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Painters battle competition in unregulated industry

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by Ruth Scott

SBJ Contributing Writer

An abundance of new construction projects, as well as an ongoing need for repainting of existing structures, creates a continual demand for painters in the Springfield area. Painting contractors can work in three different areas: commercial, industrial and residential, said Bill Reed, owner of Premium Painting.

Although many contractors work in several different areas, he said, "most people have an area of expertise and specialize in that area." Residential repainting makes up about 40 percent of his business, and industrial and commercial make up the other 60 percent, he said.

Painting projects can involve new construction or repainting. According to Paul Jennings, owner of Paradise Painting, there's a big difference between the two.

"For repainting, you have to evaluate the surface conditions you'll be working with," he said. "You have to be fairly knowledgeable about preparation and have some background in it."

Several painting contractors will usually bid simultaneously on a project, Reed said. "Generally, how it works is if you have the low bid, you win the job. But sometimes even if your bid isn't the lowest, you may get the job because the general contractor likes your work." He added that some residential painters work with a particular builder or builders on various projects.

Reed said that industrial painting primarily involves maintenance painting, so a general contractor usually isn't involved. In those cases, "the painting contractor usually works with a plant manager or operations manager," he said.

While Jennings is involved in all types of painting, he said he does a lot of commercial and industrial projects.

"I walk the area and look it over, to evaluate the working conditions and the time frame we will need. We work with the people there and coordinate with them." The goal, he said, is to avoid "down time. I go in and figure a way to do it so that they don't have to shut down while I'm working."

Jennings does all the estimating and runs the business end, but he also works in the field alongside his other two employees. "My being there, and physically getting involved in the project, means a lot to the customer," he said.

Also, Jennings only works on one job at a time, finishing each project before beginning the next. "It keeps happier relationships with customers," he said.

Reed, on the other hand, said that he has 12 men who work throughout the year, enabling him to take on more than one project at a time.

Lane Loyer, owner of American Handyman Services, is involved in various aspects of construction, including painting. One employee is in charge of making the decisions on painting projects. "He's experienced and knowledgeable," Loyer said. But good help is not easy to find.

"The availability of labor is bad everywhere right now. I have some good, qualified people, but it took time to find those people," Loyer said.

His company is usually involved in all aspects of a project and does all the scheduling "so if a project is running behind, we know ahead of time." Because there are so many unknown factors, he said, "you can figure you'll be behind by the end of the project."

According to Reed, this can create a problem for those involved only in the painting stage of projects. "The first or second schedule hardly ever becomes reality," he said, adding that the painters "are expected to pick up the ball. There's always a deadline. The other trades seem to get more time."

The weather is one uncontrollable factor that can influence scheduling. "Rain keeps you behind," Jennings said. "Most customers are understanding. I stay in touch with all my customers, so if we're behind schedule they will know ahead of time."

Winter slows down a painting contractor's schedule, too, although "it's not as bad here as it is farther north," Reed said. "We've had some pretty mild winters lately."

Another difficulty, Reed said, is that even if a contractor gets a job, there's no guarantee the project will ever reach the painting stage.

"Ten percent of projects bid in the open market blow their budget," he said, "and then they either start over or just quit."

When bidding on a project, a contractor has to consider several factors, Reed said. "You have to figure your fixed overhead and then your variable overhead. It will be different for every project."

He said that a contractor must consider the costs of equipment and labor for that specific project. For instance, "if a project has to be completed in a short amount of time, you have to figure in overtime pay."

Sometimes labor and equipment costs are higher than expected because the painters have to repaint an area that is damaged during the final stages of finishing the home.

"You should expect a certain amount of touch up work, but sometimes your work gets beat up," Reed said. "We have to repaint all the time. A lot of times you're expected to absorb the added costs."

Bidding has become more difficult, according to Reed. "You're bidding against people who have a couple of ladders and decide to start their own company," he said. "It's getting tougher and tougher, because overhead has gone up, but bids are low."

He said that sometimes people who aren't very qualified bid a project very low. "There are times when you bid work a little tighter just to keep your employees busy," he said. "Their livelihood depends on you being able to get work."

Some painting contractors, Reed said, are pursuing other avenues, such as building, synthetic stucco work and fireproofing.

"The painting business, in my opinion, is not a very good business," Loyer said. "Everybody thinks they're a painter." In the state of Missouri, he said, "you have to get a painting contractor's license, but that's all." He said that many unqualified people advertise themselves as painters.

"A lot of people say they know how to paint. It's just like anything else," Loyer said. "People will say they know how to do something when they have done it a few times."

Other trades, such as plumbing and electrical work, require a lot of training and experience, Loyer said.

"You have to become a master plumber or electrician. But to be a painter, you can just go bid a house and paint it."

"There is no regulation whatsoever," Reed said. "There are no guidelines." He said he would like to see some standards set. "It would never happen, though. You can't get everyone together," he said.

Loyer said that while some painters are inexperienced or lazy, there are definitely some good painters in the business. Good quality costs more, and longer-lasting paint is also more expensive.

He said that the more sheen a paint has, the more durable it is.

Gloss paint is often used in commercial buildings because it is more durable than flat paint, he said.

"A lot of contractors will use a flat paint because it is cheaper, but it isn't washable. If there are kids around, it usually has to be repainted in a couple of years," Loyer said.

Loyer added that customers are the ones who suffer when painters are not conscientious.

People don't realize, if they have a beautiful home with wood trim, and someone gets paint spots on the floor and trim, it devalues the home, Jennings said.

"A lot of people lose money by hiring cheap work," Jennings said. "It doesn't always pay."

Jennings provides his potential customers with a packet of information, including letters of recommendation from previous customers.

"People appreciate good work, and the fact that they don't have to wonder about my background," he said.

Jennings began his business in 1958, and said he was taught by the "old-timers who valued quality and craftsmanship. I've always felt, and still feel, that the best thing you can possibly do is to be proud of your profession. You have to have a pride in what you do."

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