Ontario painting professional Chris Hobbs describes the highs and difficulties of running his Hobbs Home Solutions business
Interview by Andrew Joseph
As we all know, growing one’s painting business from the ground up can be fraught with multiple challenges, such as trying to find a proper work/home life balance, or growing too quickly without the ability to cope with the demands. It’s something that Chris Hobbs had come to realize firsthand via his Collingwood, Ont.-based company Hobbs Home Solutions Inc. In the painting industry since he was 16, the forward-thinking Hobbs was trying to sock away a few bucks to put himself through college, but necessity soon had him going into the painting business for himself three years later in 1999, and has seen his company ride the waves, both high and low. But thanks to installing a proper management system, and gaining a new perspective with his young family, he is looking forward to seeing Hobbs Home Solutions continue to grow again. In this exclusive Pro Painter interview, Hobbs avoids painting himself into a corner and lays it all out for us on how work and life can marry to live happily ever after.
Q: How did Hobbs Home Solutions get started?
A: I first discovered the world of professional painting when I was 16-years-old. I wanted to earn some money to pay for future education at college, but there wasn’t much work available in the area. But, I found an ad in the local newspaper for a painter’s labourer paying 50 cents over minimum wage, and was ecstatic to not only find a job, but one that paid more than student minimum wage. By the time I was 19, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying Computer Science, and dropped out of college. This is when I actively started looking for a position in the painting industry as I had previous experience and knew I could make decent money while I tried to figure out my life. I ended up in a position with a hot-tempered painting company owner – unheard of, right? It only took a couple months working with this company before his customers started asking me why I was not self-employed, as I was already managing and completing projects from start to finish. I was 20 years old in 2000 when I started looking into and building my own company “Radiant Painting Solutions”. I started operating as a sole proprietor under Hobbs Home Solutions in 2010, then incorporated in 2015 after I realized I should have incorporated years earlier. I don’t have an education in “owning a business”. I just jumped in head first.
Q: What benefits are there to being based in Collingwood, as opposed to a big city?
A: There are some very tangible benefits operating a trades business in the area. We have incredibly beautiful landscapes, the Georgian Bay and the best ski slopes in Ontario. Torontonians have been visiting and vacationing here for years, with Collingwood being just two hours north of the smog-filled congested city. This Toronto crowd spends large amounts of money to own/build second and third residences. The huge chalets and properties in the area need all sorts of trades to build and maintain them. It appears Covid-19 has only increased this demand as people want to leave the hectic life of the city to pursue a cleaner, slower paced one here in beautiful Collingwood.
Q: What type of projects does Hobbs Home Solutions undertake?
A: Basically, we will take on any project – large or small – if I feel that there’s a profit to be made. Our main source of work is from large, local custom builders who supply me with multiple paint projects every year. As I mentioned previously, there are some great properties in this area that attract many wealthy and powerful people. We have been working on the food magnate “McCain Georgian Bay Compound” for years, and plan to be there for many more. It’s an amazing experience to be snowmobiled/barged/hovercrafted/helicoptered in to a project and spend the night on private islands, in beautiful mansions. We have also completed projects for media magnate Conrad Black, ex-NHL player Scott Thornton, wealth management guru David Hyma, and other very wealthy and powerful people.
Q: As a family-man, how do you maintain the work/home life balance?
A: My wife and I have three young children – the oldest being nine – which means that the work/home life balance is a constant and major challenge. Because I’m self-employed, it means never being off the clock, or so it seems. I strive to be home by 5pm most days, and attempt to not lift the laptop lid, or stare at my phone until after the children are in bed. By 8pm or so, I help my wife with disaster relief cleaning as the kids are messy, especially with online learning/stay-at-home orders currently in place in Ontario. My loving wife is understanding and supportive of me and my business for the most part, but is not afraid to tell me when I have been neglecting her needs of my undivided attention. The secret is knowing when to listen or when to push back because we need to make that payday happen. However, if anyone knows a better formula, I am all ears.
Q: As a hands-on business owner, how do you go about your painting projects?
A: I believe that the most important thing to realize, is that every project will have its own unique set of challenges and will require different techniques to complete. Upfront, I will identify the biggest hurdles and create a plan to complete those first. I prefer to complete all preparation work on the entire project before paint is applied anyplace. One step I take that is exceptionally important to me, is covering the floors on interior projects. I use Red Rosin paper and tape it down to cover the entire floor space. It has been my experience that drop sheets always seem to pull away from the walls, or cause issues if people walk across them and then onto uncovered floors. It doesn’t matter WHO stepped in paint and walked it through the house, it is ALWAYS the painter’s fault! I prefer to use Benjamin Moore paints, as it is the most requested product from my clients. I really love their Super Spec primer and will use it as finish coat on ceilings consistently. It is very flat and touches up exceptionally well with minimal flashing. If I have any fear of adhesion for any project, I will use INSL-X Stix primer. I have had great success painting all sorts of substrates with this product used as bonding primer. For exteriors, there is no better product then Arborcoat by Benjamin Moore, in my humble opinion. It goes on nice, with great durability and has excellent adhesion. We generally use Benjamin Moore Regal series or above for painting. I also love their Aura Bath and Spa line for bathrooms, as it offers great durability with a lower sheen level. As for exteriors, I absolutely feel that utilizing elevated work platforms is totally worth the cost and saves money overall.
Q: How do you buy your painting accessories?
A: I used to buy the majority of my painting supplies from the local paint stores. I would painstakingly develop lists of where I could save a penny on certain items, and instruct my employees what to buy and from where. But, during Covid lock-down, I was forced to find other sources. This resulted in me finding online sources, for which I am actually grateful for now. I stumbled across www.PaintSuppliesDirect.ca, which means I now have my supplies delivered to my house, while also saving money. A win-win!
Q: Can you share any tricks-of-the-trade? Doors can be tricky, right?
A: In my company, there is no substitute for removing a doorknob before painting the door. There is no special trick to making a uniform texture if you paint a door with more than one kind of applicator (brush and roller). If it isn’t possible to remove a doorknob, I will instruct my employee to tape off the handle so that a whiz roller can be used right against the hardware to leave a uniform finish. The only trick I know to painting a door is to be fast, and to make sure the entire finish is applied by a single application method.
Q: What are some of the bad aspects to running your own business, and how do you cope with it?
A: The worst aspects of self-employment in this industry for me are: chasing money; getting paid for extras, and; a lack of an available work force. Chasing money is part of any business. Having good office staff and organized accounting books really helps with this part. Having Quickbooks set up to automatically send reminders and accept payments seems to alleviate some of this stress. Getting paid for “extras” has always been difficult, especially when you are operating a business that is affected by every other trade on the job site. I used to touch-up around the lights and plugs for free, although flashing issues became apparent towards the end of new build projects. I no longer do touchups without the request of the owner/builder. Another way of dealing with this issue, is to have the site manager sign off on completion phases or rooms. For instance, once I have all ceilings completed, I have the project manager inspect them all immediately, and sign off to their satisfaction. Any work needed after signing is billed out on a time and material basis. But, as usual, the only way to cope with most of the issues – the owner puts in more hours.
Q: Let’s get out of the dark, and into the light. What are some of the good things about running your own business?
A: My favourite thing about running my own business is the satisfaction of providing a career and a good life for my employees and their families, and of course for my own family. I love training new staff and watching them grow their abilities. The best thing about being self-employed, is that you get out of it what you put in. If you want more out of your business, then you need to put in more, simply put. Generally, you are in control of your own destiny.
Q: Has the Covid-19 pandemic altered the way you do business?
A: There have been some alterations to the way we do business due to the pandemic. We will not work on projects that have trades from other cities on site, and will pack-up and leave the site if so. There have been some issues with supplies as well. Nothing worse than completing 90 per cent of a large post and beam wood finish project with rented elevated work platforms on-site, and then running out of product. It once took three working days to get another gallon of product, resulting in us going well over budget for accessibility equipment costs, which ultimately put the profitability of the project well below our predicted margins.
Q: How has the painting industry changed since you began your business?
A: The industry has changed mostly in the products used, with new environmental laws regarding VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) over the past decade or so. It means that products dry way faster and are harder to work with. Clearcoats are exceedingly difficult to apply without flashing, as well as rolling out walls. I find the upstroke and downstroke of the roller pull the paint in separate directions, but do not have the necessary time to lay down before it dries. This results in being able to see every movement of the roller, leaving an undesired visual effect on the walls. Putting on the products thicker, and applying with speed and vigor seems to be the only solution to this problem, without adding any VOC’s back into the coatings, such as Floetrol extenders and such.
Q: What advice can you offer to other business owners?
A: If there was some advice I would give to other business owners, it would be this: paperwork and organization is the most important part of your business. It took me years to learn this, as I am more of a get-the-project-done-move-on-to-the-next-then-think-about-papework type of owner. I was constantly letting things slip, missing important deadlines, and not getting invoices out in a timely fashion. This overwhelmed me, and resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. I had upwards of 20 employees, but I had to take a step back as there were too many things slipping through the cracks. I recently found management software that changed my entire world, and it allows me to comfortably grow my company. I currently have 11 employees, and looking to grow now that I have a proper management system in place. In the past, I have paid to advertise in magazines, newspapers and all the rest. I found those printed mediums to be very expensive, with very little ROI (return on investment), and exceptionally high COA (cost of acquisition). If I advertise these days, I will run targeted Google Adword campaigns. I will warn though, make sure you know what you are doing when it comes to Adwords. I have wasted thousands of dollars receiving calls for the local hardware stores as I did not have the knowledge to set it all up properly. Organization takes major work and dedication, but without it, failure is the only option. PP