How to Grow a Painting Business

One of the toughest challenges in the painting business is growing your work as a solo or small painter into a large and stable painting company. Painters attempt this all the time because it seems simple and lucrative at first glance. In reality it’s one of those things that looks easier than it is. Fiorenzo Di Biase can tell you this for sure. He’s the main man behind Marando Painting in Woodbridge, Ontario, one of the largest painting contractors in southern Ontario. When Fiorenzo started working as a painting estimator for his father-in-law in 2003, he had no idea he’d end up being the driving force behind growing a small painting business into a much larger version of the company today. Fiorenzo’s story has something for every painter. You can learn a lot from him if you want to build a company yourself. His experiences might also show you that you really don’t want to own a painting company after all, or help you see why your previous attempt as company owner didn’t work out. Fiorenzo gets down to details in this exclusive Pro Painter interview.

Q: How did Marando Painting get its start?
A: The company began small as Marando Brothers Painting, founded in the early 1970s by two brothers, Sal and Joe Marando. In 2003, ten years after marrying Sal’s daughter, I was invited to join the company by Sal, then the sole owner of the renamed Marando Painting.
Even when I joined, we were still small. Sal’s clients were asking him for more and he figured he could deliver if he had a bigger company. At one point he said to me: ‘Listen, I have to hire somebody to help with the business and it’d be a shame to go outside the family.’ So I stepped in as estimator and we had a really good working relationship. Sal is a great guy. He taught me everything and he was the one with a vision that said, ‘We need to start bringing in talent’. I was considered talent.

Q: How did you move from the role of estimator to management?
A: It happened because of an emergency. Back in 2008, Sal – who ran everything until then – had a heart attack. Before they rolled him in for surgery, he told me ‘I may come back. I may not come back. I know one thing for sure, I’ll never get back to the company in the same capacity.’ That conversation marked the beginning of a huge learning curve for me.
We had a big project going on at the time, too. It was a brand new arena for the Oshawa Generals and the city was scheduled to have a mayoral campaign in this new arena, too. That project was baptism by fire for me. At that stage I thought I knew my stuff. I thought I knew what I was doing. Ignorance certainly was bliss, and I took on the challenge.

Q: What’s the biggest difficulty you see facing small or solo painters who want to grow?
A: First, you need to stop painting. You can’t paint and run a real painting business effectively at the same time. If you don’t have enough money in reserve to stop painting, then you need a bigger bankroll to get started. You certainly can’t even begin to run a painting business if you’re the most important operational person on the tools. Actual painting is a tough thing for small owner operators to give up because that’s what they’ve always known. You can’t just get to the site and start painting, then drop everything in the middle of the day because a surprise business issue came up or you’ve got to make it to a meeting. You’ll be both a bad painter and a bad business owner if you try. If you’re stuck on a site rolling out a wall, you can’t be at that vital meeting that needs your attention. Actual painting means you can’t develop the business relationships necessary for success as a painting business owner.
Leaving the tools behind might look glamorous from the outside, but many painters would much rather go back to the tools after they’ve lived as a business owner for a while. Running a business is a headache. That’s the role of the business owner, to handle the headaches and solve the problems. I drive highways between big cities on a regular basis, just going up and down, back and forth.
Even having a few guys on a couple of jobs can keep you going from job to job all day as the boss. Now you need to be able to set up five or six of those jobs, maybe with four or five painters on each job. And you have to be sure that for each one of those jobs the painters have work for eight uninterrupted hours every day, day after day. Materials need to be available on site, questions have been answered, submissions are done, paint colours are approved. Colours need to be highlighted on the drawing and an understanding of the job communicated. Your workers need to know the schedule, and all of this has to be taken care of for each one of those multiple projects. There are a lot of moving parts to a painting business.

Q: Finding a steady supply of skilled painters is a universal problem in the painting business. How do you handle the challenge?
A: We’ve been a union shop since Sal registered Marando with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades back in 1985. I consider the union to be our labour partner because they help us so much with manpower. Finding good painters is tough for everybody because there just aren’t enough of them out there. So we all need to work together to attract new people and prepare them for actual work. The union does this for us and more.
For example, a few years ago, the province of Ontario enacted working-at-height legislation that required extensive training for workers. It’s an eight hour course and with the help of the union we got 25 men certified in a month and a half. We couldn’t have done this on our own. Being a union shop does cost us 25-to 30 per cent more in wages, but it’s worth it. 80 percent of our cost on an average job is labour, but expensive labour actually turns out to be cheaper when the people are good and know how to work.

Q: What can you do as a company owner to attract new painters to the trade?
A: Back in 2007 or 2008, one of my older painters told me he felt sorry for me. ‘Why’, I asked. ‘I’m 38 years old, I’m in charge of a company. Why do you feel sorry for me?’
“You’re going to have a problem”, the veteran painter said. Guys like me, back in the day, we showed up early and on Saturdays. If there was no work on Saturdays we got worried. Back then some bosses used to say ‘the slowest guy is getting fired this week. Things are different now. Fewer people want to work.”
Management by fear wasn’t a good thing, but it is a very different world today. These days we’re looking to hire kids, millennials, whatever you want to call them. They don’t like to wake up at six in the morning because one of the things you do in the trades is you get up early and you put in eight hours. That said, painting can be a great way to make a living. Our painters earn anywhere from $60,000 to $85,000 a year, and that’s just as a worker. You can do even better if you move into management.
Painting companies now have to be forward thinking in new ways. These days we have regular staff meetings, including the office crew. We go around the table and talk about the work that’s coming up . . . Here’s how the next year looks for Marando . . . Here’s how we’re doing financially . . . Here are the main projects and events happening at the company. Our employees really are interested.
I learned the value of inclusion like this from a consultant I brought in through one of the trade associations I belong to. At one of the trade conferences he asked questions about painting companies. Do your employees know your vision? Do they know your goals? I had to admit, I didn’t think so.
This led to some soul searching on my part and eventually bringing everybody into the company in an inclusive way. And you know what? Employees want to help. Most of them really do. You just have to ask them. ‘What do you think of how we paint things?’ You’d be surprised how productivity went up when we started asking for advice and listening to it. Treating employees as part of the family is why people want to work for us. I’m able to keep employees long term this way. Since I took over the company I’ve been able to retire ten long-time employees that Sal hired. We gave them parties, we gave them watches. We care about our people. Our people are us. All those cliches are true.We’ve worked hard to make Marando the kind of place painters say ‘Oh yeah, you want to work for those guys. They pay overtime. They pay every week. They’re never short.’ We’ve got an electronic bookkeeping system so time keeping is not arbitrary. We’re running a corporation here. We’re not anything huge, but I realized we had to set up business processes that work. These processes are essential, and so is having the union to supply painters.
We’re marketing the painting trade to people who are usually university educated. They’re not typically first generation immigrants. We have to try to make this career attractive. And if you speak to these people, once you tell them what they can earn, they’re usually surprised. “Oh, I didn’t think you can do that.” Yeah, you can, but you have to work. You can’t just show up and be ‘creative’.

Q: What’s one of the most important management lessons for startups?
A: Lack of supervision – official supervision, that is – is one of the things we identified early on as the cause behind jobs that didn’t go well. You can’t just send a helper and a couple of painters to a job and expect success. This doesn’t mean a supervisor can show up there every other day, either. That’s not often enough. You need supervisor boots on the ground every day in the morning talking to the other trades, looking out for your best interests on the project. That was also part of my learning curve. The bottom line is that you’re paying your people for eight hours a day at union rates. Full production is vital. Without it, you’re not going to survive.

Q: How did you learn to manage and grow a company when you found yourself in charge from one day to the next?
A: In the same way that the union is our labour partner, trade associations have become my management partner. I sit on the board of the Ontario Painting Contractors Association. I also belong to the Finishing Contractors Association of North America, the FCA. I’m a board member on that also. We meet three times a year. We’re a management group looking out for the interests of unionized painting contractors in North America. I also sit on the board of the Residential Painting Contractors Association. The connections I make through these groups is beneficial every day. You learn about the business and how to manage it.
It’s one thing to know the technical part of painting, but that’s not nearly enough. You also need to know the logistics part of your business. You need to know what other people are doing. What are some of the best practices in painting? Some people say, “What the f*!# does ‘best practices’ mean? What do you mean best practices in painting?” Every industry has it’s best practices. As an owner, you need to learn them. How? Talk to people. At the FCA board, for instance, I’m a little fish. Some of the guys have companies with 400 or 500 people working for them through three or four states in the US. And more often than not, these are great people. They talk to you like you’re just one of them and they share details of how they run things. These big players actually have elected me to their board. I always questioned their logic on that! But you learn, you exchange information. It’s the most beneficial thing I ever did for the business.

Q: What’s the biggest financial difference between running a big company and a small one?
A: Accounts receivables is one major difference. This is a big thing for us because we do so much commercial and institutional work. At the end of the day, you do all this management, estimating and painting, then you buy supplies and pay wages, but you won’t get your invoice paid for 45 to 60 days after you’ve submitted it at the earliest. That’s business as usual. You need financial backing to be able to support a payroll, suppliers, your administrative costs, overhead and rent for at least a couple of months before you see a cheque. And that’s assuming everything goes well. Out of 10 projects, maybe only 60 percent of them go well; 10 percent are late paying stragglers. There are also some nefarious people out there who aim to cheat you if they can. So you have to start weeding out. Who are the people you want to work for? Who are the people you don’t want to work for? It’s a difficult thing to fire a client, but sometimes it’s necessary. You take your licks and learn from them. Eventually you start to recognize the signs of a bad client ahead of time and filter them out before they cost you money. You don’t always have to put your head in the fire to understand that you’re probably going to get burned. This awareness takes time.

Q: Are you actively trying to grow Marando?
A: Yes, but probably not in the way you think. We’re adding different revenue streams that are related to painting. If we’re called into a condo to do wall coverings in the common areas, for instance, we’ll try and get more of the work on the project, even non-painting interior finish work. I work on projects all the time alongside carpentry contractors and we talk. They can become a subcontractor of mine for a specific project. They keep their carpenter union affiliation and I don’t need to get one of my own. I don’t step on anybody’s toes, I just hire them to install new doors, light fixtures, floor coverings, etc.
We have a philosophy about aiming to be the best subcontractor on the job. I didn’t say the most important, I said the best. So if somebody were to come and evaluate the project, who would the project manager say is the best outfit on this job? I want to be that name. I want him to say Marando Painting was the best. They weren’t the most important, they didn’t put the structure up. No, but were they great people to deal with? Were they professional? Were their workers courteous, respectful, efficient, good quality? This is what we’re striving for. pp

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