Open for Business
Chris Drucquer likes to use the word ‘unobtrusive’ when talking about successful commercial paint jobs—not a word you hear a lot from those in the paint business, for sure.
The word speaks to his approach to working with business owners who need a job done without disrupting their day-to-day operations.
Drucquer, owner of CertaPro Painters of the Main Line in suburban Philadelphia, recently took on a job at the Barnes Foundation, home to one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist art. It wasn’t the first time Drucquer had worked with the Philadelphia-based cultural organization, and for good reason. When his crew is hired to paint a room or section of the facility prior to a new exhibit installation, the team brings a quality job with a light touch, working at off-peak hours, and moving quickly during the entire process.
“We want to be out of sight,” he said. “We don’t want people coming in smelling paint. Oftentimes, there’s a separate entrance and exit for our guys. … We had three days for that job, but we were done in half that time.”
Drucquer’s team also recently completed a job for chef Stephen Starr’s restaurant, the Continental. With the business open until midnight, his crew had to start work at 12:30 a.m., and be off-site before 10 a.m., when the lunch prep team came in.
Drucquer will tell you that commercial work is all about building relationships. Following through on promises of great work while staying out of the way is key to keeping those relationships strong. He and some other paint pros shared how they keep demanding commercial jobs profitable and their customers happy enough to keep calling back.
A DOLPHIN PAINT CREW
About 1,200 miles south of Philadelphia, near Sweetwater, FL, international tourists are lining up outside Dolphin Mall at 7:30 a.m., despite the fact that the popular mall’s 240 stores don’t open until 10 a.m. Miami-Dade County’s largest mall is often packed from open to close, and even before and after hours.
Inside, Eddy Del Valle’s team is on the tail end of a long night of work, getting in after the mall closed the night before, and sneaking out before the first patron sets foot inside a common area. In some cases, his team may even need to budget time for setting up and removing a 60- or 120-foot rented boom lift. Del Valle gets a lot of work at the Dolphin Mall, and he knows full well the limitations to the job, particularly on the scheduling front.
“The thing is that they’re always trying to keep the place in great shape. … I’ve worked on all different phases there,” he said. “Once you leave for the day, you have to make it look like no one ever worked there.”
Del Valle Painting also works on universities, offices, hospitals, and plenty of other retail facilities. When it comes to scheduling, Del Valle says sometimes, with special events or other situations, it’s hard to even get a full eight-hour shift for a crew.
“You usually have to budget more time because you have to put in more personnel [for the limited time you do have] so you can do it quicker,” he said. “Expenses can go up. … But I’m always honest and tell them the truth. Don’t tell them you can do it in three days when you know for a fact there’s no way possible.”
Like others who see a good share of their work in the commercial arena, Drucquer is a bit obsessive about scheduling, getting in on the conversation as early as possible with the customer and other trades that may be involved. And when he says his crew will be on site, there is very little room for tardiness.
“You can’t be late in commercial work. It’s absolutely not acceptable. That could cost someone a fortune and throw an entire project off,” he added.
For Del Valle, a good crew is key to getting the job done right, and assembling one isn’t always easy, he says. A commercial crew member needs to be flexible with his schedule, possibly working days one week, then nights the next, depending on the job’s needs.
Del Valle is always looking for professionalism, above all. While the 40-year paint pro schedules a lot of jobs during off-hours, he knows his paint crews could have contact with facilities managers, security personnel, and even the public.
“We do a lot of work in schools too,” he added. “So we do background checks and really want to make sure we don’t have a problem employee out there. That reflects on you as the business owner. It’s not always easy to find good help.”
BEFORE YOU BID
Mike Shaffer, a Five Star Painting franchise owner in Temecula, CA, runs commercial crews all over the country, and has done work on country clubs, retail stores, offices, and plenty more. Commercial work makes up about 50% of his business. But he admits to taking his time with growing that part of his portfolio. He cautions anyone considering commercial work to start small and slow.
“One thing I tell people is to avoid travel at first. Find something close. That way if you have problems, at least you know you’re not far away,” he said.
Budgets are usually tight and a business owner or nonprofit is likely getting at least three bids. So making sure the final number on a commercial job is one you can truly work with is important too, added Drucquer.
Working with an operational business or nonprofit organization, by nature, can produce plenty of delays. Shaffer also warns that payment is usually 30 to 90 days after an invoice, unlike in residential, where payment is seen immediately upon completion of the job. Having enough money on hand to pay for expenses until you get paid is a necessity Shaffer says. He has his bookkeeper allocate 5% off the top of every job for reserves, which has allowed him to have enough to pay crews after they complete a job, even though he, himself, still hasn’t been paid.
“I never take on a project unless I can pay for 100% of the labor and materials. … A lot of guys are running really fast and cash poor. … You don’t want to have to rob all your [job] accounts in order to make payroll,” he said.
TECHNIQUE, OTHER TRADES
A common misconception about commercial work is that most of it involves spraying. But Del Valle said there is plenty of rolling and brushing involved too.
Shaffer also says a lot of pros who transition from residential to commercial don’t realize that different tools are used in order to move faster and get jobs done on time. For example, instead of a 9″ roller commonly seen in residential, commercial pros often use an 18″ speed roller that can apply paint about three times faster to cover larger areas.
Oftentimes when a business needs paint work, additional trades may be involved for other site enhancements. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for other trades to damage paintwork too. A pro needs to have good judgment as to when it’s cost-effective to do a quick touch-up and when enough damage is done to warrant a change order, said Shaffer. Minding this balance is key, he said, to maintaining good relationships with commercial customers who need you to move quickly.
“With my contracts, I specify how many days, the number of men on the job, and my exclusions,” he said. “Don’t do something without a signed, approved change order with the pricing negotiated. Most of the guys that just do the work and think they’ll deal with [payment] later, 50% to 60% of the time don’t get paid for it.”
While taking on commercial jobs that involve making sure the customer experience is not compromised bring their share of pressures, it’s important to look the part of the professional at all times, added Drucquer.
“You really want the customer to have full confidence in your crew chief to do this job. If that’s lost, it’s not good,” he added. “A good crew chief is usually someone that is careful about what he says and really thinks before saying what’s on his mind.”
Professionalism extends beyond the job site, too. Commercial customers, who also need to maintain their own level of professionalism in their field, will judge paint pros by things like the quality of a web site, prompt responses to inquiries, and overall communication skills.
“Sometimes it’s just about getting the information to a person to give them the confidence that you won’t leave them high and dry,” he said. “It doesn’t always get you the job, but it’ll give you a chance to bid. It can give you a leg up if you’re neck and neck in a bid, too.”
Mike Shaffer’s crews often travel the country doing commercial work. One team recently completed a 26,000-square-foot clothing store in Calexico, CA, near the Mexico border. The job had three paint crews fired prior to his team’s arrival. What he found was that most of the previous pro bids did not account for the extensive travel to the site. Then the sheer size of the job surprised unprepared crews as well.
“They all walked on the job and saw this large footprint. But they didn’t realize they only needed to paint about 20% of it. It was a case of getting them to overcome the overall size of the store,” he added.
Shaffer said communication breakdowns can doom jobs like this and leave a business owner frustrated and losing money while work goes uncompleted. Before you walk, think of it this way … for every day a store sits idle because the job isn’t done, that’s lost revenue. Even if you’ve made a terrible miscalculation on the job, the pro says the future of your business could hinge on how you handle it. “Don’t ever be afraid to answer the phone or call a project manager, even if things go wrong. They will respect you more than if they find it out from someone else,” he added.