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Play By The Rules!

Updated: Jan 28, 2019

Growing up, it was never a good idea to question my father.  My father and I had a relationship based on a deep respect for the rules of the family.  Rule # 1 was “dad is in charge and he should never be questioned.”  Rule # 2 was that “we were a small family and don’t need a lot of rules so just follow that first one and you’ll be fine.”  It was the 70’s…parents were still allowed to have rules like that!  

If I had listened to my father and his rules though, I would have never made it into the paint business!

I didn’t take the straightest of paths to becoming an independent paint retailer.  Out of college, I took a staff job doing research and writing for a US Senator in his office in the Capitol.  It was a good paying job: $18K a year at a time when the going rate for my graduating classmates was closer to $13k…so I was feeling pretty good.  I had never had a thought about going into the paint business. I followed dad’s Rule # 3: Take responsibility for yourself!

At 6 AM on college graduation day, I found myself sitting at a local diner with my father.  Graduation wasn’t until later in the day but my dad was always an early riser (occupational hazard for independent retailers, especially single store operators).  To my father, if it happened after 9 AM it was lunchtime!  After 4 PM? The dead of night!   Those were the hours that we all learned to keep.

I was going to surprise my dad that morning and tell him that I had taken that job.  I told him and was feeling very proud and so I didn’t understand why my father was not on board the “Way To GO Mark, Express!”  It didn’t occur to me until a few years later that when I told him I took a job, I had foiled his retirement plans! I had broken rule # 4: don’t anger the man who made the first three rules!

My father knew I was a New Yorker at heart and that I would be back.  He was young and able to take a long-term view of my situation.  HE knew that I was his retirement plan, but he also knew he had time to let me have some fun on my own.  Fortunately for him, he did not have to wait for long.  I only stayed in DC for about 4 years (while never actually working for the senator, but that’s a longer story)!  In 1988 at the age of 25 I moved to New York and went into the paint business.  I had a career, and my father had an exit strategy.

The intersection of my father and my business lives made for opportunities for us both: for him to get out and for me to get in.  The problem is that in many ways America has changed.  Fewer kids follow their parents into business: it’s almost a rarity in 21st century America.

But that doesn’t mean that small retailers are going to stop getting old and stop retiring!  And the latter requires an exit strategy!

Don’t misunderstand me: it is up to each retailer individually to plan his or her own exit. BUT….as a group….if the manufacturers that deal with us want us to go on past this current generation; they had better have a plan to transitions our businesses. And they’ll need to be actively engaged in those plans on a national level or each dealer will have to reinvent the wheel: a process which fails to help the dealers get full value AND fails to help the manufacturers keep their networks vibrant.

Manufacturers will need policies that take a much longer view.  Policies that create and support a more liquid market for paint dealerships.  Bringing in new dealers may be hard, but who even says we have to bring in new people to make new dealers?  Most of us have employees on our staffs that if properly trained and financed can own and profitably operate their own stores.  Yet the industry offers them very little long-term formalized training and no financing that I am aware of.  

Policies like these require vision and a long-term view and it’s that view we must take when we speak to our vendors.  Discounts, new products and new labels are exclusively short-term in nature, yet those issues pervade all our vendor conversations. We can demand better and it’s in both side’s interests.

Rule # 5 was nothing works without a good plan! Rule # 6 was if it’s not working, re-read rule # 5.

Authors Note: How did YOU get into the paint business? Tell us in the comments below! Don't be shy!

1 Comment

The reason I got into the paint business had very little to do with paint and a lot to do with escaping the coat and tie corporate job I was in previously: I knew what I did NOT want was a job. I wanted to wake up every day and build equity in my OWN balance sheet, not someone else’s. In an effort to maximize my up-side potential, I started looking to buy a small, slightly troubled business.

My broker showed me several options, including a Benjamin Moore dealership that owed more money than the business was worth. After looking at the business, I decided that there were some low hanging fruit ideas that would right the ship. My pla…

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