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Civic-Minded Painting

28 June, 2022

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Training your employees is important, but the owner of Blue Crew Painters LLC, Aker El Bey takes it one step further — he trains his community. Once the Crew is done for the day, El Bey still has his mind in paint, on paint, about paint. You’ll often find him at the helm of an area beautification project, encouraging people who don’t know the first thing about painting to consider it as a career. 

Through his nonprofit organization, Community Participation Revitalization Inc., Aker works to get people interested in the industry by working with them to paint local parks, homes for seniors and other similar projects. Recently, he held a “paint party” as part of a park restoration. “We hired a DJ to make it more fun, and we’re improving something for the community but also giving people a chance to get their hands dirty and see that ‘maybe I might like painting for a living,’” he said. 

It seems to be working. “Since we’ve been hosting these events, for example, one of my friends that I know outside of painting wants to get her sons involved,” he reported. “I’m always trying to get young people involved and letting them know that they don’t need to feel like they’ve got to go to college to make good money. You can learn different trades. I’m always sharing information with people on how they can better improve their lifestyle, not just telling somebody about a paint brand.” 

Family painting business
El Bey with his wife and business partner Jamille.

The Blue Crew is largely a family operation. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, it’s headed by El Bey along with his wife and sons; a few other crew members wield the brush as well. El Bey himself got his start in the trades in Michigan working for a roofer. The hours weren’t enough to make do, and he moved into a painting job where he worked for a team of brothers. A few years later, in the late 1990s, he started his first paint company, all the while working through a union apprenticeship program and going to gained experience in commercial/industrial painting and lead abatement in Flint and Detroit. 

Then came the move to North Carolina, and things grew from there. “In 2006, I relocated here to Charlotte, started up a new company and pretty much haven’t looked back,” he said. “I just gained a love for the trade. It kind of came to me naturally; I guess you could say I’m a creative, artistic type of person.” That artistry has helped the company grow and branch out into renovation along with various types of home improvement. 

The school house rocks 

Refinishing Furniture
training painters
In a training session, El Bey shares his knowledge about furniture, restoration and refinishing.

It was from this vantage point that El Bey noticed a lot of people in the trades simply weren’t educated in those same trades — that translated to people working but not really knowing what they were doing. Instead of complaining, he lit a fire. “It sparked me to want to start teaching, and it planted the seed for me to see what it would take to get a training center set up,” he said. This year, they’re looking to put that center into full-time service. “We’re teaching people that want to go into it for a living, do it yourselfers, and people that want to concentrate on specific niches within the paint industry, like cabinet paint, furniture paint, things like that,” he said. In many cases, people bring in their old furniture to upcycle rather than toss out, keeping some valuable pieces out of the waste stream and learning some painting and restoration skills at the same time. 

“We have a recycling program also, while we take paint and furniture,” he explained. “We use the paint where we can or we’ll donate to other people or organizations that are doing rehab projects. And then the rest that we can’t use, we’ll dispose of it through recycling centers here.” 

He plans to grow it from here. “My focus moving forward into 2022 is to offer more training programs to the public and to people that want to get involved in our industry.” He’s got a village on call — El Bey brings in vendors such as Graco to teach about spray equipment or Sherwin-Williams to teach about paint. “Eventually we’ll be doing safety classes — CPR and OSHA, for example — that we’ll host through our facility to bring that information to the public,” he said. 

Don’t just paint it and forget it 

celebrating employees
A painting party in the park brings the community together while at the same time bringing about civic

One aspect of the industry he’s noticed as especially needing help is the business of business. Painting has provided him and his family a good living, and he wants to help others do the same. It’s not that contractors aren’t making any money, it’s that by applying the old adage of “work smarter not harder,” they can be making more. “I think one of the problems in the business is a lot of the business side is totally neglected,” he said. “Contractors are making money, but there’s a lot of money they’re leaving on the table. 
I think that a lot of time we just go and paint and we’re not really counting the profit or thinking about it.” Sure, you did a great job, but have you recommended maintenance visits? Have you educated the customer on how to make those coats of paint last longer? Aker wants to spread the word. 

“Sometimes people just … paint the house. They never look back, and by the time the client needs another paint job, these painters are long gone,” said El Bey. “I think building relationships is one thing, but it’s also important to educate customers more on the processes, more on the paint and on the way that the paint industry is changing. I think the ongoing educational aspect within our trade is what’s missing. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I feel like there’s always ways in which we can learn and do things better and find better products that we can use to make a job last longer and make the customer happier in the end.” 

Making a happier customer often means they’ll know more about paint when the Blue Crew leaves than when it arrived. El Bey works to inform customers about the benefits of low VOC paint, for example, or harkening back to his designer training, he’ll explain how the colors they’re considering can affect their emotional state as well as the aesthetic of the room. 

He’ll even share information beyond paint to an interested client. “Everyone is dealing with coronavirus, so I’ll provide information to people about health and topics like that. I like outdoor activities and meditation, and I’m an activist too,” he said. “I like to be socially aware, and I let my customers know things that are going on in the community that they might not be aware of. And I’m always open to talk about painting. 

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