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You Call This Working?

Updated: Aug 3, 2019

I remember as a kid, I would often go to work with my father at his paint store. In-fact in my family, it wasn’t even work to go to the paint store, it was a treat!

We had other family members in the business with my father at that time. My father’s brother-in-law, my Uncle Chuck was there in my younger days and during my middle and high school years my mother would be there too! Tremont Paint was a family affair.

My father and Uncle used put my cousin Todd and me onto hand-trucks and race us around the store as a way of entertaining us. I don’t remember ever seeing any money change hands, but if I know my father and uncle…. It DID!

Growing up in the Bronx about three-quarters of a mile from my father’s paint store, I was there all the time. Anytime my mother needed to ditch me for an afternoon, she would bring me down to the store and I would hang out there with my family. It was like Thanksgiving…. only without the feast!

Hand-truck races were not the only “Olympic-Style” events that my family and I used to do to pass the time. Change rolling (yes kids, you used to have to roll your own change in the 1970’s…. banks didn’t have fancy coin-rolling machines back then), speed tinting (notice there was no contest for tinting accuracy) and of course shelf-stocking and floor sweeping. My father and Uncle were professional about getting the kids to do their work and calling it a game!

But despite all those great memories, I rarely took my daughter Miranda to work with me. Oh sure, a few times a year it would happen as needed but for the most part, she doesn’t have many memories of my stores. By the time I was 13 I could take care of a customer in the store, start to finish! By the time Miranda was 13, all she could do was go into my wallet and take whatever I had earned from selling paint that day!

But a family’s children, who work in the store while younger get a much needed connection to the paint business. Often, they can move on to be store employees and then business owners: a transitional option as the family ages.

That is the problem that independent paint and hardware stores owners are facing now as we age: Nationwide, there’s a lack of transitional options at retirement.

My family’s situation illuminates part of the problem. Just a generation before us, my grandfather raised my father knowing that one day he would take over the paint business. Dad went to college for a semester and at the first sign of homesickness, was in the paint store full-time. My father had a career AND…. my grandfather had a transition plan, all at the same time!

With this generation, almost all of our children are going to college. Once they leave, they find the great big world out there and few return to the family paint business. They find other pursuits more exciting; which after 31 years in the paint business I can say…. They maybe right about that!

So now what?

The manufacturers and other “partners” we deal with are all aware of the problem. ALLPRO, the dealer owned cooperative in the paint industry is taking some steps I applaud. They’re creating education and networking opportunities for their youngest dealers. This helps dealers learn faster leading to earlier success making them more likely to stay in the industry. It also helps dealers see themselves as part of a larger industry, which also increases their chances of remaining independent retailers when the current generation transitions out.

I appreciate the effort that ALLPRO and some others are making to help younger dealers but I don’t think it gets to the root of the problem.

The problem is not a lack of support for younger dealers. The problem is a lack of younger dealers!

That’s where manufacturers and other partners like ALLPRO, Benjamin Moore (and probably Ace, though I was not able to consult with them before press-time) are struggling to find solutions.

When my great-grandmother opened Tremont Paint in 1907, it was a big step. My great-grandfather had been working as a wallpaper hanger since they came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe just a few years earlier. After working as a wallpaper hanger for about seven years, my great-grandparents opened Tremont Paint. They were not a creative couple…. Their store was on Tremont Avenue.

The world was a different place back then and there are a lot of details of HOW they accomplished this feat, missing from the family history. What I do know is this: my great-grandfather was a paperhanger, NOT a wealthy man.

How did they do it? Well, there are likely a few differences. For one thing, vendors in a world absent of credit scores and online access to bank statements had to make credit decisions locally. This was six years before the first American even had to file a tax return!

I suspect that in 1907 his first conversation with a representative from Benjamin Moore (who we are still with as a dealer) sounded like this: “Isaac, you seem like a good guy! So we are going to put some paint in here and when you sell it, pay us and order more.”

Rent was cheaper because even in New York at the time, real estate in the Bronx was not worth a whole heck of a lot. Labor was miniscule as well, in a day when free family labor and cheap local label was de rigueur. There was no such expense as insurance or health insurance and he delivered the paint by rickshaw so fuel was a $.10 sandwich rather than $4.00 per gallon gas!

Under that set of circumstances, he probably thought about opening a paint store and thought, “How can it fail?”

Now it would be different.

Today, if Isaac and Esther decided to open up a paint or hardware store, they had better show up with their checkbook! Assuming they were willing to work in it themselves for free to get it going, they are still going to need a lot of money. No vendor is going to give them the kind of credit that they would need to get off the ground unless they could show that they were already well financed. They would need to buy a truck, insure it and insure the store itself. They would also need to spend money on many other modern day “necessities” such as tinting machines, key cutting machines, a point-of-sale systems and more.

The truth is that for a young person to buy a small existing single store or to start a new store from scratch (which is VERY risky), they had better have at least $200,000 set aside, and likely more.

And THAT’S the problem! “Thirty-something” year-old people, even those willing to commit to a lifetime of owning a paint or hardware store do NOT have this kind of money! And they won’t at 40 either, which is almost too late anyway! The median net-worth of an American family under 35 is $11,100! Not enough to get you a paint store. The only people in the country with the kind of money needed to open a paint or hardware store are people too old to solve the problem or the affluent, who generally speaking do not go for active investments that require 50+ hours a week of work.

And so as the independent dealers in the U.S. continue to age their vendors are going to have a problem.

Manufacturers and other vendors who occupy this space with us are going to have to solve this problem or come up with another plan for their own future. It will not be easy, but if they want to survive, they’ll have no choice.

1 Comment

Thank you. Your writing is appreciated. Thanks for the hand truck memory. My son's still talk about that.

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