5 good questions with Eric Belley – Banker-turned-painting-company owner
1: Why did you choose to partner in a painting business after 25 years in banking?
After 25 years of enduring the ups and downs of the banking industry, I had lost the passion for my work, and it ultimately affected my health. So I left my job in Maine and bought a house in Florida. In the process of informing my banking clients that I was leaving, I spoke with Peter Berke who I had been advising for the previous 15 years. Together, we came up with the idea of starting a Florida-based division of his company, North Atlantic Painting Company, Inc.
I knew the cost of entry was low and I felt like, with my background, I could bring something different to the industry. And so far, it’s been fantastic.
2: What‘s an important lesson you brought from the banking world to your business?
Painting is very similar to banking in that it’s a commodity service. In both industries, everyone basically offers the same products and services. What sets our company apart, and I truly believe this, is the customer experience. The business is relational, not transactional. We don’t compete or negotiate on price—that’s just a race to the bottom. What we do is aim to build trust very early in the sales cycle and maintain that trust level throughout the project.
3: What are the most common financial mistakes you see other paint contractors make?
Owners don’t understand margins. They don’t know their labor costs, materials costs, or overhead. And they don’t know how to read or interpret a P&L. A lot of people think if they have the money in the bank, they’re okay. But that is NOT a sign of financial health. All it takes is a small change in cost of goods and you’re in trouble. If you’re a half-million-dollar company and there’s a 1% change to materials cost, that’s a $5,000 hit to your bottom line.
You need to stay on top of your financials. I know, on a weekly basis, how I did against the same week last year. If there’s a significant deviation, I figure out what’s going on. Without data, and knowing how to use it, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. A once-a-year review at tax time doesn’t provide you sufficient time to analyze and react in a timely manner.
4: What are the keys to maintaining a company culture across two locations?
It’s all about communication—and not just at the owner level. We’re in contact with our web team, estimating software provider and bookkeeper on a weekly basis, and connect with our accountant six to eight times a year. Our offices are 1,400 miles apart so we use GoToMeeting and other technology to connect live to make planning and strategic decisions.
5: What are some things you’ve learned as a business owner?
Two things: first, that I still have a lot to learn and, second, that I’m not alone. Everyone thinks their challenges are unique to them. But, as I saw at the PDCA Expo, we’re all running different companies but are challenged in similar ways. Knowing you’re not alone and that there are other people willing to help gives you comfort. You just need to ask and listen.
Eric Belley—a former banker and current co-owner of North Atlantic Painting Company—operates all facets of the Fernandina Beach, FL division, which opened in January 2017. He is the father of three young men and also enjoys travel, the beach, and a good game of tennis. NorthAtlanticPainting.com