Craftsmanship: A Marketing Necessity!

By Mario Guertin – President, PDCA Craftsmanship Forum
President, Painting in Partnership, Inc.

It is often tempting for us, as painting contractors, to think of our local market as the only thing we need to worry about. After all, where is the competition going to come from? Right? In reality, our local markets are being affected by many influences that go far beyond our local boundaries. Some of these influences are actually felt at a global level. These trends and influences can hurt you or benefit you as a company. If you are aware and prepared, they will benefit you. If you are not, your company will suffer, perhaps be imperiled! In this article, we will describe major trends and influences affecting our industry and some of the major marketing challenges and opportunities they present to us as an industry and contractors as well.

Scarcity of Labor: A Case in Point

Are you experiencing difficulties in hiring qualified people to work in your company? You are not alone. At the PACE convention, held in Tampa in January of 2006, I had the opportunity of meeting a union commercial contractor from Australia. He was telling the group I was part of that ‘ for any salary and any benefits I can offer, I cannot find enough people who are even interested to apply’. The amazing part in his testimony was the list of benefits they offer. My jaw dropped! After recovering from the shock, I asked: why is it that you cannot recruit people for that kind of money and benefits? He answered ‘Because people are not interested!’ This is a painting contractor from across the world! Have you asked Ed Travis, from San Antonio, Texas, about his experience is trying to hire painters lately? You might be surprised to hear how similar it is! What about you? Why is that?

Architectural Coatings: A Growth Area in Painting

In the last 5 years, the Architectural Coatings sector of the industry, which includes the residential sector a large segment of the commercial area as well, has grown at a faster pace than any other sector of the industry. In the past 10 years, Architectural Coatings have grown by almost $2.8 billions when the rest of the industry grew by only $500 million. In the next 5 years, according to Orr and Boss, an economic consulting firm to the coatings and the painting ingredients manufacturers, Architectural Coatings are expected to grow at a far greater rate than any other sector of the industry. Many factors contribute to this rosy forecast. A major one is the aging baby boomers. That growth means to us, painting contractors, an increasing demand! Furthermore, these baby boomers are more educated about design and aesthetics, and have more money available to satisfy their needs than any other mass market in history. Will our industry be able to attract the manpower it needs and develop the level of craftsmanship that will be required? Will people be interested to enter the painting trade in sufficient numbers? How can PDCA position its members to thrive in this emerging new world?

A Societal Attitude Towards Painting

This one is not a trend, but is a fact: society is ignorant about painting! In the Architectural Coatings area, but especially in the Residential sector, people think that painting is easy; even a primate can do it! Have you ever had people tell you that? ‘I know what painting is: paint and price’! Right? I do not want to be overly dramatic, but in many cases the question mark is missing; it is a statement! Which strategies can contractors adopt to counteract the effects of this attitude in the marketplace? What can the PDCA do about that to help its members in this area?

Another Trend: ‘Big Box Painting’

Did you know that ‘Big Box’ chains are in the process of getting into the painting business? ‘Big Box’ like what: Home Depot and Lowes! So what? Here are some factors to consider:

  • These chains have tremendous financial resources to back up their Strategy of entering the painting industry.
  • The public is uneducated regarding painting.
  • The painting trade has not stepped up to the plate to ‘define’ what painting is.
  • Unless the painting industry steps in to define what painting is, ‘Big Box’ is ready to spend millions of dollars to educate the consumer about what painting is all about, without telling them that them that the definition is based on their financial interests! If they are successful, what do you think the result will be: the bar will be lowered for the industry as a whole!

How can PDCA deal with that challenge to benefit the industry and its members?

There is More: Parental Expectations 

As parents, we wish the best for our kids. Isn’t that true? A good education, a good job and happy life: right? This was the dream of my parents also. My parents were two grade-school-educated people who had a dream: educate their children so that they would have more opportunities than they had themselves; a very noble dream indeed! Education was a way out, the means to a better life. Education was something that allowed someone to have a profession that people who did not have that education could not have! My parents were people of strong vision. They focused their energy and resources to one end: giving a good education to their 5 children. They succeeded: 3 of their 5 children completed Masters Degrees in the United States, including one PhD. The other 2 became health care professionals. Not bad for a blue-collar family that grew up speaking only French in Canada!

Why did I tell you this story? Because my parents’ dream is not dissimilar to the dreams of most parents, even today. However, there is a major unintended problem with that dream. I discovered it in my early 40s when I told my parents that I had decided to become a Painting Contractor. I remember a long pause in the conversation. In the conversation that ensued, I realized that this was not how my parents had intended for me to use my American MBA education. In my generation and succeeding ones, ‘using your HANDS’, when you have a good education, carries a STIGMA. Somehow, this is not what you are supposed to do. I personally know many people who, like myself, have successfully made the jump into the painting industry from other business fields.

How many other people with ‘gifted hands’ are walking around out there, dissatisfied with the opportunities this traditional view of education locked them into? How many in this vast pool of people could be lured into painting if we were to ‘market painting as a cool way of using their gifted hands, while having a lucrative and rewarding career’?

As a final comment, I need to point out that making the choice to use your hands does not imply the disowning of the education you have received. On the contrary, enhanced opportunities to use that education open up. A year ago, I retired myself from using the tools in the business, except for training purposes. I now get to build the business of my dreams, full time! The gift from my parents has been put to very good use indeed; it gives me a strong competitive edge in the marketplace today. I am blessed!

A New Trend in Parental Attitude

There is a major change taking place in parental attitudes towards the education of their children: the ‘stigma of the HANDS’ is diminishing. This point is best made by Dr. Hornberger, Executive Director of the Lehigh Career & Technical Institute (Lehigh is a giant vocational training school in the Pennsylvania education system, currently completing a $50 million expansion):

‘Parents are conditioned to think that without a college degree, their kid’s future is bleak. Unlike in the past, today’s parents can more easily accept that their child may want to use his/her hands as a means of professional expression. However: give my kid a College Degree, parents say to me! Parents are begging me to give college credits for teaching their kids how to paint. I am frustrated because I do not have Painting Skill Standards that would allow me to develop curriculums to reach those standards.’

The Union sector of our industry has understood that trend. Some of their training centers are now offering College credits for painting courses! Did you know that?

A Brief Summary

In the paragraphs above, we described several major trends and influences affecting our industry and raised many questions as well. A brief recap is in order:

  • Scarcity of Labor: How can we market painting and to whom in order to meet the future labor needs?
  • Architectural Coatings are likely to continue to grow faster than any other painting sector in the next several years. Labor shortages are likely to worsen: How can we meet the demand?
  • ‘Big Box’ Painting is upon us: Will the industry step in to ‘Define Painting’ before it is done for us by ‘Big Box’.
  • Past Parental Expectations for the education of their kids has created a vast reservoir of people who are ‘gifted with their hands’ and are dissatisfied with traditional career paths: How can we market painting to these people as an exciting career opportunity?
  • Changing Parental Attitudes: Today’s parents are increasingly willing to ‘let their kids use their Hands’ as a viable career path, but still insist on a College Degree for their kids: Can the industry step in and give teaching institutions the Skill Standards they need so they can develop the painting curriculums parents expect; How can we entice the present and next generations to join the painting ranks?

What it all Means: We Must Act NOW!

In our society, painting is not a sexy profession! When people think of launching into a career or changing career, painting is generally at the bottom of the list. In many cases, painting is looked upon as a solution of last recourse; after all, ‘painting is easy’! How can we make painting something people can seriously consider as an attractive career if they are gifted with they hands, have an artistic flair and are willing to learn? The demand for painting services is expected to continue to grow in the years ahead. The labor pool is already very tight; where will future painters come from?

The entry of ‘Big Box’ in the painting business will change the marketing dynamics for all participants in the industry. Millions of dollars will be spent to promote the ‘Big Box’ brand of painting (standard). What strategies can we adopt now, as painting contractors, to position ourselves to grow in that changing environment? We will now talk about some basic strategies to respond and be proactive in that challenging environment.

Strategies Adopted by PDCA – The Voice of the Industry

For the last 3 years, PDCA has been engaged in a gut-wrenching process to bring about fundamental changes to the way it conducts its business, from its governance, to the way it attends to the needs of its members and the needs of the industry at large. Major steps have been taken, such as:

  • The total revamping of its governance process as an Association to allow it to quickly respond to the needs of the market place and its members.
  • The hiring of a dynamic, vision-driven CEO, Dr. Ian Horen, to lead the Association in this challenging process of change.
  • The creation of PACE, an industry-wide trade show and convention that is second to none,
  • The development of Contractor College, a flexible, partly web-based and partly traditional education program for painting contractors, which is state-of-the-art. It has already attracted the financial support of major manufacturers.
  • The development of an Accreditation Program for painting
  • Contractors which has already met with an enthusiastic response.
  • The creation of the PDCA Craftsmanship Forum, a group dedicated to the advancement of Craftsmanship within the industry at large, the development of Painting Skills Standards and Craftsman Operating Procedures (COPs), and the sharing of best practices.

PDCA has taken head on the challenge of professionalizing the painting industry and meeting the challenges facing us as an industry. In the remaining space in this article, I would like to highlight the role Craftsmanship plays in the overall strategy to professionalize the industry.

Craftsmanship: A Marketing Necessity

Listed below are the key reasons that make Craftsmanship a vital necessity in the professionalizing of the industry and a key strategic move for painting contractors in their quest to gain a marketing edge in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace.

a) Professionalizing Painting – Solving Painting’s Image Problem

In order for a field of endeavor to exist as a profession, a few essential requirements must be met, such as Accreditation for the firms dispensing the Service, Skills Standards that establish benchmarks of Competency as a step towards Certification for the mechanics (painters), Craftsman Operating Procedures (COPs) that set guidelines for the execution of the different tasks to be performed and Industry Standards that define the key aspects of the industry, to mention only a few. The temptation is sometimes to stop at the level of Accrediting companies and bypassing the step of Certifying the mechanics. Would you like to go to an accredited hospital if its doctors were not certified? It is essential for the industry to embrace Craftsmanship and recognize the fact that painting will never have the respect it deserves and the broad career appeal it can have until the industry gets serious with Craftsmanship. In a landmark vote, in January of 2005, the PDCA Board of Directors voted unanimously to add to its Ends Policy the following language: ‘Commitment to the Advancement of Craftsmanship in the Industry’. Things are headed the right way!

Putting these key elements in place should go a long way in solving painting’s long-standing image problem and making it an attractive career opportunity. The industry will then be in a position to market itself like never before to consumers, designers, architects, painters-to-be and new contractors.

b) Attracting People to Painting – Addressing the Labor Shortage Issue

As mentioned above, our industry is already experiencing serious labor shortages; yet the demand is expected to continue growing in the years to come. How are we, as an industry, going to meet the demand for painting services? This is a very serious problem! As we explained in the last section of this article, the successful implementation of the key steps to professionalize the industry will open exciting new ways to market the painting industry. However, if we fail to complete the task of professionalizing ourselves, we will also fail to solve the labor shortage problem.

Where can relief come from: schools and the vast pool of people dissatisfied with their current traditional careers, as pointed out earlier. Where can immediate help come from: the dissatisfied segment of the population! In addition to Craftsmanship, the industry needs to get serious about Marketing. How can we appeal to that population? We need to think outside the box on this one! A Career Track and the opportunity for self-expression have to be among the top motivators for that population, in addition, of course, to the financial equation. Just one idea: PDCA could create, on its website a ‘Want-to-Be’ section where someone could find ready information on how to get started in educating themselves as a Painters or Painting Contractors. Career CDs could be developed for High Schools and Colleges on ‘The Career Opportunity in Painting’ (our Dutch colleagues have developed such a tool). A ‘teaser’ version could also be developed for grade school students. How about comic books: the French have written 2 different ones; they gave me copies a few years ago! Get the point here? We need to get creative on how to market painting to all those different pools of people. After all, I am one of those outsiders who was seduced by the opportunities in painting, even though I had no background in painting at the outset. By the way, my company just won PDCA’s 2006 National Residential Award for Type II companies. Do you see the potential of an aggressive marketing approach for the painting industry?

c) Craftsmanship – A Marketing Niche for Contractors

Differentiation and Profit Margins are concepts very dear to all business-minded contractors. The more undifferentiated you are as a business, the lower your margins have a tendency to be; the more your service is treated like a commodity. The reverse is also true; you know that! The question is: how do you best differentiate yourself? We do it through logos, shirts, clean trucks, professional employees…you get the picture. The problem is that the field is getting a little crowded with people who are getting smart at differentiating themselves in those more common ways. The bad news is that there seems to be more and hoops for you to jump through to make an impression!

The good news is that there is still a fairly virgin territory to differentiate yourself: Craftsmanship! Let me make the point clear through a story I personally experienced recently. Last year, I did some Decorative Finishing in a few rooms for a client before they moved into their new home, fully custom-painted by the builder. In late January, the client asked me to bid for repaint the entire house. Why do you think: because the paint job was lacking in attention to detail and craftsmanship. The client knew me from the work we did for him before. However, he had 2 problems: my 650 man-hour bid came in at twice the nearest bid; the other problem was that the other contractor had big-name references. How was I able to get this big job in the dead of winter: a TEAM of Craftsmen, an estimating/project management system he felt comfortable with and of course the trust factor. I must admit that I still feel bad, sometimes, when I loose a job to a cheap bidder. However, I hate the thought to be the low bidder on a job and lose the project to someone who would have bid twice my price. That would really fry my cookies! The idea here is that you need to know craftsmanship to sell craftsmanship. However, there is more to the equation.

Selling craftsmanship involves more than meets the eye: it involves a COMMITMENT to craftsmanship. What does this mean? I recently wrote a series of articles ‘Building a Team of Craftsmen’ (can be found on the Forum’s website under ‘articles’) that describes in details the key requirements for building a company with craftsmanship at the center of its identity, from hiring, to employee development, to project management. All these pieces must be aligned and focused in the same direction in order for the company to deliver on the promises of craftsmanship in a consistent manner and reap the rewards that ensue.