing of it.

Is M&L growing as a business, or is it in a stable, steady state in production and revenue?
We’re in a growth trend right now. We have a strategic plan in place to grow in volume and profit over the next 5 years. Most of our new painters come from referrals from our current painters. Our painters are paid a referral amount for each new painter that stays 3 months, then a further bonus when they stay one year. For our part, we provide a workplace where employees can be part of something to be proud of. We have a clear profit sharing program for our painters as well as loyalty bonuses on years they have been with the company. We have benefits which include extended medical, car allowance, RRSP matching, education allowance, plus employee soccer and hockey tickets. Employee social get-togethers, including our yearend celebration, gets a very high participation rate. We match employee charitable donations, and we have a Watch Club where each employee gets a watch at 10 years of service and the chance at a yearly draw for an all-expense paid holiday for a week. Once an employee is with us for a year they very seldom leave.

Would you consider finding good painters to be a primary challenge for you?
Yes, finding good painters is vital, but it’s a challenge that we meet easily because of how we work. We have a lot of good painters on staff which allows us to take on mediocre painters that we can grow into good ones. Once you set expectations, most people can become good painters. My commitment to my people is that we will not grow beyond the good painters we can attract to work with us. We have a clear profit sharing formula that all painters know and can track.

Is painting a big box store different than other large commercial jobs?
No, it’s not that different. We start work by referring to the appropriate Master Painters Institute (MPI) manual to find best practices for any given situation. 90% of our jobs are bid 3 months to 2 years prior to our crew actually getting on site. Most of our bids are done online using PlanSwift. Once we get the job, there are a number of steps set out in the contract documents and architectural specification’s that give us guidelines to start planning. These include specification reviews for paint systems, products and colour submissions. There are also insurance requirements laid out in the contract (typically $3 million to $5 million liability), and there could also be a performance bond to ensure we finish the job. Every job also has safety requirements which include the company safety manual and safety planning procedures with daily and weekly reporting. There’s also a Certificate of Recognition (COR) independent safety audit of our company. Each employee is also required to have a minimum level of training that increases based on their level of responsibility. All our safety training happens online through an employee portal on the website, and so does most of our skills training. Equipment needed for a project is based on material being used and the specific job. This could include sprayers, power rollers, different types of lifts, boson chairs, swing stages, etc. Regardless of the job, we use an MPI manual to pick our products and systems based on the type of substrate and situation.

What sort of warehouses do you have to store equipment and supplies?
We have a 2,000 square foot space in Vancouver and rent more warehouse space temporarily from time to time to do prefinishing. We also set up an operational office and warehouse whenever we decide to focus in an area.

Have you developed innovations for applying products that help boost efficiency on big jobs?
No, not really. We use sprayers and power rollers for different applications. A big job is just like a lot of small jobs put together.

What are some of the more interesting and unusual jobs M&L has tackled over the years?
Earlier this year, we did the Big Splash Water Park in Tsawwassen, B.C. The facility had a large paint failure from another contractor. We had to figure out how to remove epoxy, ensure adhesion, then recoat with fresh epoxy. We painted the base building of Tsawwassen Mills, a 1.2 million square foot shopping mall in Delta, B.C., as part of initial construction in 2016 – 2017. This was a very time-demanding job and at one point we had over 50 painters on the site. In 2013, we did the Langley Event Centre. This was a large wooden structure that includes gymnasiums and ice rinks, offices and gym so there were many different paint systems on that project. The project included 12 painters. Also that year we did the Victoria’s Secret flagship store in Vancouver. Our work included numerous applications including wall coverings, plaster finishes, faux finishes and painting. We had 15 painters on that project over a 4-month period. Back in 2010, we did the Hotel Georgia project in Vancouver. It was a large restoration component involving faux finishes to replicate the look of the 1920’s. We had 8 to 20 painters on that job and it took more than 36 months to complete.

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