Contractor Q&A: Tim Conley on Property Maintenance, High-End Residential and the Challenges and Opportunities of Each

For more than 30 years, PPC magazine has been on job sites throughout the U.S. and Canada asking residential and commercial paint pros to share their stories. This issue we talk with Tim Conley of Conley Brothers Painting, Mishawaka, Indiana (pictured above right with Sherwin-Williams Property Maintenance Sales Rep Kevin Bell).

First of all, congratulations for being named the best home repair/remodeling company in the 2023 South Bend Tribune 2023 Readers Choice Awards.

Thank you very much, we worked really hard over many years for it. The best part is that we were voted in by the people in the community. Means we must be doing something right!

Your company is fairly unusual in that you specialize in both the property maintenance segment as well as high-end residential repaints.

Yes, there are many benefits and opportunities in being involved equally in both property maintenance painting and high-end residential painting and residential painting in general. We feel they complement each other very well.

What would you say have been the most important things you have done at your company to be successful in both disciplines? Are there any things to watch out for?

The only thing I can really think to watch out for on the property management side is make sure you get paid! And if they fall too far behind, stop the work. Don’t just let it get out of control. Having said that, we have had a few slow payers but have always received everything, knock on wood! On the residential side, communication is everything.

Do you have separate crews for each of these segments, and how does that work?

We do have separate crews for each segment. Our residential painters are strictly for home and commercial painting and very rarely see an apartment, and vice versa for our property maintenance crews. Each division has its role.

What do you look for in a painter for your high-end residential work?

All our residential painters are very skilled painters that can handle all facets of painting. They are very in tune with products and product knowledge, processes, sheens, chemicals and what they are used for. Most are very familiar with spray pumps, the proper prep work that a home needs, and so on. What to do with raw wood outside, how to change oil trim to latex, how to change stained trim to painted, what to use on brick… I could go on and on. They have expert skills and they have all learned customer service skills. Most have been painting for many years.

Matter of fact, each one of our residential painters have been with us for over five years. We take employee retention seriously. When we get good workers, we do everything we can to keep them!

You have mentioned how the apartment work is a great training ground for your painters.

Three of our very best residential painters all started in apartments. There they learned the basic skills of cutting and rolling. They learned about cleanliness and speed. You must move quick in apartments, but the detail part is not nearly as scrutinized as in a million-dollar home. So, they can grow without the constant frustration that a high-end residential painting project demands when they are not yet able to perform at that level.

It’s also a lot easier to teach and train when you don’t have a homeowner watching in fear as you show a new person how to paint. That’s never a good look. And as they get better, they learn more and more about different painting processes and different types of jobs.

Having said that, the property maintenance team is not just a bunch of inexperienced painters that don’t know anything. They can cut and roll with the best of them and they’re fast! There are many that enjoy the apartment painting and don’t want to come to residential. That team also has many employees that have been here for many years. They enjoy it and they are good at it. We have one person, Dan, that runs that whole side. His job is answering all the calls, emails and texts from all the property managers and maintenance supervisors. He schedules all the units and all the men and women doing the work.

We have about 40 properties in the area, so it is a very involved job with a lot of moving parts. All our work is in Google Calendar for all the employees to see the property, addresses and unit numbers. Each of the workers has work orders they fill out and turn in every Friday for billing.

What about the financial end of property maintenance work?

We know many professional painters will say you can’t make money on apartments. They might be right – you can’t make a lot doing a few. You might make $100 profit on one unit. But we do 10 or 20 of those on any given day and that adds up. It’s quantity.

But the best part for us has been that we always get the big jobs that come up with the properties as well. The large jobs that come from apartment communities usually translate into the most profits we turn all year. We have painted multiple communities’ entire exteriors, or all their hallways, or offices, or the 200 garage doors they have, or 400 balconies, etc. And the cool part about that is that work always goes to the very experienced residential painters and it comes full circle.

Also, there are many times when we will pull the apartment crew to help the residential painters. Sure, they might not be doing the cut work on a 20-foot wall on an extension ladder above a stairwell. But there are times when a job is tight, and we need clean up or plastic pulled or just some extra hands to pull it off and we always have the people ready and available.

The last two winters we did massive hallways and stairwells for apartment communities right in the middle of the winter. This has been key in the slower months when exteriors shut down. We also have cornered the market on Notre Dame student housing which all crews combine to do and has become the single most lucrative thing we do. If done right, the two segments can really complement each other.

You do a lot of cabinet refinishing. What have you done to be more productive and efficient on these kindS of projects?

When we started, we used to lay them out on 2x4s in the customer’s garage. We have come a long way since then. Our shop is set up with a booth that is large enough to handle even the largest kitchen. Our booth is fully equipped with a hanging system where we can spray all the cabinets and doors in one shot – no flipping back and forth or waiting for one side to dry. It’s fast and efficient. The prep is always the most time-consuming part so we also have the Festool Rotex RO 90 DX Random Orbit Sander with the CT MIDI I Dust Extractor Vacuum, which makes sanding and prep a breeze!

What is your coatings process?

We usually prime with ProBlock® Interior Oil-Based Primer. Some painters use other products for this, but we have found that the bonding is fantastic. It penetrates well and even more importantly it blocks stains. It locks out any potential yellowing trying to come through, especially on white cabinets.

Our go-to finish product is Emerald® Urethane Trim Enamel. We always recommend the satin sheen because we feel this has the most factory-finish look, but have used the semi-gloss as well if requested. We love the durability and wipe ability. The finish is on point and levels out super smooth. It dries quickly – not so quick that it can’t level, but quick enough they are hard as rock the next day. We have done hundreds of kitchens cabinets, vanities and built-ins over many years and have never been called back for any chipping, dulling, fading or anything. For transport we’ve been using thin foam as dividers to ensure no scratching or issues when returning. We also use Emerald Urethane Semi-Gloss on trim.

Any other Sherwin-Williams paint products that stand out for you?

Our favorite wall paint by far is Duration Home® Matte. We use this on almost every nice home we do. It has such a good uniform look without too much shine. The coverage is phenomenal and it touches up well. It’s great for those big walls in great rooms that show a lot – Duration Home helps conceal those imperfections. And of course, you can wipe it without leaving a blemish.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of PPC magazine. ©2023 Randall Reilly. Tim Conley was interviewed by PPC Editor Mike Starling. Photograph courtesy Sherwin-Williams and Conley Brothers Painting. Read more about what pro painters have learned on the job in the PPC magazine archive.