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July 2012
A Relationship You Can Trust
By Zenda Douglas

     There are thousands of different types of paint and wall coverings used in the painting trade; hundreds of floor coatings and finishes on the market. Andy Robbins, CEO of A&K Painting Company, Inc., has worked with a large number of them during the years since he rode the paint bucket on his father’s van as a teenager.

     Today, he spends a lot of time standing in the brand new 10,000-square-foot Operation Training and Showroom Center—the pride of A&K Painting—which he owns with his brother Kevin, president of the company.

     A&K Painting is a full-service commercial and light industrial painting company headquartered here in Charlotte. Started in 1994, the company has grown to be a highly respected painting contractor serving clients in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

     “If you have the right size project and we can agree on terms, then most definitely—there’s nowhere we won’t go for the right job,” says Andy spiritedly.

     With revenue exceeding $5 million, the company has enjoyed strategic partnerships with the likes of CB Richard Ellis, Childress Klein, Bissell Companies, Myers and Chapman, Harker Doerre, DSS and Choate, to name a few.

     Projects range in size and scope within industry segments including up-fits, new commercial construction, commercial repaint, and multi-family rehab. The company has worked in office buildings, big box stores, banks, health care and fitness centers, car dealerships, university facilities, data centers and restaurants. National accounts include Target, Starbucks, Applebee’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Wilco-Hess and Burger King.

     A&K Painting’s slogan—“A Relationship You Can Trust”—sums up the company’s philosophy. “We take a different approach to our projects,” says Andy. “We’re not followers. We don’t come to the job asking what to do. We come with a plan of action to review with the client and then get to work. To do that, we have to have their trust.”

     Kevin is quick to point out, “That trust had to be earned. When we first came to Charlotte, nobody knew us. We had to earn our way, and that’s a big deal to us.”

 

Painting by the Numbers

     One of the toughest and largest contracts for A&K Painting was a massive, multi-state repaint project for Wells Fargo Bank in the fall of 2010 through the fall of 2011.

     “We did the first 23 branches in three weeks!” exclaims Andy, who describes the project as a great opportunity to showcase their talents. “They were so impressed with our work that they awarded us the contracts on 227 additional branches.”

     The project was started in Florida, moving at a pace of 60 to70 seventy branches every six to eight weeks. While some of the project consisted of prep and paint, other parts of it involved removal of decades-old wall coverings from 100-year-old plaster walls. But the most difficult part was that, in almost all of the branches, they had to work during open hours of the bank.

     “We had to leave the sites spic-and-span, everyday, while staying on schedule,” remembers Andy.

     Last summer A&K worked on another project in Winston-Salem for Caterpillar, Inc. which required 23,000 gallons of dry fall material to be sprayed onto 900,000 square feet of ceiling space.

     “We were working alongside people in other trades, which is difficult to do,” says Kevin. “Our products are applied wet and dry solid. Plus, the scheduling restraints were such that we had to do our work late at night between 6 p.m. and 4 p.m.—also quite a challenge.”

     Last year A&K also completed a 750,000-square-foot interior and exterior paint project for Becton Dickinson in Cary.

     “Last year was a very good year for us,” agree the partners. “Those projects were definitely catalysts for our boom in business,” says Kevin.

 

Creating a New Canvas

     “We outgrew our old offices and operations space,” says Andy. “All this is new,” he motions around at his remodeled office and gestures towards the Operation Training and Showroom Center (OTS) just a short distance down the street. The company moved into the facility in November of 2011.

     “Workers check in and out of the OTS and that’s where they gather supplies. We also hold monthly training sessions as well as foreman roundtable meetings there,” continues Andy. “Additionally, we wanted to create a space where clients could see how various products actually look when applied.”

     “We are on the finishing end,” explains Kevin. “The operation time for us is usually fairly small, which doesn’t leave time for adjustments or changes. Preferably, we want to be brought in on the front-end, when choices of products are being made. We want to educate the client up front.”

     The actual showroom is 1,600 square feet and displays over 100 types of paints, 40-plus different wall coverings, eight different types of floor coatings, faux finishes and a mural.

     A&K Painting’s growth in core business and market share has spawned new hires. The company currently employs 80-plus employees. Eighteen of those are in office positions; the remainder are field personnel including foremen, project managers and estimators.

     Keeping employees safe is critical. All field personnel have lift certification, 30-hour OSHA certification, and are certified for first aid and CPR. Workers are required to have all of their personal protection equipmentear plugs, hard hat, safety glasses and bootsbefore going out into the field.

     Foremen wear green shirts so clients know who’s in charge. Painters wear white shirts and white pants. All staff members are sent out with digital tablets, a colored set of plans, large paint samples to match against paint, and directions to the job.

     “We are constantly looking for innovative ways to manage,” says Kevin, describing the company’s recently investment in a massive cloud-based job management system to handle purchase orders, bids, information about jobs and reports.

     “We run our business the same way Well Fargo or other corporations run theirs,” says Andy. “We consider ourselves to be very professional and take pride in that.”

     Like most businesses, A&K Painting had to make some changes to weather the economic downturn of the past few years.

     “We’ve had to enlarge our operational radius to find the types of work and contractors that best fit our personality and philosophy,” says Andy. The downturn also drove segmentation changes. Whereas new construction had been plentiful previously, the downturn has led to more repaint projects.

     Finding experienced workers is often a challenge. “Back in the day there used to be craftsmen and they had apprentices. They took time. They had time. Now the world has gotten itself busy,” says Andy. “We’re still painting with the same tools we used 50 years ago—so it’s very challenging to meet the lightning speed schedules and train an apprentice.”

     The paint industry has also been impacted by the green movement with new products coming out with reductions in volatile organic compounds which produce off-gases and recycled products being added to the market.

     “We feel like we’re one of the first [paint companies] to embrace the green movement,” says Kevin. “We make every effort to stay abreast of these issues so we can keep our clients informed.” That commitment is reflected by the staff, some of whom carry Green Advantage and LEED certifications.

 

Prepping for Painting

     Andy and Kevin grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., the sons of a residential painting contractor. Seven years older than Kevin, Andy worked with his father from time to time and learned to paint. After earning a business degree from the University of South Carolina, Andy first pursued fitness and coaching, considering painting more seriously.

     ”My father was adamantly against being partners, but he made a call to a contractor friend who had two spec homes side by side. That’s where I got started. He let me borrow his van,” says Andy, officially starting his own company in 1994 at the age of 26.

     His first big job came in the second year of business. Driving down the road from his old high school, he noticed a large construction project. He decided to turn around and talk with the contractor and walked away with a contract for the 475,000-square-foot West Marine Distribution Center.

     Then he landed another large project in Spartanburg. “I had no experience with building plans, books or balance sheets,” says Andy. “Dad had taught me the application side of painting, but now I needed to learn the business side. But I was smart enough to realize what I didn’t know and started reaching out.”

     Andy was fortunate to find a series of mentors in the industry and in organizations like the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America to help him understand contracts, bidding and estimation. Then, in 1998, Kevin came on board.

     Kevin had attended Winthrop University and worked with U.S. Tobacco. He joined A&K Painting as vice president to fill the estimation and project management role. At the time Andy was doing new home construction but wanted to venture into commercial business.

     “My job was to develop the commercial division,” says Kevin. “I discovered that there is a very big difference between being a painter versus an executive who owns a painting company.”

     Kevin did learn and a year and a half after he came on board, the company went 100 percent commercial. The two partners moved their growing business to Charlotte in 2000. From an efficiency point of view, it made little sense to remain in Rock Hill. Most of the work was in Charlotte.

     “Long term, it was the best decision we’ve ever made,” says Kevin. “Short term, it was difficult. We jumped out of our comfort zone in Rock Hill; now we were the new kids on the block.” The brothers understood that to reach their goals and be the company they wanted to be, they needed a strong Charlotte presence.

     In 2003, Kevin left the company for seven years and went to work for PPG. “I wanted to see what it was like to work for a large corporation. It turned out to be a very educational experience. I learned how to manage a large, diverse group.”

     Returning to A&K Painting in 2010 as a partner, Kevin now oversees the work of the department heads, manages finances, monitors negotiations with vendors and advances the company through operations and systems development. Andy focuses on sales and business and client development.

     With roots in both Rock Hill and Charlotte, Andy and Kevin give back to both communities. Both Andy and Kevin are family men. Andy has three children and lives in Lake Wylie; Kevin has two children and lives in Indian Land.

     A&K Painting is forging ahead with business development but the company is reasonably cautious.

     “In this economy, it’s impossible to plan much further than five years,” says Kevin.

     Commenting on their success, Andy says, “We are getting a lot of exposure now; our reputation is growing, but I prefer to stay very humble. As difficult as it is to reach the pinnacle, it takes continued hard work to stay there.”

     The brothers express a lot of gratitude for the success they have experienced in Charlotte.

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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