Building Relationships

Debra Gelbart

Building RelationshipsRelationships with general contractors who build new homes or work in commercial construction can lead to steady business and plenty of regular income, but professional painters and builders say you have to know what to expect when looking for and accepting jobs offered by builders.


Most builders who don’t maintain an in-house painting staff rely on the 80-20 rule, said Jay Evans, owner of Two Structures, LLC, a new-construction company in Oklahoma City that focuses on residential building. That means a general contractor typically hires a single painting company to do about 80% of the work needed, leaving about 20% of the work available for another painting company.

“We purposely haven’t hired one company to do all our painting as a way to protect ourselves from the unexpected,” said Evans. “We’ve insisted on a relationship with at least two painting companies; we prefer to hire a second painter who is willing to work with us to take care of about 20% of our painting needs, so he gets to know what we expect and what we need. It doesn’t help a painter or a builder to work with a builder only once in a while.”

A willingness to handle that percentage of a builder’s painting needs “is a great way to get your foot in the door with a builder,” Evans said. But he cautioned that a builder will first want to see the kind of quality work you provide before agreeing to let you become the back-up painter.

“Always remember that a builder is your customer, not your employer,” he said. “You’re trying to win business, not persuade the builder to hire you full time. You always want to create the best possible impression.”


Whether you seek out relationships with residential or commercial builders (or both) may depend on the size of your company as well as your own preference. Some painters like working with commercial; others are partial to residential. Still others prefer a mix. Here’s how three pros are approaching the opportunity:

CLIFF HUDSON: “We work more often with companies, small or large, that focus on commercial construction,” said Cliff Hudson, owner of a Fresh Coat painters franchise in northern California, who employs 22 painters on his staff. “The margins are too low for us in residential construction. I lose too much money trying to compete in a new-home market.” But Hudson said his company does do some residential painting for small general contractors.

MARK GANN: The emphasis for Kaleidoscope Painting & Design (in Oklahoma City) is painting primarily single-family homes for small and large builders—and apartment community repaints, said Mark Gann, CEO. His company, established in May 2014, employs 50 painters that comprise 12 production crews. They work with at least 25 different builders in the Oklahoma City area.

NICK KUNST: Nick Kunst, a professional painter and owner of Kunst Bros. in San Rafael, CA, chooses to do very limited work for general contractors in part because “other trades can damage our work.” At press time, Kunst and his team of 13 to 20 painters were painting the first phase of a brand-new, 400-unit apartment complex. “If all goes well with this phase, we’ll continue with the next phase,” he said. “But we have a mutual agreement with the builder that if either of us is unhappy after each phase, we can part ways.”

Finding and impressing builders

If you prefer painting residential construction, consider becoming a member of a local homebuilders’ association, Kunst advised. It’s a good way to meet builders in your area.

To find both residential and commercial projects to bid on, said Hudson, start with, an online construction network that can connect professionals with all types of projects. “A relationship begins when you start sending bids,” Hudson said. He recommends submitting a resume that includes descriptions of projects you’ve completed that are similar in size, scope and dollar value to the project you’re bidding on.

Be honest with yourself about your company’s capabilities, Kunst said. Don’t bid on jobs that are too big for your staff. “If you can’t produce, you won’t be hired by that homebuilder again.”

If you do get hired by a builder, said Gann, insist on walking the job with the site superintendent or the project designer beforehand to verify colors and other particulars. “Effective communication about your process between you and the builder is essential,” Gann said.

No matter what obstacles or unforeseen challenges come your way, the builder won’t be happy if your portion of the project exceeds the estimated or expected charges you presented before work began. “If someone gives me a price, I expect them to stick to it, barring change orders from the client,” said John Cooney, a general contractor whose company, John Cooney General Contracting in Hoosick, NY, builds custom homes in a variety of price ranges. He also expects that a professional painter will have knowledge of a wide array of painting products, the chemical makeup of paints, and also application techniques. “That knowledge is really key for me when talking about paint,” he said.

It’s important to keep in mind that a builder’s needs may vary. “Sometimes we’ll hire sole proprietors,” Cooney said. “But a company with eight to 10 painters may be ideal because of their flexibility for completing a job on time.”

Gann also advises that you make sure your reputation is impeccable, not only through outstanding work for customers, but also by maintaining a great relationship with your paint supplier. It’s almost a certainty that a builder will check with your supplier to see if you pay your bills on time and if you place orders in a timely fashion.


When a mutually beneficial relationship has been established with a builder, Gann said, let the builder know precisely how you’ll ensure successful completion of the project. “Deliver exactly what you’ve promised you’ll deliver,” he said. “If you promise A, B and C, don’t skip any steps. Follow through on your plan and you can look forward to more business from builders.”


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