Breaking into the Multi-Family Segment

Being a one-stop shop helps ease customer pain points

It’s no secret that multi-family communities offer a lot of work for painting contractors. But if you’re on the outside of the multi-family segment looking in, what are the best ways to position your company to grow your multi-family business?

We talked to three painting contractors who do the majority of their work in the multi-family segment. They bring up familiar themes, such as being a one-stop resource, turning high volume, working efficiently, and reliability. And if you’re familiar with the phrase “right place, right time,” you’ll find it also plays a role in their path to success. But it’s not just a matter of coincidence: the key for their multi-family segment growth was taking advantage of the opportunities when they presented themselves. The contractors tell their stories and provide their insights here.

Kraig Forman, Stryker Contracting Services, Pewaukee, Wis.

How he got started: “I started painting apartments as a side job. I was in tool & die for many years. When my wife and I had our first child, she wanted to stay home and watch our son. We lived at a rental community. Being a handy person myself, I just approached the manager and asked him if he was interested in getting any help painting. He said, ‘Well, we like our painter but we could use somebody who can replace vinyl flooring.’

“I gave it a try and they were happy with what I did, so then I did a few other jobs for them. When their painter went on vacation, I started painting, and they liked my painting work as well. I would paint apartments when I got out of my tool-and-die job, and some of my tool-and-die friends and I would paint them all night long.

“Then it kind of grew. The company we started working for at first had quite a few properties, and word spread. Because I like to do things right and be prompt, it grew from there. We ended up doing so much part-time painting that I quit tool and die and went into painting full time.”

How he manages his business: “I realized that in painting apartments, volume is where you’re going to make your money, not in each individual apartment. So I focused on volume, and being a programmer in tool and die, I knew computer logic. And I figured the best way to approach and organize volume is having everybody schedule through a website. I hired a developer to build a website for me that focused on apartments. Customers could log in, schedule their work and know when we were going to be there.”

What his multi-family customers need: “The one biggest pain point I’ve always noticed for our customers is reliability with painters who turn apartments. That’s the biggest thing with multi-family properties, the longer it sits without a renter in it, they’re losing income. So we got pretty good at turning them in one day. We’d get in there and get it done.

“And you have to be a one-stop shop for them. They want turnkey — when you’re out of there, it looks nice. They don’t want a contractor who says, ‘Hey, I don’t patch holes,’ or ‘I don’t prime stains,’ or who won’t wipe paint off a baseboard. They want to have it move-in ready when you’re done.”

Jim Wulkopf, Beckner Painting Midwest, Inc., Maplewood, Mo.

How he got started: “My dad bought the St. Louis location of our business in the early 1980s. We had been down in Florida, and the new multi-family construction world there was booming. And one of the things my dad had learned and understood from that experience — and something I continue to push — is that every day one of those units sits vacant, it’s lost money for our customers. So we have a training program in place to let our people know how to get jobs done quickly, but with quality.

How he runs his business: “To succeed, you’re going to have to have a system. We’ve got an operations manager who fields phone calls, it seems like every minute. We’re scheduled out three months right now on some jobs for exteriors. For interiors, that’s a week-to-week thing because the turnover is so great.

“The guys who paint our multi-families, we couldn’t send them to do a house or to do the outside of a building. They’re different crews, with different skill sets. And it is a skill set. We couldn’t take our res painters and send them to an apartment — they’d be there for a week. That doesn’t do anybody any good. We knock out multiple units per day, per guy.

“We have six guys and all they do is drive around and patch holes. That’s separate from a ‘vacant paint,’ or an ‘occupied paint’ for that matter. That’s literally all they do. If there’s a water leak from a tub above, they’ll go in and repair that ceiling. That’s all they do for us.

“And they’re employed by us, not subs, not 1099s — all employed by us. In this industry, it’s hard to find people right now. Even if we’re trying to grow our base, it’s hard right now. We’re always actively looking for quality guys. And we’re lucky to have our base.”

What his multi-family customers need: “They need a one-stop resource, and we try to be that. We have the maintenance division, which again goes back to just doing everything we can to help our customers when they need our help. A lot of customers have their own staff maintenance but the summer months come and people move more, evictions happen, guys are overloaded. That’s when they call us to help them out, get them over the hurdle. That’s what we do with the maintenance side.

“Many of our customers come to us because they know about us. I’m on the board of the St Louis apartment association. I’m active in our industry. There have been customers I’ve known, who I’ve been on boards with for years who never used us — that’s fine. People are happy with who they’re happy with. But they call me three years after I’ve met them, sat on boards with them, gone to a Cardinal game with them, played golf with them, and they say, ‘Hey, I need a painter. You’ve never once done a hard sell.’ I’m not a hard-sell guy. We have our reputation, it’s good, and when people need us, we’re here.”

David Jahnke, Jahnke Painting, Indianapolis

How he got started: “It was just word of mouth. We first started in restaurants and it went from there. We started out just painting but found ourselves waiting on carpenters half the time. So we went to doing trim work, siding replacement, so we can get the whole job finished and not have to wait on everybody else. It resulted in a far more satisfied customer.

“We went down to Melbourne Beach, Fla., for a company that had some hurricane damage. We went down there and they already had some guys working, and I’m thinking, ‘You called me in here, and you’ve already got guys working.’ There were three buildings left to do, so I gave them some numbers. But that was it.

“Three months later I get a call from them. I’m thinking, ‘That job should’ve been completed a long time ago.’ So we go in and finish those three buildings, the property sells the following year, and the new owner — a guy out of Chicago — calls us. They asked the previous property owners, ‘Who painted it?’ They said, ‘You want Janhke out of Indianapolis.’

“So we completed all 35 buildings. Then the company changed those apartments into condominiums, and the marketing company did not like the color, so we repainted all 35 buildings in four months.

“Just an example of how it goes. We ended up doing more work for them in Chicago. Just a word-of-mouth thing. But it actually all started off a job down in Melbourne Beach.”

How he runs his business: “You have to do multi-family in volume to make money. And you have to build your brand by doing your job well, and being reasonably priced. You don’t have to be the cheapest, but you do have to be competitive and do what you say you’re going to do. We go up and down the east coast. We don’t need babysitters — we can go in and get the job done.

What his multi-family customers need: “They need contractors doing what they say they’re going to do. Owners don’t want contractors who need to be watched over. They want things done right. A lot of times we bail people out because they tried to save a couple bucks the first time.

“And being a one-stop source has a lot of value to them, absolutely.”

This article is part of a series of stories designed to help professional painting contractors grow sales by expanding into new markets. Previous articles include Grow Your Sales with HOAs and Grow Your Sales in the Hospitality Painting Market