Going from Solo to Boss

By Robert Walton

Real-world insights about hiring painters and growing a painting business.

Got a dream to hire painters and expand? There’s good money to be made if you’re the right kind of person, but you need to understand the challenges up front. Learn from what real painters have to say about their experiences moving from solo to boss.

1. Expect it to be hard to find and keep good help

“I’ve hired painters in the past, and they all start out eager and take pride in their work. But as time goes by, the more comfortable they get the more their work suffers. They start showing up late, leaving early or calling in sick. Work gets sloppy. If I have to micro-manage an employee, or I don’t have 100 per cent faith in the quality of their work, I’d prefer to work alone and keep my high standards.”

“I’m a solo painter, but over the years I’ve hired help. The first was a temp guy. I asked for a non-smoker, and he lit up in the church bathroom during our job. I trained a nephew and niece, and they were the best summer helpers but moved on to careers. Things were getting busy, so I hired a relative part time to help with the office work , and hired a full-time lady as a painter who needed training. That lasted 4 months.”

2. Be sure you understand yourself

“I’ve had 12 guys working for me, I’ve painted solo, and I’ve painted every way in between. For my money, I like the smaller feel. I keep a guy or two around pretty much all year full time. It’s manageable. Finding the right people is everything. I’ve had one guy for seven years, and another for two years straight.”

“I did all my own work for a number of years and never had an issue. Not one complaint. So when the work was too much, I decided to hire a friend who was looking for work. Why not share with a friend, right? Well, that’s when the com- plaints started rolling in!”

[quote style=”1″]You can’t expect what you don’t inspect. That’s rule #1 of having others work in your company.[/quote]

3. Get big enough to make it worthwhile

“I had nine employees during my best year, three of which had their papers and six didn’t. It was my best grossing year ever, but it burnt me out. The best advise I ever got was from a caterer. If you really wanna make money, you gotta get a bigger crew. Six guys or 60 are gonna be the same headaches. So which direction do you wanna go? I went small.”

I’ll never hire again. I’ll work as part of somebody else’s project but that’s it.

“I hired a guy five years ago and have kept him busy ever since. Last year I had a client recommend a helper who was a recent university grad. I was only going to use him for the summer but have kept him gainfully employed for the last 12 months. When I was solo, I worked less and socialized more with vendors and clients. With two people on board you have a sounding board for ideas.
Days go by quicker and you can leave your painter alone to attend to banking, estimates, sick days with kids, etc. You’ve also got another body to clean the shop. But with your second painter hired, you can’t have downtime. The income statement needs to be the main focus. Estimation accuracy as well as cash-flow management are key.
Fast forward today and I’m booked three months out with interior projects. I’m trying to say no, but clients are willing to wait. Most of my days are in the field, nights
spent estimating, even later nights typing them up. Early mornings I do payroll, meet deduction deadlines, lists for materials, etc. With two painters on board there’s no
breathing room for me. Three painters might actually be better so I can focus more on sales and administration and less in the field.”

One extra guy is almost a necessity. Together we often do the job of a three-man crew.

4. Hire for attitude, train for skill

“I wouldn’t work alone. Never did, never will. My suggestion is to find someone younger and mold them. There are good people out there. Just avoid the ones into drinking, drugs, showing up late and those who’ve become painters by default. In my opinion you can make a lot more money with a crew working for you. The big hitters have one to five crews. Is it easy finding the right people? No, it’s not. But ultimately if you want to grow you need more hands. Stop hiring know-it-alls!”

“I constantly manage crews of one to 12 people who have little or no experience. We get it done and I swear it’s all about the prep, teaching and supervision. On average we deal with only five or six deficiencies for 25 homes.”

“I’ve seen people who think that the longer your roller sits on the wall the faster you’re painting. I call those people dry rollers. In my opinion, it’s the amount of time that roller is not on the wall – the time between dips – that matters. I’ve worked with guys that I dip three times to their one. I go farther on the wall and put more paint on per square foot, so obviously my work looks better. And be sure to teach your painters to keep that cut pot within easy reach for dips. I worked next to a guy who would cut out of a 5 gallon pail. One day when I saw him going up and down a ladder for every dip I was extremely annoyed, and he wasn’t even my employee.”

5. You’ll need to be patient & persistent

“I’ve had up to 14 painters employed – seven painters and seven guys who thought they were painters. Quality help is difficult to find. I’ve had three ads on Craigslist with no luck. I’ve had a couple of guys filling in with me on the weekends and I now have a part time apprentice who works when she’s not in school. Needless to say I am still searching.”

“I have ONE guy that I call when I need REAL help…not just another pair of hands. He does what he’s there for and he’s a damn good painter!”

6. You’ve got to be an effective and fair leader

“If you’re going to hire someone – especially if you want to eventually delegate responsibility to them – it becomes your job to teach the heart of why you make the decisions you do. You always have to explain every- thing 100 times to employees before there’s a problem. Explain until you see their eyes glaze over, then explain things a little more – always with humor and fun. And be sure to pay them well when they make you money!”

“I hope you’re using an app called Joist or something similar for typing up estimates. I usually reserve one day a week for office work, or I work a 6-hour painting day then spend time in the evening on administration.”

“I was foreman of nine crews of two guys for a boss. I did estimates, scheduling, supervising, client relations, color and design collaboration and payroll. Buying paint, delivering supplies. setting up jobs and cleaning up after- wards. Follow up visits, cold calls, advertising ideas, lay- ing off when times were slow. I never did the hiring, training or bookkeeping. I had to use my own vehicle for all this, too. The final straw was when I found out my boss had spent three days driving around the Maritimes trying to get the best deal on a pickup truck. He brought me into the office and said times were slow (I was working 60 to 80 hours a week), and told me he had to cut my pay from $16/ hr. to $12.50/hr. I walked out to work on my own and never looked back. BTW, that old boss never did get his truck and went out of business two years later.”

“I’ve had hundreds of different men and women work for me. I can name at least two who had been convicted and served for murder. I can name three who had been convicted and served for bank robbery. (BTW, bank robbers seem to be pretty honourable guys for some weird reason.) I’ve had drunks, junkies, coke freaks and worse. I’m now down to a five man crew and I’m back on the tools myself because I kinda like it. At my age maybe it’s time to get off the horse and leave the game to others. I feel that those entering the trades will be able to ask for open cheques – as real tradespeople are becoming rare.”

So, does being your own painting boss sound like it’s for you? It really comes down to what you want from the trade and what kind of person you are.

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