By Steve Maxwell
Professional painting is one of the few industries handled by both individual trades people and large contractors. It’s a pretty wide spectrum, and while freelance painters will always find a place in the building and renovation worlds, large painting projects also need organized painting crews to complete the volume of work involved on large projects. So exactly how do larger painting contractors develop? It’s easy to miss the fact that most began with one painter who had a vision to grow. That’s the story behind what west-coast painter.
Tom Nikolic and his wife Vera began in 1988, and has since passed on to his son, John and his wife, Amber.
Today, Pacific Coast Painting is based in Surrey, BC, run by John, and this company of 25+ people has completed large projects across the Lower Mainland, including Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Any painter who has tried to manage even one small painting crew knows that it’s not as easy as it looks. So when a family man grows his trade into a successful major player in the painting industry over 25 years, you’ve got to wonder how.
Even a partial list of Pacific Coast clients reads like a roster of major commercial, institutional and multi-residential centres in British Columbia: CBC Radio, the North Vancouver Library, Best Buy headquarters, a bunch of Coast Hotel facilities, too many hospitals and care facilities to list, Burrard Landing, the BC Safety Authority, UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Research Centre, the Olympic Village in Vancouver, the Surrey Library, Ronald McDonald House, and the Critical Care Tower of the Surrey Memorial Hospital, plus housing authority properties and high rises across the area.
One Man’s Motivation
Tom Nikolic completed his three-year painting apprenticeship in Serbia in 1960, and began painting immediately. His skills eventually took him to Germany, beginning in 1965 for three years of painting there, then moving to Canada in 1968. Twenty years later, at the age of 47, Tom launched Pacific Coast Painting in British Columbia.
“Dad’s motivation was simple,” explains son John, now owner of the family-based firm. “Ambition and determination to provide a better life for my mother, my brother and I was what led him to begin building a painting business, rather than continuing as a sole painter. He always knew that his experience and production rates were tops in the industry and saw an opportunity here in Canada.”
The breakdown of Pacific Coast work changes from year to year, but it’s typically 50% commercial, 30% multi-residential and 20% institutional. But regardless of the ratio, the work happens within a surprisingly simple management structure.
“There are only three main levels of people in the company,” explains John. “Myself, project foremen who also work the tools, and painters themselves. And while everyone involved has an important role to play, solid project management from myself and
foremen are key.”
You hear a lot of people in the painting business complain about poorly trained and undisciplined workers these days, so how has Pacific Coast managed to solve these problems? Specific training and accountability where it matters most. “Father’s many
years of experience developing and training foremen has been vital for us,” explains John. “Our team’s performance and successful project management hasn’t happened automatically.”
But what, exactly, does good performance and management look like on big commercial and institutional painting jobs? Success involves three things that go beyond paint application.
“Safety is a really big deal on large projects,” explains John. “Our crews often work on tall and intricate scaffolding, boom lifts, scissor lifts and they even hang off bosun chairs. Each one of these pieces of high access equipment are different, and require special training before a worker can use them properly and safely.”
“The wide variety of materials and processes on commercial jobs are a big challenge, too,” says John. “You don’t usually see elastomerics, epoxies and concrete sealers on single-family residential projects, and we often do sandblasting, concrete grinding, plus application of anti-graffiti coatings and other specialty products. Regular
latex paint is a big part of our work, of course, but every project also involves
non-paint coatings, too. You’ve got to know your materials when you get into big jobs.”
“Estimating large projects is one of the areas where costly mistakes are possible, especially for painters just getting into commercial and institutional work,” warns John. “If you misread just one page out of 200 pages of project tender documentation,
you can lose thousands of dollars. There are always tight deadlines for estimates, too. A typical project tender only allows a few weeks to submit a bid, so sometimes mistakes are made. The risks of under-estimating are equal to the risks of actually doing the work, and it’s why I still personally estimate all jobs we take on here at
So where does all this lead? Some pretty satisfied clients, that’s where.
Richard Pass, CEO of Ronald McDonald House is one: “Staff from Pacific Coast worked on the New Ronald McDonald House and did an outstanding job working to timelines,” says Pass. “The onsite team were friendly and helpful. I would recommend them for any painting job, either large or small.”
Fred Wray is construction manager with Ellis-Don, and he was involved in building the largest capital investment in the history of health care in British Columbia – the Critical Care Tower at the Surrey Memorial Hospital.
“Pacific Coast was a partner right from estimating through installation and close-out on the Critical Care Tower project,” says Wray. “Their professionalism and workmanship was superior and one of the best I’ve seen in my construction career.”
Raised in the Trade
John started as a painter’s helper when he was 13, then worked under his father’s wing on projects with Pacific Coast during summers until university in 1993. After graduating with a business degree in 1999, John worked in various industries until landing a job as a technical sales rep for a global paint manufacturer. “This worked out perfectly,” explains John, “as I always planned to join my father and come on board with the family company, so this position provided me with a wealth of technical product information.”
Ask successful business owners everywhere about the most difficult part of running a business and they’ll usually tell you they faced it at the start. “Initial establishment in an industry that had many competitors was my dad’s main challenge,” says John. “Work hard, work harder and work hardest are the biggest lessons I learned from him.”
But working hard is only part of any successful business, and the extremely competitive pricing structure in the BC painting industry means that you’ve got to do more than just sweat. You’ve got to build and maintain relationships, too.
“My father is an old school, hardworking tradesman and he’s the first to admit that face to face business relations wasn’t his strong suit,” explains John. “He ran the business in more of a hands-on, jobsite focused way, so he never had the opportunity to spend more time on customer relations. ‘Why have you been on the phone for 20
minutes with that client?’ father might ask me. My answer: ‘I’ll be on the phone for another 40 minutes if I have to.’ Keeping clients happy is the way to build future business in an industry with lots of painters.”
All this explains how Pacific Coast keeps busy, but the result might not be what you think. “We intentionally keep our client list small, dealing only with the major general contractors in town. We don’t actively pursue new clients, but concentrate on developing stronger relationships with customers we already have by performing better. It’s our reputation for in-depth trade knowledge, quality and performance
in meeting deadlines that keeps our customers coming back.”
“We’re always looking for opportunities to develop and grow, but comfortable with our current volume plan and wouldn’t stray far from it. Again, this keeps our operations more in control and able to perform to our customer’s expectations. We don’t want to get much bigger.”
Was Pacific Coast affected much by the economic downturn that began in 2008? Not at first, but eventually the economy caught up with them. “The years leading up to the Vancouver Olympics were our busiest ever,” says John. “In 2010 we employed 63 painters. One major paint supplier shared a report that showed we had the highest
paint purchases in all of Western Canada that year. After the Olympics, the downturn affected everyone in town, including ourselves. We still had plenty of work to keep busy, but nowhere near the volume we had in 2010. This gave us time to pause and
reflect on the extremely busy few years and realize that not only could we handle it, we didn’t need the company to run at such a high volume.”
John’s philosophy in tough times is to do everything possible to keep his 5 foremen and 20 core painters fully employed. “This is the concern that keeps me up at night,” confides John. “I’ve got a responsibility to keep the core working.”
Every sector of the construction and renovation business needs a flexible workforce because of the boom and bust cycles involved, but the commercial painting business might just experience more boom and bust than average. “When the economy contracts we always see the smaller painting contractors bid on commercial and institutional jobs,” says John. “This often turns ugly for them because of errors in estimating. You can’t just come up with a price based on an area to be painted, like you do with a house. There are often costly details in commercial and institutional work that
aren’t immediately obvious. We get undercut by jobs that are bid too low, and little guys lose their businesses.”
What advice would John give someone looking to move from the life of an individual painter to the owner of a painting business? “Be prepared to work harder than you could imagine.There’s a lot more here to learn than it seems. As my father said to me on the day he hired me as an estimator and eventual successor, ‘You have no idea
of what’s coming.’ Although I took it with a grain of salt at the time, he was
“The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that the painting business really does allow for great person-to-person relationships,” offers John. “The construction industry as a whole has a reputation for being unfriendly and cut-throat, but the companies we deal with are all run by solid-minded, personable people. They’re looking for ways to succeed together, and this makes all the difference.”