Aaron Moore, co-founder of the Commercial Painting Industry Association (CPIA), sits down with us to discuss what the present and future look like for the commercial painting industry. In this podcast episode, Moore explores a range of useful topics including safety, community, and current opportunities. See below for a complete transcript.
For more information, contact: CPIA, www.thecpia.com
Stephanie Chizik: Thanks so much for joining us today, Aaron.
Aaron Moore: Thanks, Stephanie.
SC: Why don’t you go ahead and start by giving our listeners a bit of your background as well as the background for CPIA?
AM: Sure. I own a commercial painting company based in the Chicago market. The company is PPD Painting — formerly Precision Painting and Decorating, some people know us by. We are essentially a medium to large commercial painting contractor focused on office, warehouse, multifamily — obviously, it’s a moving target these days, with different industries taking the lead and other industries falling off. But we’ve painted everything from shopping malls to schools, hospitals, you name it. That’s my background.
My partner in the business, Steve Hester, he’s also a commercial painting contractor in the Chicago market. He’s a union contractor. I am not union. We were always bouncing some stuff off of each other. We’re personal friends. And just say, “There’s not a resource out there for commercial painting contractors that is helping us to connect with other owners in the industry.” I was a member of Entrepreneurs Organization, and he was a member of Young Presidents Organization. Those are both forum- or peer group-based organizations. We put our heads together and said we could start something that would benefit the industry, and our way of pooling resources to give back. That’s kind of why we’re on the call today.
SC: It’s interesting, because I think that people might not quite understand the benefit to peer [groups]. Essentially, you could be seen as competitors if you’re in the same market, but there’s so much more to the relationship and benefits that you can get out of it. Is that the background of what CPIA is?
AM: Absolutely. In our actual peer groups, which I’m sure we’ll get into later, it is non-competing. But there’s still a huge benefit even to have peers that you compete against or they’re in your network. They say the rising tide raises all ships. If we’re all getting better, we’re all doing better, it’s a better competitor to have. Quite frankly, if you have a place that is your niche, you may have someone that is in the same business as you that would deem themselves as another commercial painting contractor. But say, for example, they may not do epoxy floor coatings and you do do epoxy floor coatings, so that relationship could bring you business. Or they specialize in something that maybe you don’t do — maybe wall covering installation. So maybe we send work their way that fits their niche and they send work our way. I think that there’s always a benefit to having people in the industry, even in your own market, that are your peers, that you are able to have a good working relationship.
SC: I’ve at least come across a few, with the stories that we write in CoatingsPro, where someone may have — like you just said — got an epoxy job because of a partnership that they have with someone who does something that maybe overlaps a little bit but they’re not in that niche market, so to speak. I could definitely see the benefit in those kinds of relationships. Do you want to, right now, go into what the peer groups are at CPIA? That seems like one of the main benefits of your association.
AM: Sure. I can give you — we just recently announced a two-tier membership, so we do have a CPIA general membership that is without the peer groups. So maybe I’ll start there and then go into peer groups, and then we can go from there, if that’s okay with you?
SC: That sounds great, yes. Start at the beginning.
AM: Initially when we launched, we had just the peer group model. You had to join a peer group. But what we found is that some people just weren’t ready to make that commitment to monthly two-hour meetings and meeting in person a couple times a year. It’s a pretty significant commitment, but we think it has significant advantages. So we’ve just announced an annual membership which will entitle you to industry partnerships that we’ve made. We have discounts on products. We have free gifts that a lot of the vendors are getting. We have a quarterly publication that’s starting next year, so they’ll get a publication in the mail.
We’ve made a commitment with an HR firm, Xenium, which you’ll get all of their online trainings for your employees. You’ll get updates to HR policies for your state. We also have — let’s see — Paint BidTracker. We’ve got a partnership with them, so members of CPIA will have access to Paint BidTracker, which is a huge one. I think that’s about $950 a state for a license, so that’s a pretty big one. Then, obviously, we’re going to be having — hopefully by next year, we’ll be getting back to somewhat of a normalcy where we can have events in person. That kind of leads me into the peer group.
Our focus is “share, connect, grow.” That’s what we say. We want to be an organization that’s sharing information amongst what we would call “doers.” It’s not the talking heads. It’s people that are actually in the trenches, that are running commercial painting companies, not people telling you how to run a commercial painting company or how to get rich in a commercial painting company. The reality is, the people in our organization are already successful business people that want to bounce ideas off of each other. Building those connections allows us to grow our own businesses. That’s really where the peer groups come in to play.
The peer group is — we basically interview for the peer groups. We place people in peer groups. We facilitate and get the peer groups up and running. We have a “best practices” for how we think — we give agendas and updates and set up how the meetings are run. There’s a lot to it, and we use professional facilitators for that, to get the groups off the ground. Then the groups become self-sustaining and we just help monitor that and offer assistance to the groups as they continue on their journey. We do have a “best practices.” So you meet once every 30 to 45 days. The groups are made up of seven to 10 fellow painting contractors. They would all be owners of painting companies. We do have some requirements as far as size to be in a peer group, based on the other companies in the groups. But we do kind of let the groups decide how they want to set up their constitution or rules and regulations. We give them a sample and a way to do it, then we let them take it from there.
SC: Both you and Steve are from that Chicagoland area, but I’m assuming that this expands outside, maybe nationally or even internationally. How does that work? Where is it?
AM: Our goal, eventually, is to be fully global, hopefully, but right now we are international to the tune of North America. My personal peer group — just to speak, I think it’s probably more beneficial than to just start listing off companies — has a contractor from Florida, a contractor from Boston, a contractor from southern Utah, a contractor from Portland, a contractor from outside of Toronto somewhere, myself from Chicago. So just to give you an idea. We’re kind of all over the place, so we don’t compete against each other directly.
SC: That’s awesome. And I feel like that probably, right now — since we’re recording this during the pandemic — we’ve had to shift to doing a lot of things virtual, which it sounds like you’re already doing. You’re set up within your peer group to be able to meet still from your home computers or office. Is that the case?
AM: Yes. What we suggest — we did run into it a little bit — we would have “meet in person two to four times a year.” It depends on your group and your desire for travel. A couple shop tours. For example, I would host a meeting at my office in Chicago area. The meeting — they would come in an afternoon. We’d do a shop tour of my shop. They’d get to meet some of my staff, see how my business runs. I would organize something, whether it be just some appetizers, and we’d hang out at my shop for that evening and then have our meetings the following day.
We also encourage one retreat a year, which is just a trip for fun, where you do some business planning but it’s also about building a close, personal relationship with those in your peer group. We have our annual conference. We think that, in a best-case scenario, you’d travel four times. The meetings are quick, so the travel turnaround is pretty fast. You can obviously extend it if you like, but the actual commitment for travel would be —. We’re meeting in January in Arizona, and we will be landing on Sunday, meet Monday, do an activity Monday afternoon, meet Tuesday morning, and fly out Tuesday afternoon. It’s like a 48-hour thing. It’s not a huge commitment as far as — we’re not meeting for a full week or anything. It’s just a quick trip just to see each other and to keep that connection going. Then there are obviously the virtual meetings that go in between that, so something between seven and nine virtual meetings in the middle.
SC: I feel like you’ve touched on — what contractors need probably in general and specifically right now is that connection, whether it’s in person if possible and obviously, availability, as well as virtually. Is there anything else that you can see that’s going on right now that the contractors are needing? Challenges that they need to overcome?
AM: Sure. It goes without saying that, in the COVID era, we’ve all had to look at our business model and look at what we’re doing and make sure that we’re bringing value to the customers that we’re serving and identify the markets that we serve. In the housing market, if you were painting new construction homes, you were in trouble. You had to make some sort of a pivot.
One of the things that we found is we actually increased our frequency of meetings right at the beginning of COVID just to have a group of people that are all in the same position, all going, “Okay, what do we do next?” Each of us were trying things on our own, and some of us were able to come back and say, “We tried this, and we had great success,” or “We tried this thing and flushed 10 grand down the toilet trying it, and it didn’t work.”
SC: Yeah, don’t try that.
AM: It’s nice to get that feedback in real time as these challenges and opportunities come. It’s not a rule. We give you a scenario to say, You should meet once a month or every 45 days. But when something comes up, we’ll have a meeting. If there’s something somebody needs to talk about, we can have a meeting that could be really quick. It’s just to have the people that you’ve shared a lot, that know, and when you’re meeting at this cadence, they’re familiar with your business. They know who your righthand man is. You’re talking about them. I think that’s one of the things.
The other thing that we’re working on and working toward is training for key people in your organization. The organization, the commercial painting contractors that we’re serving, tend to be larger scale. They’re going to have a director of field operations or some sort of superintendent type role. They’re going to have an office manager. They’re going to have estimators. It’s not one person and a few painters. These are more substantial organizations.
What we’re working on is to try to extend that peer group to key man peer groups, whether that be peer groups that help with sales and estimating, whether that’s peer groups that help with field operations, so that you can take —. My dream, and where we are trying to get this to go would be to say, “Let’s take our field ops guys and put them in a peer group.” You get eight of them or nine of them together to talk about what’s working and not working. That’s a hard job in our industry. You get them together to talk about it. The improvement to your business would be so significant. That’s our goal going forward as well. It’s just to provide opportunities to learn for our key personnel.
SC: This is not a leading question, so let me know if the answer is no. But do you see any big differences between commercial painters and industrial ones as far as the challenges and opportunities that are going on right now, or in general?
AM: I’m not an industrial contractor, and I never have been, and I don’t claim to be. I have to be careful. From my perspective, as a commercial painting contractor —. I think that the peer group model could be beneficial to anybody, don’t get me wrong. I think that it would work for industrial contractors. We have people in our peer group, some of them split residential/commercial. Some of them split commercial/industrial. Some of them do the whole gamut. It’s not to say that it’s not for industrial contractors. The line between industrial and commercial can be fine. But when I think about industrial, I think about a lot of more — it’s a more monitored, certified — a certified industry that has a lot of training and requirements. You have a lot more, I would say, technical parts of that than you do when you’re painting walls in an office versus inside a contained tank, sandblasting and applying flammable coatings.
SC: Yes. I think that what you’re saying, it sounds like it’s maybe a bit more structured as far as the requirements. Like you just said, you have to have certifications and that kind of thing. Obviously, a different game, I guess, for lack of a better word for it.
AM: I think it’s great if we can influence, but we’re not trying —. We think that the SSPC does a great job, and we’re not here to step on their toes whatsoever. That organization exists because it’s super successful and does a great job with industrial contractors. It’s our goal to pick our lane and try to provide a service to our lane.
SC: Yes, absolutely. I’m just thinking — like I said, it sounds like the commercial industry is probably benefiting from your association because there’s a real need there for that type of support, the peer groups, that kind of thing. … What does the future, do you think, look like for commercial painting as far as the industry goes, as far as what do you see coming down the pike in the next year, five years?
AM: As far as the actual commercial painting market is concerned, like, “Where are you going to be painting? What are we going to be painting?” I think that’s always a moving target, depending on what industries are hot right now. We realize that we can’t be just-in-time to China, so you’re going to see more warehousing, more big boxes. We’re also seeing retail change dramatically to delivery to your home. That Amazon effect. I think that, in that world, we’re going to see a decline in some businesses, be it retail or — and maybe a decline in office, depending on if more people continue to work from home.
In our world of painting, though, volatility is more important than whether you’re moving up or down. If people are changing offices — for example, you have a 50,000-square-foot office and now you’re only going to be at 25% capacity in your office, so you downsize by 50%. You usually paint when you move out and you paint when you move in. It’s a good opportunity for us in the short term, depending on what happens. We haven’t really seen a lot of office movement just yet, but I think people are still holding their breath to see if it goes back to normal or what changes. It’s still too early to tell.
Generally, in the face of the commercial painting industry, what I think you’ll see is you’re starting to see a trend toward — I don’t want to call it a new guard. There’s always a certain demographic that’s rolling off and a new demographic coming on it. What you’re seeing — I’m 42 years old, so I’m kind of right in the middle of it, but I think what you’re seeing is, if I was 62 years old, I’m probably looking at how am I going to transition out of my business. Me, being 42, I was at the front end of computers in college and learning all of that.
I think you’re going to see the technical, the tech savviness of these companies increase. If you want to be on the front edge of commercial painting contracting and you still don’t have solid project management platform and solid proposal delivery systems — people would say, keep it old school — I think you’re going to get left behind quickly because the people that are coming up behind you are really, really good at that stuff. Way better than I am. If you’re not evolving in that manner, then I think that could spell trouble. That’s one of the things I would say the future of commercial painting looks like, is apps and technology platforms and monitoring things.
Something that I’ve been able to do, I personally live 1,400 miles from where my office is. I run most of my business from behind the computer screen at this point, and we’ve worked really hard over the past five years to put those systems in place to be able to do that. I think you’ll see more and more of that.
SC: Are you also seeing a lot of other areas — the labor shortage or challenges with — I can’t believe we’re still saying this, because the Millennials are our age, basically. Are you still seeing challenges with the younger generations or those labor opportunities, any challenges going on right now?
AM: I think labor’s always a challenge. There are different challenges. Part of it is cultural. If you have a good culture in your organization, I think you can still motivate people. Different people look for different things in organizations, and I think we have to just be creative and find how we can be a great place to work. What’s working? That’s one of the things I like about — we have a couple companies in my personal peer group that have well over 100 employees. I’m always looking to them to say, “What are you doing that’s working?”
With the video communication, things have changed so much. You can get a message to every single person that works in your organization, looking them in the eye, without ever being in front of them, through video in a matter of seconds. That something new. I do think that hiring’s always going to be a challenge, but what I say is, “If Home Depot can staff Home Depots all over the country with $12/hour employees, we can certainly staff painters around the country when we paint — double, triple, quadruple that.
SC: That’s a good point. I think it is — like you were saying, labor’s always going to be a concern, whether it’s the number of people going out are more than the number of people coming in, or the new interests in software, like you were also saying. There’s always different things going on, probably, no matter what age you are or where you are in the industry.
AM: Exactly. It’s a company’s duty to figure out how are we going to train these people — or train our new employees and train our new hires. You have the great organizations and these great corporate machines in the world, even if you looked at McDonald’s. Granted, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out how to make French fries, but they have systems in place to train the guy that makes French fries how to make French fries. So are we doing that, or do we just expect someone to learn how to paint and just throw them in the field? Hopefully, in time, the CPIA will be able to help with that as well.
One of our goals for the future — we kind of vision out what it looks like — is Painters U and having a painters’ university that helps with training. The skills part can be always trained. The personal part and the management part and the leadership part and the inherent motivation part is a little bit more difficult to train. That’s what I think we kind of focus on.
SC: To circle back to what you were saying earlier, I could see a huge opportunity, for when those guys have gotten to be at a higher skill level and they want to become a team leader. What does that look like? There could be training opportunities there. Again, what you were saying, maybe an opportunity to have peer groups on that level as well. So many opportunities going on, it seems.
AM: That’s what we’ve tried to do by partnering with Xenium HR. They have some great platforms. As a member, you get access to their online training. I’ve watched a bunch of them, personally, and I send them to my team. If someone’s in charge of coaching, they have coaching modules that try to help them. We’re working with our director of safety and training and our director of field operations all the time to say, if we can get them better at their job, they’ll help the other guys get better. If we can put those things in place. It’s really a waterfall effect, if you will.
SC: Totally. You just brought up safety. That makes me think, too. I know there’s some new standards — well, not necessarily new anymore — particularly with silica. Is there any other update going on as far as safety that might affect the commercial painting industry?
AM: I think all of us have had to — the COVID stuff has been our big one. The silica has been around for a little while now, and it’s — for a lot of commercial painting contractors it affects [them], some of them it doesn’t. It just depends on what your niche is. If you’re painting offices and drywall surfaces, you don’t have too much to worry about there. But if you’re grinding floors it’s a different story. But now, with the COVID stuff, we’re trying to figure out — part of it’s safety, part of it’s also figuring out — we want to keep the guys —. What our goal is, is (a), let’s follow the mandates, whether it be mask mandates or whether that be a policy, and that just seems like it makes good sense right now anyway. And then the second piece of it is, maybe in the past we had guys working in closer proximity to each other.
Well, what I’d like to see is we don’t want the guys within 6 or 8 feet of each other. If they stay away from each other, if one guy comes down with it, it doesn’t take out the whole crew. But if you have one guy cutting — in the past, you might, an example would be, you’d have one guy cutting in an office or something and a guy right behind him, rolling, and they’re working right next to each other all day. Now we might want to look at that differently and say, “You don’t come in this office till he’s done cutting” or something. Just as a practical example, a real-world example. Trying to build protocols that help keep the employees safe and also keep us from — to mitigate downtime. The fact of the matter is, people are going to get sick. It’s going to happen. It’s pretty well shown. Hundreds of thousands of people are catching this thing all the time. If we can mitigate the negative impact it has on our business, it certainly would help. So that’s some of the training stuff and safety stuff that we’ve been working toward.
SC: That’s great. It sounds like it makes sense to me. Hopefully, other people are picking up on the same cues. Aaron, is there anything else that you want to mention before we close up?
AM: I don’t think so. I can give my email address. Anybody is welcome to reach out to me. My email address is email@example.com. If you have any questions. Otherwise, our website for the CPIA is www.thecpia.com. There’s information, it goes into the membership levels and pricing. We would be happy to answer any questions. You can contact us. Beth Thompson is our executive director. Any inquiries, she’ll respond to right away. If it needs to put it in contact with Steve or I, we’re happy to have a chat about it.
The other thing that I would like to mention is we are a new organization. What you won’t hear here is, We’re doing it that way because that’s how we’ve always done it. That’s just not what we are. We’re all ears. We’re here to serve. If we can serve your organization or one of your audience’s organizations in a way that would be beneficial, we’d like to hear what people want. If you say, “This would be what our company could really use,” and we hear that enough times, communicate with us because we’re really looking at this as an association where we’re pooling the resources of our members to produce the content or the things that our membership asks for. That’s the goal of this, at the end of the day, and what we’re trying to accomplish that ultimately is why we started the organization, because of frustration that we couldn’t get that anywhere else.
SC: That’s great. I think it’s such a good lesson. Get in at the beginning and you can make a big impact. We’ll be sure to share your information on the show notes. Thank you so much, Aaron, again, for all of your time and for sharing some of what CPIA does with our listeners. Looking forward to seeing what you guys do in the future and maybe how we can collaborate again. Thanks so much for your time.
AM: Absolutely. Any way we can help.