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A Painter’s Redemption

A Philly street kid’s remarkable journey to becoming a franchise founder By Kevin Hoffman

30 May, 2024

 

No one can ever say that Matthew Rathgeb had an easy path in life. Growing up in lower middle-class Philadelphia, Rathgeb fell into a life of drugs and flunked out of rehab 10 times before he found the friend who would set him on the right path. “I didn’t have a head start; I didn’t have an education,” Rathgeb says. “I had great mentors in my life who wanted to see me win, but more importantly, my biggest attribute is I don’t quit.” Painting saved him. He started out slinging a brush and eventually went on to start his own operation. Along the way, he learned the fundamentals of business and read hundreds of books to fill the gaps in his knowledge. Now he’s the founder of Groovy Hues, a national franchise that lets him pay it forward to fellow contract painters and share the hard-won lessons that made him a success. “My mindset was always that I have no Plan B,” Rathgeb says. “I have to make this work.”

Matthew

 

Humble Beginnings

Painting was always part of Rathgeb’s life. Growing up in Lower Northeast Philly, Rathgeb remembers that all the fathers in his neighborhood were painters. Most of them were fly-by-night operations, but they provided him an opportunity to learn the trade. Back then, his most fervent dream was to someday join Painters Local 2011. “At that time, it was the holy grail,” Rathgeb recalls. “I didn't know anyone that had a better job than that.

  His dream was derailed by addiction. He started drinking at the tender age of 10 years old, which he says was not entirely unusual in his neighborhood. Before long, alcohol led to cocaine at age 14, and before he knew it Rathgeb was going on any drug he could get his hands on. From early 2003 to 2005, he was a heroin addict living on the streets. That was his rock bottom. He knew he had to clean up. “I was just tired of living the way I was living,” Rathgeb says. “I was hungry for a better way of life.” He tried and failed to get sober more than 10 times. Then he met Bobby.

A Fresh Start

Bobby was, and still is, the most positive person Rathgeb ever met. “I’ve never heard him say a bad word about anyone,” Rathgeb marvels. “You could be in a conversation where somebody’s trashing someone else, Bobby will just say ‘God loves him too.’” At that point, Rathgeb was out of rehab and living in a recovery house. He needed to scrape up $50 a week for rent. He had dropped out of school in the ninth grade and a checkered past. He wasn’t exactly swimming in job offers.

The only thing he had to fall back on was painting. Luckily, Bobby owned a paint business and was willing to give Rathgeb a chance. “He was a glimmer of light,” Rathgeb says, noting that Bobby was also a member of a recovery organization. “We would go to meetings in the morning and then paint all day and go to a meeting at night.” Rathgeb became Bobby’s lead painter. He worked in Chestnut Hill, a high-end neighborhood of Philadelphia. But he wasn’t just there for the paycheck.

“I was there to hang out with Bobby because I wanted what he had,” Rathgeb says. “He was a great person, just one of those people you meet that you can count on one hand your whole life, just salt of the earth.” With his confidence back, and Bobby in his corner, Rathgeb took the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream. With a letter of recommendation from Bobby, Rathgeb was accepted into the painters’ union.

Becoming a Businessman

Sometimes when you get what you’ve always wanted, you realize it isn’t what you want after all. That’s how it was with Rathgeb. For a couple of years, he worked at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, painting the campus. But before long he realized what it meant to want what Bobby had: owning a business. So Rathgeb traded in his Honda Accord for a white cargo van and started his company. It wasn’t the first time he had tried his hand at entrepreneurship. There were several occasions when he tried to leap, only to get scared by a lack of steady work and return to his old employers with his tail between his legs. But this time was different. “I’m going all in,” he told himself. “I’m burning the ships.” There would be no turning back. If the streets had taught Rather one thing, it was how to talk his way into getting by. He was already a hard worker, but he had to learn to stop doing tactical labor and start being more strategic.

“I’ve always been a personable individual. I’ve had clients tell me, ‘What are you doing? You’re on a job all day with a brush in your hand. You can meet 20 people today and get two jobs.’ So that opened my eyes.” He started using software to track sales. He hired a business coach to keep him on the right track. He signed up for a course on the Sandler Sales System, which discourages pushy sales tactics and instead advises reps to act like consultants.

Groovy

In 2018, he made a big shift. He went to a contractor Mastermind Group, a peer group that helps business owners mentor each other and provide practical advice.  Suddenly, his business took off. He hit $1.5 million in annual revenue, he says, then $2.5 million the next year. Soon he reached $3.2 million. Along the way, he hired three salespeople, a full-time bookkeeper, a customer service representative, and a network of painters. “It was a mindset shift,” he says. “I had to learn to stop doing tactical work and start to do strategic work.”

The Franchise Model

Having made it from the streets to the C-suite, it was time to go national. About 10 years ago, Rathgeb met a man named Josh Skolnick. He lived in Fort Washington, just outside of Philadelphia, and he ran a company called Horse Power Brands. Horse Power Brands specializes in creating national franchises for various home services. Rathgeb watched Skolnick build a company called Monster Tree Landscape into a nationwide goliath, which he then sold for a tidy profit. “He had a vision to create a home service solution to every problem you could have,” Rathgeb says. “Very humble. You see some of these guys on social media talking about their millions all the time. He’s the polar opposite of that.” Horse Power owned such brands as Mighty Dog Roofing, Blingle Premier Lighting, iFoam for spray foam insulation, Heroes Lawn Care, Gatsby Glass, Bumble Bee Blinds, and Stand Strong Fencing.

They also owned a painting brand called Groovy Hues, described as “the go-to destination for exterior and interior painting services.” Groovy Hues had all the ingredients to become a successful national franchise, but it was missing one key piece: a founder. The founder of each brand serves as a resource for the franchisees, sharing best practices for marketing and sales. Skolnick had talked to Rathgeb a few times over the years, just to compare notes on business, what was working, and how they were doing. “I always felt like he and I connected during those talks,” Rathgeb says. “It was obvious that we shared the same core values of integrity, family guys – we wanted to build businesses that were more than just about making money, getting involved with the community.” Recently, Skolnick approached Rathgeb about coming on board as the founder of the Groovy Hues brand. Rathgeb saw it as the natural next step. “They start a business because they’re painters, right?” Rathgeb explains. “They don’t have systems of processing and knowledge of how a business works, and that’s why I came to believe in the franchise model.” Franchisees pay an upfront fee to get the rights to a particular territory, usually consisting of a population of around 200,000 potential customers. They also get access to a sales coach, and lower pricing through bulk buys, t-shirts, and swag bags – everything you need to run a successful business. There are currently Groovy Hues franchisees in North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona. Rathgeb rebranded his business to become Groovy Hues of Greater Philadelphia, becoming the Founder of the brand.

It’s been quite a journey for Rathgeb, and now it’s time for him to give back to the painting community that has given him so much. It’s been a hard road, but he has gained valuable wisdom to make it easier for those who want to follow in his footsteps. “If you’re all in, you’ll never quit,” Rathgeb says. “Fortune favors the brave. If you don’t quit and you’ve got a plan, it’s impossible to fail. The only failure is to give up, and I’m not giving up.”

Groovy Branding

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