My Painting Business: Customers, Part 2

This is Mrs. Collins house. Sadly, just before I painted the house for the third time, the big tree in back had to be cut down.

I wish I would have kept records of my earliest customers—from 1981 to 1990. So many of them are long forgotten. Back then I never thought I would ever need those records. Those first customers were the most fought for, and, of course, they were all new. Mrs. Collins, for example, told me that her first impression of me wasn’t that good, because I came to do the estimate in shorts and a t-shirt. But after a while I guess she got to like me and the way I explained how I would do the work—and also, the page of references I gave her. She liked my work so much that I was called back three different times, every 7 years or so. The last time I painted the house it was up for sale. She was moving. So sad to see her go. But she did give me a lead on another house—her parents’ house. Of course, I got that job. I always get referrals.

This is Mrs. Hartill’s house. My crew is busy preping it for painting.

Another early customer was Mrs. Hartill. I can’t remember how exactly I got that job, either from an ad in a local paper, or she heard of me from a friend. Well anyway, Mrs. Hartill just happened to be the widow of my favorite professor at Northwestern College, J. Edwin Hartill. I was so surprised to find out who she was. The first job she had for me was the entire outside of the house. At that time, I had a crew of 3 or 4 of us—so we got it done pretty fast.

In the next few years, she also called me for some inside work, and those times it was just me. I will never forget her kindness and hospitality. At lunch break she always insisted that I eat with her. And she always had quite a spread—so many things to eat. But food wasn’t the only thing she offered me. Being the wife of Dr. Hartill, she of course was full of bible knowledge and good stories. I always came away from lunch not only with my stomach full but spiritually filled as well.

I think sometime in the mid 1980’s I met Jill Wilson. She had (has) a beautiful house on a lake. At the time, she was recently divorced and had three young kids and a pot belly pig that walked around inside the house like a dog. So funny. I think I painted that house about three times: in the 1980’s, and then about in 1995, and again about 2000.

I sort of lost track of her for a few years, but then her friend surprisingly knew me and spoke of me. I had painted for her too. So, Jill got a hold of me again. It was so good to see her again and paint for her again. Her kids now are all grown up, and one of her girls, now married, has also given me some work. She is also very friendly just like her mom.

I think I met Dick and Kate in the early 90’s just when I was going through my divorce. I think I have painted their entire house three times. I also did some inside painting and wallpapering, and even some painting at their cabin. Oh, I also have done quite a bit of painting of their many offices that they own. So, they have really kept me busy.

They are a little hard to deal with at times, and Dick for some reason likes to help out—he slows me down. On the plus side, they are so hospitable and always insist that I join them for lunch every day when I am working. Kate will talk my ear off with her stories, but I have grown to just love her—and Dick too.

Silvia Belmont is a real gem. She is in her 90’s, but still gets around and plays her grand piano every day.  She has a very heavy Norwegian accent, and I love to hear her talk. I’ve painted the outside of her house four or five times. I never get tired of working for her. Recently, she took a fall and had some brain damage. I hope she recovers, but I know God will take her soon.

I have done work for so many wonderful people over the years. Many of them have moved away or passed on. I wish I could remember them all, especially those early ones; I foolishly destroyed their files. I counted about 20 clients that I presently have that I have done work for, for over 30 years. It’s so good to have kept them for customers this long.

Since I am retired now (have been retired for five years), I think my business will soon be ending. But some of my memories of customers will always remain, and I thank God for them. At first my business was all about work, work, work—to make money. But as the years past, I have learned not to work so hard and not to be so focused on making money. It is better to concentrate on doing a good job, whatever it takes. A good reputation and happy customers are far better than earning a little extra money. And who knows what influence as a Christian worker I will have made on a customer—both for the good work I do and also for my conversation with them.

A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold (Proverbs 22:1).

My Painting Business: Customers

This is one of the first houses I painted. I think I painted it three times over the years.

My business has always been primarily to homeowners. From when I started the business (in 1981) to the present (2020), I’m sure I have acquired over 1000 satisfied customers from over 30 localities in the Minneapolis area. I had a vision of really spreading out: I went out as far west as Minnetonka (you will have to look on a map), as far south as Burnsville, as far east as Oakdale, and as far North as Andover. But now, especially since I am retired, I see the wisdom in staying as close to home as possible. It saves on gas and it doesn’t take as long to get to work.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned over the years is to do whatever I can to please a client, and then do whatever it takes to keep that client. I would rather have satisfied repeat customers then to always have to advertise in order to get new customers. Don’t get me wrong, I like new customers, but advertising takes money. Also, if you have satisfied customers many of those will tell their friends what a good job you did, and those friends will call you for a job. I hate to brag, but for the last 20 years I haven’t spent a penny on advertising. I don’t have too; people just call me for work. Either they are repeat customers or they have heard about me from a friend. At the beginning of my business I had to advertise all the time. That’s normal. But you shouldn’t have to keep doing that.

Okay, what I do to keep track of my clients is this. As soon as I finish a job, I file the proposal for that client. Then at the end of the year I record all those jobs in my computer with their names, addresses, phone number, date of the job, and cost of the job. That’s fairly easy.  The hard part for me is calling them. I try to call every client I have at least once a year, to ask them if they need any more painting. Most of them don’t, but some do. And most of them are thankful that I called and will call me later—sometimes months later. But that’s okay.

One of the things I really love about this business is getting to know people over the years, and seeing them satisfied with the work I do for them. It’s extremely rewarding.

In my next post I will tell you about some of my favorite and most faithful clients—and maybe share some great stories.

My Painting Business: Employees

In previous blog posts, I talked about the start of my painting business: my advertising, my biding on jobs, and buying ladders and a truck. Today I will talk about hiring help (employees). When I started out, in 1981, I just hired one guy—a friend. I suppose I could have done the work myself, since I didn’t have a great deal of it; but I went on faith that more work would come in and I wanted to be ready when it did.

As it turned out, each year brought in a little more work; and so, more employees were needed. According to my records, my best year was in 1987. And so, as I remember, I had the most employees then, about 6 or 7. Those were the days. It was fun having that many workers, but also hard keeping track of everything.

I’ve always done my own payroll and taxes, and I also have been the only one to train the workers and supervise them. I guess I never have been too much of a business man, or else I would have known more about how to grow my business. My main focus has always been on doing a good job at painting and making sure my workers had the same focus. For some reason, I could never just supervise; I had to always be working myself. And that made it extra hard, because I always had one eye on the work I was doing, and the other eye on watching a new worker—making sure he was doing what I wanted him to do.

After 1987, the workload, and also the employees, gradually decreased. But surprisingly, my income did not decrease. I learned how to make money having fewer employees. I learned that paying a few good employees more money was more cost efficient that paying many so so employees less. I also learned that I could get just as many jobs if I charged more. People were willing to pay more if I could convince them that I would be doing a good job. Since 1997 I haven’t had any employees. Wow! That’s 23 years without employees. And I’ve been doing fine. I don’t make quite as much money now, but its been easier.

One of the things that was always hard from year to year when I had employees, was having to lay off most (or all) of them in the fall, because of a lack of work, and then have to re-hire new employees in the spring. I really didn’t mind the hiring process, but I hated the fact that all, or most of the guys that I had to lay off were forced to get other steady work. So, all the training I did was just for one year, and then I had to start all over again the next year.

But there were two guys that did come back from year to year: Kevin and Dave. I hired both of them in 1985, and they lasted until 1991. They were by far the best workers I had—which says a lot about the wisdom of sticking with good workers, even if you have to continue to give them raises. I would rather pay a lot for good help then to hire a lot of cheap help.

Next time I will talk about all the great customers I have gained over the years.

My Painting Business: Places I’ve Lived, Writing, Dating

During the first few years of my painting business, from 1981 to 1985, I lived in two different places. The first was in an apartment in south Minneapolis. The thing I remember about that place was that I got some of the cost of my rent taken off for doing some badly needed painting in a few apartments. I remember that I never felt pressured to finish a job—since I had an understanding with the landlord that I could only work a couple hours a week, because I was already working my painting business. I don’t know why I got such a kick out of it and felt so empowered to just walk away from a job half-way finished and to tell the people, “I’ll be back next Wednesday to finish up.” I would never do that today. But, part of me wishes that I could be more carefree as I was then, and not worry about finishing a job when the client wants it to be done. At the time of this writing I am semi-retired and I’m trying to be more like that—more carefree. I do try not to work such long hours and maybe take a few days off.

After a couple years I moved to a different apartment in northeast Minneapolis, What I remember most  about that place is that it was located right across from Zurbey’s bar, and quite often they would play loud polka music all night long; and they would always leave the front door wide open so the whole neighborhood could hear it. It was obnoxious, and it would keep me up when I was trying to sleep.

Another thing I remember about living there is that it was when I decided that I would get serious about writing. So, I began setting aside at least an hour a day just to write—a book. Yes, I had a topic and a book title—but I can’t remember what it was. Sadly, after a few years I got frustrated with it and tore the whole thing up. Looking back on it now, I know I did the right thing. If you are gong to write a book it really should be inspired by God, not just something you think could sell or make you some money—which was the case for that attempt.  In a few years down the road, in 1993, I was inspired to write a book, and I never was frustrated with it. I’ll write more about that in a future blog.

From 1981 to 1985 was also the period when I was dating. Most people, I suppose, start dating quite early, from age 16 and continue until they are married. Not me. In high school there was a couple girls I liked, but I didn’t date them. Then after high school I went right into the Marines—no dating there. Then I was in the Navigators from 1971 to 1975, and they are notorious for not dating. In fact, they would keep the men’s ministry entirely separate from the women’s ministry. I hardly ever saw a girl. Then I went to Northwestern college and Western Seminary, and I was so dedicated to my studies that I hardly ever looked up from my books. So, after Western Seminary, in 1981, is the first real chance I had to start dating. I mean, I had nothing else to think about except my work—painting, and I didn’t really have to think about that too much.

I guess you could say, I was getting a late start at dating. I was already 30 years old. Good grief! Oh well. Better late than never. I really didn’t date a lot. There were actually only three girls that I can think of that I dated off and on. Elise was the main one. I was really crazy about her. Well, actually, she drove me crazy—because she couldn’t commit to me. Finally, I decided to break it off with her. I couldn’t handle it any more. Then in 1985 I met the girl I ended up marrying. I’ll talk more about that later.

Starting A House Painting Business

After I resigned from Seminary, and put my ministry goals on hold, I determined to look to the future. I immediately thought of starting a painting business, because I had been doing that already and it seem like a logical step. My brother Jim happened to be thinking along the same lines, so we decided to do it together. But after the first few jobs, it was apparent that we weren’t thinking the same way. I wanted to have a legitimate business (which included paying taxes) and he did not. So, we went our separate ways.

One of the first things I did was to go and talk to a man (I think it was in the Minneapolis Federal building) about how to start a business. It didn’t take long. He asked me what kind of a business I wanted and he set me up. The name of my company would be Nielsen Painters. I felt good about it. I had a business name, a business tax number, and I was good to go. All I needed now was some jobs and maybe some help.

The year was 1981. I was off. I put an add in the Newspaper and also did my best at making fliers to distribute. The first few fliers didn’t look all that great, but they got better. Sometimes I walked around a neighborhood myself and put the flier just inside the screen door or under the mat. Sometimes I would pay to have about 5,000 of them distributed as an insert in a local newspaper. And sometimes I had my nieces and nephews (my sister’s kids) help me pass them out. That was great fun for them, and I paid each of them one stick of Juicy Fruit gum for the day. They thought it was a good deal! And you know what? After forty years they still remember that day and laugh about it.

Surprisingly, the adds and the fliers worked. People started calling me and I went to give them a bid. I did paint estimates (bids) before, but I had never been trained at it. Some guys go around measuring everything and use certain calculations. But I was never comfortable with that method. The way I saw it, it was easier to just walk around and try to guess how long it would take me to prep and paint each section of the house, then add all those numbers together and multiply that number times what I wanted to make per hour—which at first was about $15 per hour. Almost always I gave them a firm bid, which most people wanted; but sometimes, if the job was harder to estimate, I tried to get them to agree on doing the job by the hour.

Usually people got more that one bid, so I didn’t expect to get every job I bid on. Normally, I got about a third of them. But I have learned some tricks along the way, like taking time to talk to the client. People like that. They want to know who is going to paint their house. And if I give them a good impression—even charm them a bit—that always helps.

Right away, after I landed a few jobs, I knew I needed some help. I asked a friend from college and he was more than willing to help me; and he was a pretty good worker too. The first house we painted I had to rent ladders, but I knew that couldn’t continue.  I decided right then to use all the money I made on that first job to buy two 32 ft. ladders, two 20 footers, a 16 ft. plank and two ladder jacks. We were all set!

Not long after that I bought and little blue Mazda pickup truck. Those were the days. Whatever I needed for the business I found a way to do it.  The first few years were kind of scarce, but each year was better. I had no big dreams; I was just doing my best to live by faith. And He was moving me, each day, one step at a time. I didn’t know what exactly He was calling me to do—with a painting business, but I knew that if I stayed obedient to Him, He would show me.