While surviving a malignant brain tumor and becoming a single mother of four, Markham, Ontario’s Brenda Cory never let her business slip one single inch.

Brenda Cory’s painting career started the same way many do. She learned the trade from someone who knew it, then built her skills and clientele from there. What makes Brenda different is her level of energy, enthusiasm, professionalism and stamina for plowing through life’s challenges. Not many painters do their thing while raising four kids, surviving a malignant brain tumor and becoming a single mom.

“Back in 2008, I had a friend stay with me for three months while his house was being built”, explains Cory. “He was doing wallpaper and faux finishing for a living, and I was looking for a career change. With four kids to raise I needed flexibility. I made a nuisance of myself going with him to jobs and asking questions, and after a while I thought, “Hey, I can do this.” I started with kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms for friends for not much money. A designer friend gave me my first full house job and I’ve stayed with the work because I really enjoy it.”

90% of Cory’s work has always been residential repainting of condos, houses and renovations, and though she doesn’t paint solo, her business is small. “For many years, I partnered with one phenomenal painter for larger jobs – a European master named Soorin Esvai. At the moment, my son, Adrian, is my painting partner. He’s been working with me from a young age helping out after school and on occasional weekends.”

“Adrian is now 24 and has taken over most of the heavy work. Back when he was younger he’d hold the extension ladder and scrape windows. I taught him to roll, caulk and sand when he was 13. He worked for another painter for a while doing spraying and commercial work, so our skills complement each other. Now he’s as good a painter as they come, capable of any job to the highest standards. At the moment we’re looking for an assistant for the spring, but it’s not easy. Once I hired a man who answered an ad. His work was adequate, but he talked incessantly. This slowed his work and was unprofessional. One time he phoned me drunk and that was the end of him.”

At the moment, my son Adrian is my painting partner. He’s been working with me from a young age, helping out after school and on occasional weekends.

Brenda’s life changed dramatically in 2010 when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Dealing with that challenge took a year of her life. “I had surgery and six weeks of daily radiation. I had four kids at the time and I was off work for a year. I had the support of my husband at the time, thank goodness, but I still had to deal with long lasting cognitive side-effects from radiation. My personality changed. I became more withdrawn because talking was exhausting. I had to relearn to drive all over again. I lost my ability to attach meaning to things, and I had trouble with balance. There were funny moments, too. One time I was trying to get the kids in the car and I told them to get their life jackets on.”

“We made jokes to get through it all and we used dark humour. I have wonderful friends and family who brought meals to my house for months. I just woke up every morning, found I was still alive and the children needed to be fed. I made them breakfast and worked my way through each day. I abandoned feeling sorry for myself very quickly as a non-productive emotion. A few years ago I did some work for Gord Downie, lead singer with The Tragically Hip, before his cancer diagnosis became public. Obviously, I had a great deal of sympathy for his situation. During my illness I forwarded whatever work I had to my friend Soorin Esvai at Regal Painting. When I returned to work in 2010, I still had a business network.”

Brenda’s Rules for Professionalism

“Be professional always – reliable, punctual, neatly dressed and turned out. Speak quietly, evenly, politely. Don’t park in the driveway, don’t wear shoes in the house except on drop cloths, don’t play loud music, don’t talk on the phone unless you have to. Be considerate of people’s homes. Never conduct a “number 2” in a client’s bathroom – go to Tim Horton’s. Clean up at the end of each day and take away garbage, coffee cups, paint cans. Never ask your customer for anything when you’re in their house. Don’t ask for a hammer or a damp cloth or a broom. Make sure you have these things with you.

“When it comes to pricing, I like to stay flexible and competitive. I try to charge a fair price for me and for the customer. I work on a daily rate basis plus a price per piece system. For example, doors are X dollars each, spindles are Y each, ceilings are Z per square foot. I usually separate out the cost of labour and paint supplies. I don’t work by the hour.”

If you’re a new painter, Brenda recommends giving discounted prices to build your client base. Work for family and friends to get started. What’s Brenda’s ideal painting client? “Someone who isn’t at home during the day is usually great because you can go so much faster and get so much more done.” That said, not all absent clients are best.

“One day I was working on the closet doors in the front hall of a house and the owner was away. The doorbell rang and I answered it, forgetting the owner’s 70 pound German Shepherd. As I opened the door, the dog bolted through a tray of white paint and out the front door into the street. I ran out to get him but he wouldn’t come. I ran back inside, grabbed treats and a leash and back outside. The person at the door said to me, “Can’t you control your own dog?” “Not my dog, I answered as I ran past. I managed to get the dog back inside and then spent the better part of an hour taking white paw prints off the flagstone walkway.”

Painting Tips and Wisdom

“In the beginning I tried every brand of paint”, says Cory, “comparing cost versus quality. Today, I primarily use Benjamin Moore. Quality’s outstanding and many homeowners and designers request it. When BM re-designed their fan-decks to incorporate coordinating groups of colours people were able to familiarize themselves to individual colours which they ask for by name. It’s important to be able to do color consultations with customers. A painter must be familiar with designer colors and trends.”

One of the most helpful things Brenda has found is to develop a relationship with a particular paint store, rather than just buying here and there. “It’s okay to ask your paint suppliers questions about products. In fact, you should be asking. Just make sure you’re talking to the most knowledgeable person there. I deal with a paint store owner named Chi. He knows everything there is to know about paint, paint products, colours, and paint application. If there was a Jeopardy for paint, he’d win every time.”

Brenda’s Tips for Bartering

Barter is one of the more unusual things Brenda does on the business side, and she’s found it delivers big gains.”Exchanging work for services has been a tremendous way to boost business”, says Brenda. “I’ve worked in exchange for massage therapy, accounting services, personal training, fitness coaching and nutrition. I’m always the one to bring barter up as a possibility to a customer, but only when I’m acquainted with them. I’d never barter with someone I don’t really know.

The best kind of painters aren’t in it just for the money. There’s always something more there. I still get a tremendous kick out of standing back at the end of a job and thinking: Wow, that looks great! I’m still amazed at how transformative a good paint job is to any space. It may not be brain surgery, but it’s so rewarding when a customer is thrilled about the change Adrian and I have made in their home.”

Given her experience with brain cancer, Cory is understandably interested in the safest paints possible. The fact that many clients share these values is a bonus, too. “I prefer BM Regal and Eco Spec for residential jobs. Both have zero VOCs, provide excellent coverage and results. When it comes to exterior paints, Sherwin Williams Duration is the absolute best in my experience”, says Cory. “It’s durable, fills cracks, is easy to work with and lasts.” For primers Cory swears by the INSL-X line of primers, her favorite being Aqua Lock.

“DryDex is the product I use most for patching these days. It goes on pink, dries white and I always wear a mask when sanding it. I want someone to find a way to eliminate sanding. I hate dust. Other than dust, the only real drawback with DryDex is the lid. Store it upside down to prevent unused product from drying out. I use Rapid Coat Low Dust for light skim coats and Sheetrock 30 with mesh tape for bigger fixes.”

Brenda’s Business Tips

Brenda’s always busy, with most of her work coming from word-of-mouth and repeat customers. Real estate agents, designers and contractors all send her jobs. “My son Adrian has recently taken over our online presence and has increased our visibility. It sounds simple, but the most successful thing we’ve done is posting before and after photos on the Cory Painting Facebook page. People LOVE before and after pics. In this day and age having an online presence is a requirement for running a successful painting business in my opinion. People need to be able to go onto the internet and find out who you are and what your company is about.”

Brenda shows innovation in other areas of marketing too, with simple practices bringing in good jobs. “In the past I’ve used flyers on garage doors in subdivisions about five years old. All the garage doors and front doors need painting at that point. I got a lot of business this way which leads to other jobs. I follow up by email a week after every job is done every time. This leads to steady referrals and happy customers.”

Success in any business is always about more than the technical work of the business itself, and this may be especially true when it comes to residential painting. How many other careers bring you right into the inner part of people’s homes day after day?

“Aside from mastering the technical skills required, I’ve learned that psychology is almost as important as the painting”, says Brenda. “Being able to read people quickly and assess their requirements and point of view is key. You also need to be aware of cultural differences. Some cultures are more comfortable negotiating a price than others. You have to adapt, especially in the ethnically diverse area where I work.”

Brenda’s Three Tips for Growing Your Business

1.     Build and maintain your network.
Give out business cards everywhere you go. Everywhere. The gym (painters need to stay fit), small businesses you visit, offices you stop at.  I painted a dance studio once when my daughter took dance lessons. Same thing with her pre-school. Send out Christmas cards –even via email. Anything to remind people about you is good.

2.     Keep learning and stay flexible.
Paint companies are always developing new products. Keep up with them. Learn new skills and don’t be afraid to ask questions at your paint store. There are so many different products for different purposes. Every painter needs help keeping up.

3.     Always be professional and generous.
If I have time, I do extra things for people. Maybe they need touch ups in other rooms, or perhaps there was something extra that wasn’t in their budget. I’ve walked dogs, moved furniture, cleaned gutters.

By Steve Maxwell

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