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This Is Our Paradise

16 February, 2024


Mark Black doesn’t have far to go to get to work. “I’m sitting in my office 45 feet from my house,” he says. “It’s a separate building, but it’s on our property. We have eight acres. We raise chickens and goats and pigs and have a large garden. This is our paradise. This is what we love.”

Mark and Nicole Black run Men in White Painting from their homestead in Mount Vernon, Illinois, a city of around 15,000 at the crossroads of I-64 and I-57. From here, you can head to St. Louis, Nashville, Louisville, or Chicago. His children are 45 feet awat doing schoolwork; they’re homeschooled mainly by Nicole, who also serves as company CFO. It’s a busy office — someone’s calculating estimates, Shannon the operations manager keeps the work flowing and the doors swinging, and there might even be a little one asking for help with math problems. The Blacks wanted a big family with the ability to be involved in their children’s lives. “We live all our life together,” said Mark. “That’s something that I love about the painting industry, is it allows me to live the life that I want to live.”

Like a lot of folks in painting, Black started in the family business, but in his instance, it had nothing to do with viscosity; his parents owned the Mount Vernon Medicine Shoppe. Black gave it his best shot, but he just wasn’t into staying in the same place all day long — same parking spot, same windows, same floor plan. “I wasn’t built for that,” he said. “Even though I was compensated well, it didn’t meet all the other needs that I had for working outside and working with my hands, creating something.” Plus, he wanted to make his way rather than have a career gifted to him, no matter how well intended.

After an amicable separation, he took up with an uncle in Champaign who was a fire chief but did some painting on the side. Black fell in love with the trade and there was no turning back. “It hit all the boxes for me,” he said. “There’s a peacefulness that I find in painting; you can shut your brain off while you’re creating something and at the end of the day you open your eyes and look back and say, wow, I created that.” He started in 2006, and 2011 Mark and Nicole started up Men in White. He made use of industry resources and found inspiration in a magazine called American Painting Contractor. “We had started keying into its podcasts and listening to the leaders in the industry realized that this is this could be a really good business and that other people were doing it successfully,” he said. “I started to study the business aspect of painting and desired to grow a company rather than just paint home after home myself. We’ve grown strategically and consistently and now we run 18 to 20 crew members in the field as well as an office staff.


Painting for people who hate it

Black also realized two things: homeowners hate to paint and are willing to pay someone to do it, and in Mount Vernon at least, these homeowners were having trouble finding contractors who would show up to work. Black capitalized on both these issues.

While doing a good job is important, of course, Black’s business model puts character first. “It’s an issue in all the trades, but specifically drywall and painting — it unfortunately attracts a lot of people that can make a quick buck and don’t look at it as a business. I wanted to change that perception, so we sought to challenge and battle every single one of those things,” he said. “We tried to answer the phone on the second ring with real people every time, or we called people back immediately if we weren’t able to. We strove to do what we said we would do. If we made a promise or said we would do something, we did it.” That could get them in trouble, but it also taught blacks to be careful about making promises. “We learned that lesson quickly and realized people are very understanding and forgiving if they trust you. If you’ve lost that trust, they’re the opposite. But we quickly gained a name and reputation for quality.”

Even if someone can cut an edge better, Men in White wins the battle of character. You can come back and redo the cut line, but it’s hard to come back from a painter who shows up late, kicks the dog, and steals. “We do high-quality work, but I think what makes us stand out more than our quality is our commitment to character, punctuality, excellence, loyalty, respect for their home and their property, and just good old-fashioned friendliness,” said Black. “I find a lot of contractors are bitter from fighting small business battles and they’re kind of mean. And we are never, ever mean. Even if a customer is disrespectful to us, we remain respectful and friendly at all times. I think that goes a long way in gaining people’s trust.”


Hiring hassles

This makes hiring an interesting experience for people on both sides of the desk; Black tells us that many of the painters he interviews are flummoxed by some of his questions, which again, put character over experience. “We’re pretty slow to hire,” he said. “Our interview process can be difficult because many people want to come in the door and tell us about their skills and how good of a painter they are. I’m much more concerned with who you are than how well you can paint or how fast you can learn. We’re asking character questions and giving them scenarios of ‘how would you react to this’ — moral dilemmas — because the answer to those questions is going to determine how you’re going to treat my customer. And we’re probably more concerned with our customer’s experience than we are the actual quality of their paint job.”

Plenty of people can paint but Black wants customers to savor and remember the experience … the painters were respectful and easy to be around, they were nice to the kids, and they kept the house in good stead. “That’s what they’re going to remember in order to call us back. That’s what we’re more focused on.”

Is the price right?

If not, that’s okay. The company web page has a price list for its various services. It’s general, but  it whittles the callers down to more serious customers. “I’ve had people get to the front page of the website and say, ‘Oh, I can’t afford these people’ and I’m fine with that,” he said. “We’re looking for people who value what we value. We’ve designed our website a little bit strategically, and on our pricing page we want to inform our customers how we look at it. It basically comes down to square feet and our production rates. It’s not sticking a finger in the wind and guessing what we think the price should be. There’s an actual mathematical strategy to it. It doesn’t really matter what you charge, as long as you’re giving the proper value for it.”

Black leaves us with two pieces of advice, the first of which is learn how to run a business. “I think there are a lot of contractors that struggle with just basic business principles of what their true costs are, and they don’t know their numbers,” he said. “That would be my exhortation: you have to study business. It is not enough to just go out and work hard all day. There has to be strategy. You have to have some understanding of your costs, of knowing your volumes and your expenses and what kind of net profit is going to come out of that. Otherwise you are just guessing a price.”

Part two is to get a coach, someone who can look at your business from the outside. Men in White has been coached for several years and Black believes that’s helped him grow faster and better. “I currently work with Scott Lollar of Consulting 4 Contractors,” he said. “He is fantastic in his ability to help you understand things that you don’t and to open your eyes to things you’ve never even thought of.”

All that said, credit goes to everyone. “I don’t want anyone to think that I’ve somehow magically gotten our company to where it is today,” said Black. “This is with the help of a lot of smart people. When you take that advice and you listen to the time-tested age-old advice of smart business principles, it works. Every single time.”

And now, Mark Black doesn’t have far to get home.


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This Is Our Paradise

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