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Value Added: He didn’t let the recession paint him into a corner

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As a member of an industry that’s in flux, I regularly think about reinventing myself.

I recently passed up the chance to participate in a buyout. But I’m only 56, and I want to work several more years in print journalism.

Reminds me of a line from “Heat,” a 1995 crime drama and one of my favorite films:

“I don’t know how to do anything else,” Los Angeles police Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) tells burglar Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) on why he is always chasing bad guys. “I don’t much want to, either.”

As I contemplate the future, I am inspired by Walter Music, 54, who was a member of the “1 percent” club during the housing heyday a few years back, but who reinvented himself after he was laid off from his six-figure job during the recession.

He now runs a commercial and residential painting business in Loudoun County: CertaPro Painters of Loudoun.

He earns a fraction of the $600,000 in salary, bonus and stock options that he collected in his best years as a vice president for Toll Brothers. But he runs his own business, has paid off his home and sees a lot of upside in painting if the economy continues to improve.

In short, he didn’t fall apart, due in part to smart moves that he made while the cash flowed in during the sunny years. (More about that later.)

After he was laid off in 2009, “there was nothing happening in home building for me,” said the Oregon native, who studied civil engineering at Oregon State University and con­struction management at Penn State. “I didn’t see a future in it.”

Dealmaker

Music wore many hats for Toll Brothers, but his specialty was master-planned communities. That evolved into buying up various parcels and assembling them into a big tract. He spent a lot of time knocking on doors, drinking coffee at kitchen tables and taking people to lunches and dinners as he tried to persuade them to sell their property.

“It’s a lot of chess-playing,” he says of those days. “You try to soft-shoe it. You try not to come on hard. It’s listening to what their needs are, what their issues are, what they’re after.”

He once took a property owner who was holding out for a bigger price to a restaurant and, without saying a word, placed a check for $250,000 on the table. The two sat and ate without a word being said about the check.

Finally, after the gentleman kept staring at it, Music said “all you have to do is sign this paper,” and the check would be his.

The man took the check.

Music worked all over the Mid-Atlantic region, including developments in the Carolinas, the District and Pennsylvania.

Even the lean years were good, bringing him just under $200,000 annually. But he lived fairly modestly. He saved like mad. He drove used vehicles. His six-figure bonuses would fly into the college savings account for his kids. He ended up funding college for all three.

“I didn’t live beyond my means,” he said.

His net worth reached more than $1 million at one time, although that has been reduced significantly due to the downturn.

After his layoff, when he couldn’t find work anywhere in housing, Music was approached by a franchise broker who put him through tests to determine what kind of franchise business would best suit him. To this day, Music isn’t sure how the franchise broker, a woman from Virginia Beach, found him.

He looked at franchises for painting, printing and home care.

Dipping into paint

With savings and borrowed money from a bank, in August 2010 he bought rights to three franchise territories in Northern Virginia for about $50,000 each from Pennsylvania-based CertaPro Painting, a national painting franchiser. He also paid extra for an existing CertaPro business that had an established list of customers, a group of painting crews, an office manager and office space in Ashburn.

He focused on marketing at first. He spent $30,000 to send 80,000 direct-mail pieces to homeowners and businesses. For $700 a month, he hired a Colorado company to help him get near the top of Google’s search list when you type in “Ashburn painter.” He found another company to help him manage his social-media presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

“The Internet is where it’s at,” Music said.

Sales went from just over $1 million the year before he bought the company to $1.8 million in 2011, the first full year he owned the franchise.

More than half of last year’s revenue went to pay for painting crews and supplies. Another five percent of the gross goes to CertaPro for royalties. The rest pays for interest on the loan Music took out to buy the business, train new employees, pay commissions for three salespeople and cover overhead for rent and office supplies, as well as the marketing.

Training and outfitting one salesperson can cost nearly $15,000 once they are supplied with computers and phones. Last year, he hired college kids, gave them a golf shirt with a CertaPro logo and sent them door-to-door in neighborhoods, getting $15 for every job lead they brought in.

“I made a little money last year,” he said.

Growth plan

The commercial side of the business is only about $300,000 in sales; the rest is residential. The plan is to push residential to $2 million, while “the sky is the limit on commercial.”

He chose CertaPro because the firm emphasizes marketing and strong cost control, accounting and customer management.

Not everything goes smoothly: The company underestimated the cost of one job by $8,000, costing a salesperson a commission.

Music said that if the economy holds up, he will surpass last year’s performance by more than 20 percent: That means gross revenue of around $2 million. The company might turn a $200,000 profit on that.

Music probably will not bag a six-figure salary this year, but his reinvention still has a ways to run.

For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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