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Time to Hustle

22 May, 2020

Preparing for the months ahead

Almost everyone knows that story of the grasshopper who won’t put away food for the winter, and the ant who does. (We know the ants survive the winter because come spring they’re ready to invade.) As states and cities open up, pent-up demand can be good for your business, and a lot of painters are seeing a boom. But there’s concern ahead as the thrall of the virus remains uncertain, the crystal ball is cloudy, and work has to move inside in colder climates. We interviewed a large, medium, and then smaller sized business for advice and perspective.

Hum, then hustle

Aaron Moore, president at Precision Painting and Decorating in the Chicago area, is adapting to a changing landscape by turning up the heat. As a large commercial contractor, he’s noticed that project awards are down, which puts more people in competition for what’s left. The resulting bidding war can reduce the margins on the jobs they do get.  As well, some facility managers are laid off, so work with those clients is unavailable. All that said, Precision is humming along pretty well now, and even though some interior jobs have been put on hold there’s plenty of exterior work to take its place.

But this is no time to play grasshopper – Moore is concerned how business will play out into Q3 and especially Q4, so the hustle is on and phones are a-ringing.

“We’re building lists and targeting clients, and we’re attempting to go after new clients,” he said. They’re redoubling efforts to service what they consider occasional clients and topping that off with some cold calling. “We’re just trying to make the bubble a little bigger,” he said. “We’re trying to get in with some of the larger corporate businesses that are a little more resilient to some of this.” Oh, and that picky, difficult client you only call on when times are tough? Call. Times are tough.

The good news, he’s noticed, is with more people staying put you have a better chance of someone answering the phone.

Moore advises developing a plan for several possible scenarios, reminding us that if your clients are cutting back their spending, you may need to cut back as well. “Determine what spending is more discretionary and what is absolutely essential,” he said. Have a plan for what you need to do to cope with losing various percentages of business, including what you would need to cut back on in each instance. “One of the most important things is to look at the future and keep a good eye on cash in and out,” he said. “That way you’re not making your strategies after you’re on fire.”

I only have eyes for you

Christian Militello just got a smoker, and he’s ready to gas it up. But when he looks into the future, he’s wondering if he should cut down on the BBQ and save up for the winter. Militello Painting and Power Washing is based in Ambler, Pennsylvania; the painting portion was shut down for six weeks and the pressure washing for one – different rules of “essential” applied to the two sides of his operation.

Business is good now, what with the exterior season just getting started, but he’s looking towards the fall and winter with a squinty eye. “It’s worrisome because you’re talking about strictly inside work in the Northeast,” he said. He’s not sure how people will feel about painters in the house come colder weather. Some painters he’s talked with have mentioned they’re getting started booking winter work in hotels, B&Bs … places where a facility can arrange for unoccupied rooms during those months.

For now, though, things are good. “I am doing just as many if not more estimates than I did last year at this time,” he said. “There’s no real hesitation in spending money.” The challenge is trying to read people when they’re talking through a mask. Militello is good at body language, but with less face to decipher, the story isn’t always clear. If you’re wearing a mask, he suggests being bigger – acting for the stage instead of the camera. The customer needs to see you’re sincere. “I’m intentionally trying to show body language through my eyes more,” he said.

Christian advises playing ant more than grasshopper. You don’t know at this point how things will pan out, which is why he’s a bit hesitant to host a smoker party every weekend. “Try to do as much work as you can and save; I would say live well below your means,” he said. “Just be prepared for the winter. Try to sock away some money and prepare for another shut down.”

When You Gotta Go…

Ryan Turry, owner of Headwaters Painting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, is grateful for a good run of business-as-usual, other than sometimes he’s got to rent a porta potty if clients prefer his crew not come inside. As a residential repaint company, his business from here will depend on how customers feel about their own future, but he’s booked through the end of August as of now. “We’ve had three or four projects where they’ve had to wait,” he said. “I think it’s related to people not wanting to spend $5,000 not knowing if they’re going to have a job in the next month.”

What he’s found helpful is to let clients know he takes COVID seriously. “My advice is to display something on your website to show that your company is taking precautions, that you have a plan in place for your team – informing the public that you care. Just have a plan. I think that adds a lot of value.”

As we forge ahead, keep striving. “I think being positive and having a mindset of ‘Hey, we’re going to make this work’ is very powerful,” Turry said. “You can either play the victim or say, ‘We’re going to get through this no matter what.’ There are always struggles and adversity you have to work around.”

Plenty of good takeaway advice, but three indisputable tips: 

  • Cast a wider net in looking for business.
  • Save money and create strategies for different scenarios.
  • Communicate – even if they can’t see you smile.

Sponsored by Benjamin Moore

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If cost and liability were not an issue, what's your one must-have at the company picnic?

Paintball Feld
Axe Throwing
10-Foot Nacho Trough
Potato Salad

Dang it's hot! Does your work vehicle have an orange water cooler?

It's not orange

Did you work for a painting contractor prior to owning your company?


Why haven't you hired a business coach?

Not worth the money
Too difficult to find a good one
I don't need one
I did hire one!

Has OSHA ever inspected your jobsite?


Who Buys the Paint Brushes?

We do...the company
Our painters buy their own

What's the most paint you've ever spilled?

5 Gallons
An Ungodly Amount

Did you take a week-long (or longer) vacation this summer?

Not yet, but I'm gonna

If you had to rename your company one of the following, which would it be?

Flapjack Painting
Porkchop Painting
Half Slab Painting
Whole Hog Painting

You meet someone new, and they ask what you do. What do you say?

I'm a painter
I'm a contractor
I'm a painting contractor
I own a painting business

On the job site, my painters mostly listen to...

Classic Rock
Hip Hop
Who knows. They got headphones

Which social media platform is most effective for marketing your business?

I don't use one

What do you drive for work?

Pickup Truck

How long ago did you redesign your company hat?


Do you have a spray booth?


If you've bought a used sprayer, was it a good decision?


Will your crews be working the week between Christmas and New Years?


Do you accept credit card payments from customers?


Will you be giving end-of-year bonuses (not gifts) this year?


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